December 2, 2018

Late opposition leader Tan Chee Khoon
lived a simple life, says daughter

by Melissa Darlyne Chow

SUBANG JAYA: Prof Tan Poh Ling, the daughter of the late opposition leader Dr Tan Chee Khoon remembers her father as a man who, from the beginning to the end, lived a very humble and simple life.

Poh Ling, who now resides with her family in Australia, said when he died in October 1996, his estate comprised mainly of the house he lived in, his main asset.

“There are none of these beautiful rings like other politicians have amassed.

“He lived a simple life, he died a simple man. His library was his pride and joy. He had military books, books on cricket. He loved cricket.

“He passed on to us a healthy respect for hard work, a healthy respect for wanting to contribute in whatever ways he could,” she said in her speech at the second Tan Chee Khoon lecture series last tonight.

Also present were former Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan, vocal critic Mariam Mokhtar, DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang, the late Karpal Singh’s wife Gurmit Kaur, as well as other family members and friends.

Poh Ling also told the story of how her father’s good friend, Dr Gopal Sreenevasan, who is Ambiga’s father, had said that “in all the time he knew my father, my father never visibly displayed the pangs of defeat, despite the numerous setbacks he experienced in his life”.

“He was a rare breed – a politician who did not jockey for power or position, in fact, he repeatedly rejected status in favour of staying true to his political ideals.

“He sought political office as a vehicle to do good. Because of this, he gained respect, even from his foes, because of his sincerity and hard work.

“He read Parliamentary papers far into the night, networked extensively with journalists, lawyers, economists, and academics, which enabled him to produce quality speeches,” she said.

Poh Ling recalled that in the 1960s and 1970s, those in the MCA used to laugh at her father as he would rather eat street food than a sumptuous Chinese dinner.

She said a lot of it was due to his background as her father was born into a poor family and his parents were farmers.

“My grandma was adopted into a family as a maid. The rest of her siblings were educated but she was not. So she taught herself how to read and write in English.

“They (grandparents) were share croppers. They did not own the land. They farmed the land and shared a bit of the profit. Gradually they bought a farm of their own,” she said.

Education, she said, was held in high regard by the family and the reason why they persisted was because it was an escape from poverty.

“My father was a voracious reader. He had a wonderful memory, unmatched by anybody I know,” she said.

Poh Ling said her father became blind in the left eye when he was 12 after a rubber-tapping knife slipped into his left eye. At a time when medical care was not immediately available, Chee Khoon bled and became blind in one eye.

This, she said, motivated him to become a doctor to provide medical care to those who couldn’t get it.

“His life ambition was to become a doctor. He did manage to get a scholarship eventually to a medical college in Singapore. But even that was not easy. Because of his blindness, he was not accepted,” she said, adding that his headmaster (V.I. HM Mr C.E. Gates) had to vouch for him that he was able to practise.

It was just before the Japanese occupation when Chee Khoon entered medical school but his studies were interrupted when Singapore was invaded and he had to cycle back to Kuala Lumpur.

When he qualified as a doctor after World War II, Poh Ling said her father spent a few years as a medical officer, and then a medical doctor in the public sector, before he opened up his own private practice.

“When he set up his private practice, he deliberately reached out to the poor. People who lived along Batu Road (now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman) can attest to how well liked he was in the community.

“Some farmers would come from as far as Cameron Highlands. At times, he wouldn’t charge if the patient was not able to pay,” she said.

Poh Ling said as her father established himself in politics, he would soon catch the eyes of those in political parties.

She said he was invited to join MCA, but he did not see it as the path to follow, and subsequently joined the Labour Party, where he did much legwork behind the scenes for eight years before he stood for elections.

Poh Ling recalled the nail-biting election recount for the Batu parliamentary seat in 1964, where the votes were recounted six times before her father was eventually declared the winner by a mere two votes.

By the end of the 1960s, the Labour Party became more radical, she said, and the government threw many of her father’s colleagues in detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

He never forgot them.

“He would visit them from time to time. He would come home late at night, his face grey with fatigue,” she said.

Chee Khoon would then go on to form Gerakan with several other people, including Syed Hussein Alatas, V Veerapan, Prof Wang Gang Wu, and Dr Lim Chong Eu, and it was what he envisioned – a truly multiracial party, with all the communities in the leadership.

“Within a few months, it contested the 1969 general election, and to their own surprise, the party won a majority of the seats in Penang,” she said.

Poh Ling said while Penang was won by an opposition party, soon after the polls, the Alliance “did what they knew best, buy over the leadership, buy over Lim Chong Eu”.

“A similar offer was made to my father, (as) Gerakan also did really well in Selangor. I remember it was very tense. I was 13 or 14 then. One of the independents who won rung my father up and asked ‘what do I do. The Alliance is courting me’.

“He told the candidate to look for stability, and that it would be better to support the Alliance.

“But even so, my father stayed out of it. He was made a good offer to be the deputy chief minister. He rejected it. He said no, that is not my brand of politics,” she said.

Due to a really bad stroke he suffered in his mid-50s, Poh Ling said her father had to step down, and soon after the second phase of his life began, when he was invited to write a column for The Star.

Back then, Poh Ling said the column, “Without Fear or Favour”, was one of the very few columns where they could read an opposing or dissenting view.

“My father had a great many people, and it was not just one man but a team, who worked together because they believed in integrity and not being bought in by power.

“That was his contribution in the second part of his life,” she said, adding that her father always had a beautiful and enchanting smile to offer his friends.

A series of strokes in 1993 would later leave Chee Khoon totally incapacitated, Poh Ling said, but in the midst of the predicament, she saw no bitterness or self-pity in her father.

“Even in the three years he was not able to speak or eat, he did not feel sorry for himself.

“He was cheerful. He would smile at visitors and laugh at their jokes.

“He was fine here (mind). Just that his body was not able to do whatever he wanted to do,” she added.

Read: Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Khoon - A Life of Service by Dennis Loh

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Created on December 6, 2018
Last update on December 6, 2018