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LETTER | Syed Husin: A rare, decent, socialist politician

LETTER | Syed Husin Ali’s reputation long preceded him. When we were student activists in the United Kingdom in the seventies, his incarceration together with other dissidents under the insidious ISA (1974 to 1980) was an inspiration for our campaigns to seek their release.

He was one of the founding members of Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia (PSRM) and served as its president.

His achievements as an academic were equally impressive and his well-known works included “The Malays: Their Problems and Future”, “Two Faces: Detention Without Trial”, “Syed Husin Ali: Memoirs of a Political Struggle”, “The Malay Rulers: Regression and Reform”, “Ethnic Relations in Malaysia: Harmony and Conflict”.

We both shared a common objective of providing an alternative history of the struggle of the common Malayan/Malaysian. It is also interesting to note that I published “A People’s History of Malaya” in 1980 and he published “A People’s History of Malaysia” more recently.

We were born and bred in Batu Pahat, Johor but he was more than a decade older than me, although I do remember his younger brother, Hamid used to come to our house when he was a friend of my older cousins.

When I returned to Malaysia after my studies in the UK, Syed Husin and I became friends and we met on the many campaigns we were fighting together in the 1980s.

In 1989, when many civil rights activists were planning to be involved in electoral politics since most of us were left-leaning, our first choice was PSRM.

A meeting was organised in the Shah Alam house of Tan Kai Hee, the former leader of the Socialist Front and close friend of Syed Husin.

While Syed Husin was flattered that we had considered joining PSRM, he was concerned that the entry of so many Chinese educationists into the party would thoroughly change the ethnic composition of the party, which had been predominantly Malay up until then and the party had always wanted to attract more Malay supporters.

Thus, we ended up in the DAP and the rest can be read in my recently published “The Malaysian Dilemma”.

As the 1995 general election approached, DAP leaders’ attitude toward forging an opposition front was exposed in their refusal to concede any constituencies to Parti Rakyat Malaysia, the renamed PSRM.

This was clearly the “bottom line” in their commitment to the opposition alliance.

We had known PRM president Syed Husin for much longer than the DAP leaders and could vouch for his qualities as a people-centred socialist thinker and a sincere gentleman.

He had failed to win the Batu parliamentary seat in 1990 and PRM was negotiating for him to contest in the newly carved out PJ Selatan constituency.

In the DAP central executive committee, there was intense opposition to conceding PJ Selatan to PRM.

Lee Ban Chen, my civil rights buddy and I spoke up for conceding the seat to Syed Husin because we argued that with his long record as a fighter for social justice and non-racial politics, he would make a good Malay MP in the opposition benches.

We added that we were even prepared to step aside in the candidates’ selection to allow Syed Husin to contest if any DAP leader felt that they were going to be deprived of an opportunity to contest the election.

As we expected, apart from the two of us, there was total opposition to the suggestion to concede PJ Selatan (a new constituency in 1995) to PRM.

In truth, PJ Selatan was not considered an opposition safe seat anyway since there were quite a few Umno enclaves in the constituency and in the end, Syed Husin was nominated for that seat.

In our election campaign in Petaling Jaya (North & South) with Syed Husin in 1995, we decided to use the manifesto I had drafted as a supplementary manifesto: “Reform Malaysia - PJ voters take the lead”.

In it, we presented an alternative programme for the nation which was totally lacking in the official DAP manifesto - “Minor to Major Liberalisation”.

While I was disqualified as a candidate on nomination day and Syed Husin failed to win the PJ Selatan seat, it was a great experience to work with him in the joint election campaign.

We found ourselves shoulder to shoulder defending urban settlers who were being evicted from their homes and on demonstrations.

We also often shared the same panel on issues confronting the people. I remember a forum on the ISA held at Universiti Malaya in the late 1990s and Syed Husin, a former professor of Sociology and Anthropology, had since then been persona non grata at his own university!

Following the merger of PRM with Parti Keadilan Nasional, he held the position of deputy president of the merged entity PKR from 2003 to 2010 and served two terms in the Dewan Negara from 2009 to 2015.

It was a pity that Syed Husin did not become an MP. Our country certainly lost a rare, principled, and socialist people’s representative.

All of us who have known Syed Husin through the years will always remember his sense of humour and infectious smile.

I remember meeting him one day after I had made this connection: “I say, Syed, I am afraid I have some bad news to tell you lah…”

“What bad news Kua?”

“I have just discovered we are related - your niece in Kluang married my brother!”

Farewell, saudara and comrade. We will see you again further down the river. Rest well now.

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