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SP: The much misunderstood politician

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Isn’t it a pity that S P Seenivasagam should go down in history as such a greatly misunderstood politician after having given his all for Ipoh? Andrew Lin recalls the life and times of the other half of the legendary Seenivasagam brothers.

SP Seenivasagam, the president of the Municipality of Ipoh, addresses a group of industrialists in Hong Kong in November 1962

Sri Padhmaraja Seenivasagam, fondly known as SP, was the other half of the famous Seenivasagam brothers of Ipoh, the other being D R Seenivasagam (DR). Both men were brilliant lawyers and founder members of the Perak Progressive Party in 1953. The party changed its name to the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) two years later. SP was generally perceived as the quieter of the two; a man of few words, at least during the time when his younger firebrand sibling was the president of the PPP and concurrently the Member of Parliament for Ipoh. SP himself was the MP for the adjacent constituency of Menglembu in the heart of the Kinta Valley.

Despite the frequent comparisons made between them by the local media, the Seenivasagam brothers’ genuine concern for the welfare of the people, especially the poor and the needy, was never in doubt. It was precisely this trait in SP that prompted him to make what most people at that time considered his biggest blunder in his long and illustrious record of public service – the fatal decision to join the Barisan Nasional (BN) in 1974 so that the PPP could continue serving the people of Ipoh through the administration of the municipal council of Ipoh (the Ipoh Municipality).

Outstanding lawyer

In the heyday of the PPP between 1957 and 1969, SP was the vice-president of the party. Although credited by many as the “brains” behind the success of the party, SP remained in the background during that golden era, playing the role of a strategic planner while DR time and again dominated the headlines as a fierce and harsh critic of the then Alliance government. SP only came to the fore upon the untimely death of DR in early 1969, barely two months before the nation’s third general election. The racial riots of May 13, which took place immediately after the election, changed the entire course of the nation’s history.

As a result, very little information was available to the public on the personal side of SP. Like DR, SP was fond of liquor and was also a heavy smoker, averaging no less than four packs a day. His inner circle of close friends, which included the leaders of the PPP and his counter-parts in the legal profession, readily testified to his warm and easy going ways which often culminated in a thunderous burst of laughter. It was common knowledge that despite his hectic daily schedule, SP did his best to be available to the people at his office at the Municipal Chambers, which literally became his second home.

SP was first and foremost an outstanding British-educated lawyer, perhaps one of the best the nation has ever produced. Civil law was his forte. Together with DR, an equally eloquent and much feared criminal lawyer, their professional services were very much sought after. Both brothers featured prominently in numerous high-profile cases in the country. Their remarkable talent and extraordinary contributions as legal practitioners are well documented in the annals of the Malaysian Bar Council. Till today, the Seenivasagam brothers are still fondly remembered and respected by the legal community. Once, a rumour went round that SP had been offered a judgeship on more than one occasion but he turned it down.

Among the most memorable court appearances featuring SP was the Rahman Talib corruption case in 1964 where DR was sued for libel and slander by the then Education Minister. SP was engaged as the defence counsel for the co-respondent, one Abu Bakar, the businessman who tipped off DR on corruption allegations against the minister. (DR himself was defended by a young up-and-coming barrister by the name of Chan Nyarn Hoi, better known today as Dato N H Chan, an eminent and respected retired judge of the Court of Appeal.) The minister lost the case (and his job too) and the subsequent appeal the following year.

Another case that attracted national interest was the Fan Yew Teng sedition appeal in 1971. Fan, then a Democratic Action Party (DAP) MP for Kampar, faced possible disqualification from Parliament as he had earlier been convicted in the Sessions Court under the Sedition Act for publishing an offensive article in the party’s newsletter. In the hearing at the Federal Court, SP successfully argued the appeal for Fan on the grounds of technicality. The court concurred with SP and ordered a fresh trial. The rest, as they say, is history.

A rare occasion when SP’s private life caught public attention was in October 1965 when he married the former Miss N Danapakia Devi from a well-known family of lawyers from Seremban. (Datin Seenivasagam died of a heart attack in 2006 at the age of 72). SP was then in his late forties. Prior to this, the Seenivasagam brothers were among the most eligible bachelors in the country. SP was conferred a Datoship by the late Sultan Idris Shah of Perak in 1964, an honour seldom bestowed on an opposition personality even to this day. The Dato Seri title was awarded in 1972.

