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The “saint” of Sentul

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Yeoh Seng Guan pays tribute to an inspiration for many activists, James Arunasalam (1939-2010), the “saint” of Sentul, who passed away recently. James had courageously dedicated much of his life to fighting for the rights of settlers who were facing eviction.


James Arunasalam loved Sentul dearly. But he despaired of the trends of the past two or three decades that he was witnessing firsthand. He especially agonised over the brusque manner in which railway workers and the residents of the numerous “squatter” kampung communities in the locality were displaced to make way for the wealthy and the powerful. But what James found most unjust – and for which he laboured almost his entire life to address – was  the way in which the lives and contributions of the urban poor, regardless of race and religion, were deemed worthless.

Sentul was the only home that James knew. His father had ventured beyond India to British Malaya to seek work and found it in the Malayan Railways as did so many thousands like him in the early 20th century. Not long after marriage, his father decided to build a house on vacant river-side land in Sentul. He found the cramped inhumane railway quarters not conducive for raising a growing family. The locality slowly grew to become Kampung Railway and is today on the throes of being demolished because they are deemed to be “eyesores” under the KL Draft Structure Plan.

James had his education in La Salle Primary School (Sentul) and at St John’s Institution. After his  Cambridge ‘O’ Levels, James worked for a few short years in a bank before heeding his father’s advice to apply for a job in Malayan Railways, where he then worked until his retirement.   

James was born into a Hindu family. Touched by the care of a French Catholic priest, Father Griffon, James eventually embraced Catholicism as a young adult. He quickly became active in the St. Joseph parish and soon became a leader in the Young Catholic Workers, a lay movement that addressed the dignity of work, social justice and spirituality. Together with his friends, they worked tirelessly primarily among the Indian urban poor youths in Sentul. They also spread their wings to other areas including factory and plantation workers in Selangor.    

An inspiration

In the mid-1980s, James was a founding member of a civil society group, Daya Rakyat. Later, in the 1990s, he was also a founding member of another community-organising group, Persatuan Masyarakat Selangor dan Wilayah Persekutuan (Permas). Permas was formed to address housing rights violations of the urban poor and to empower them for action in the face of the frenzy of forced evictions to make Kuala Lumpur “squatter free” and a “world-class city”.

In the mid-1990s, James’ courage, selflessness and passion to defend the rights of the marginalised often resulted in heated exchanges and face-offs with both developers and the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) authorities. He fearlessly stood his ground on behalf of those unfairly affected and who were afraid to speak up.

Sometimes, he persisted when all hope seemed lost. When the shack of an elderly Indian widow, Sellamani, who sold cakes for a living in Sentul, was demolished without any compensation because she was deemed ineligible (she had a red Identify Card), James and Permas members camped in front of the offending private school which wanted to use the land to extend their playing field. This went on for more than a month and eventually attracted the attention of media and politicians. His stubborn streak eventually bore fruit when Sellamani was allowed to build a small hut at the edge of the acquired land.

When asked why he was a community organiser, James often replied, “Working for human rights is like breathing and eating for me.” Yet, despite his high principles, James was very accessible and a man of simple tastes. Indeed, talking to him was often a treat as he would launch into many of his interesting life experiences involving an array of larger-than-life characters and incidents as well as biting criticisms of the uncaring powerful.  

In the later years of his life, James had to tone down drastically his community organising activities because of worsening ill-health. But despite his ill health, he still campaigned in support of opposition political parties in the last two general elections in Sentul.

While critical of political parties, he nevertheless believed in the democratic process as a means to effect meaningful change for the disenfranchised. When current Member of Parliament Tian Chua won the Batu seat in 2008, James Arunasalam’s long-standing commitment to social justice and human rights was publicly recognised in a simple ceremony. But for his many friends and comrades who had the privilege of knowing and working with him, his life has been an inspiration and will always remain in our memories forever.    

James Arunasalam is survived by his wife, four children, their spouses and grandchildren.

Dr Yeoh Seng Guan is an Aliran exco member. 

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