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In memory of Gan Teik Chee

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Wong Soak Koon pays tribute to the late lawyer’s passion for justice and fairplay, which might have seemed idealistic to those more inclined to the practical.


When the poet, John Donne, tells us not to ask for whom the bell tolls when someone passes on, he wants us to realise that any human being’s passing diminishes all of us, whether he is known to us or not. In Teik Chee’s case, those of us who knew him, however casually, cannot help but feel the loss.

Some of us may have joked about his fastidious ways. For example, we would never serve him ordinary boiled water if he visited as he much preferred “Evian” mineral water. We may also have had to mind our vocabulary when he was around for here was a man who had a wide range of words and not mere legalese. And he would further quote to you from the Bard (quite likely from “Hamlet”) or share a few episodes from Don Quixote. Very few people can recite from memory, line by line, as he could, the haunting poem by W B Yeats on ageing, love and loss titled, “When You Are Old.”  

There was something Quixotic in Teik Chee. His passion for justice and fairplay might seem idealistic to those more inclined to the practical. Tilting at windmills as he might  have on certain occasions, he was, nonetheless, very sharp about the ways of the world and the details of the law. Any instance of injustice was sure to rile him up and then the coolness of the careful reader of law tomes would be replaced by the indignation of a man who could not tolerate oppression.

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I remember that we all worked on a campaign to decry the OSA (Official Secrets Act) in the mid-1980s. He saw that, with the OSA, transparency would be compromised and that the Act could be manipulated for various nefarious reasons. Besides being a founding member of Aliran, he wrote many thought-provoking articles for the Aliran magazine. The magazine, then in a quarterly format, allowed him to reflect on important issues, not merely social-political matters but the spiritual aspects of life. (He certainly made his readers work. Some of his words may have forced us to lift that dusty dictionary from the shelf!)

As a friend, he was very caring and friends can testify to his willingness to help in moments when legal advice was needed or in times of other emergencies. His caring extended even to their children. Sombre as he was in some ways, he was humorous enough to put the young at ease.

I must confess that I have not read too many of his poems but it seems to me that this creativity, which could have been cathartic, may also have heightened a sensitive vulnerability. Be that as it may, we are glad that he was thus gifted.

Inclined towards Buddhist teachings himself, he was, however, very respectful of other religious beliefs. All great religions, he would have maintained, teach us the same fundamental values of compassion, justice and integrity. We can only pray, according to our different religious leanings, that he is now received into the transcendent peace that surpasses human understanding. 

Wong Soak Koon is a long-time Aliran member.

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