Senior citizens and those in their fifties may recall that for a very brief period in 1973, Belfield Street and Hugh Low Street, two busiest streets in Ipoh were originally renamed Jalan S P Seenivasagam and Jalan D R Seenivasagam respectively in one of the earlier road-renaming exercises. At that time, the naming or renaming of roads within the municipality was the prerogative of the Ipoh Municipality and it had been the council’s policy to grant such a privilege to serving municipal councillors as well, irrespective of party affiliation. Thus we have Jalan Megat Khas, Jalan Chew Peng Loon, Jalan Yin Choo Han, Jalan Chan Swee Ho, Jalan S A Lingam, Jalan R C M Rayan (all situated in the Ipoh Garden housing estate), Jalan Leong Boon Swee and a few more in other parts of Ipoh. The first two mentioned councillors were from the opposition Alliance while the rest were from the PPP.

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But in this instance involving the names of the Seenivasagam brothers, the renaming was met with stiff opposition from certain quarters. To avoid further escalation of the controversy and being a true gentleman, SP voluntarily withdrew his consent to use his name for the road which subsequently became known till today as Jalan Sultan Yussuf. But SP told a press conference that the municipal council would appeal to the state gpvernment to retain the name of his late brother in place of Hugh Low Street. The appeal was however turned down. Hugh Low Street was subsequently renamed Jalan Sultan Iskandar. It was ironical that whilst his municipal colleagues had roads named after them long before this outcry, the president himself was unreasonably denied this honour.

Opposition luminary

SP was elected to Parliament as the representative for Menglembu in the first general elections in post-independent Malaya held in 1959. He also won the state seat of Kuala Pari in the Perak State Legislative Assembly the same year. Both these two seats were successfully retained by SP in the subsequent general elections in 1964 and 1969.

As a parliamentarian, SP was ranked among the luminaries of the Opposition Bench in the infant days of the nation’s Parliament. Indeed both SP and DR left their indelible foot-prints in our parliamentary history. SP’s attendance record in Parliament, however, was rather dismal, averaging about five per cent. His opponents capitalised on this glaring weakness during pre-election rallies and other public gatherings – but with minimal effect as Menglembu was a stronghold of the PPP during that time due to the Seenivasagam brothers’ immense popularity.

To be fair to SP, he was never found wanting when important bills affecting the nation were discussed in Parliament. He participated actively in the debates relating to the Internal Security Act Bill in 1960, the Constitutional Amendment Bill, which saw the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965, the controversial Constitutional Bill relating to the Sarawak Council Negri crisis in 1966 and the contentious National Language Bill in 1967. All his speeches in unequivocal support of the stand taken by DR were crisp and concise and reflective of the hopes and aspirations of the people.

Many observers believe that SP chose to remain in the shadow of DR in the discharge of their parliamentary duties out of sheer respect for the latter’s position as the party leader. Not one to relish undue media attention, SP never attempted to steal the limelight when DR was still around. In spite of his own enormous personal attributes as a shrewd and distinguished lawyer, SP took great pains to ensure that the celebrity status enjoyed by his flamboyant brother in Parliament was never in jeopardy at any time.

Most importantly, SP would also go down in history as one of the handful of opposition parliamentarians who courageously stood up and opposed the highly sensitive Constitutional Amendment Bill, which removed the parliamentary immunity of MPs in 1971.

Municipal Council president

SP is best remembered as the first and only elected President of the Municipal Council of Ipoh, the precursor to the present day Dewan Bandaraya Ipoh. The PPP initially won control of the Ipoh Town Council (ITC) in the late 1950s. The status of the ITC was elevated to that of a municipality in 1962, and in the last local government elections held not too long after, the PPP won 16 out of the 18 wards up for grabs. Under his able and dynamic leadership, the Ipoh Municipality became the envy of other local governments in the country. The monthly council meetings were opened to the public. Widely known for its efficiency and caring attitude to the people, municipal by-laws and regulations were initiated and executed in a most humane manner; and corruption in any form was practically unheard of.

The assessment rate for landed properties within the municipality was kept low with hardly any upward revision during SP’s tenure. Conservancy services (removal of night-soil under the old bucket system) in the town area and surrounding new villages were carried out diligently and regularly, and rubbish was never allowed to accumulate to unsightly proportions. The streets of Ipoh were swept every morning, and malfunctioning traffic lights never left unattended. Drains were regularly cleansed, and grass in fields and other open spaces periodically trimmed thus keeping the mosquito menace at bay. Ipoh came to be acknowledged as the cleanest town in Malaysia during SP’s tenure and held that well-deserved distinction for many years.

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To alleviate the housing problems of the poor, the low-cost Waller Court Flats with modern sanitation facilities were built in Kampong Java and let out for a nominal monthly rental. The main beneficiaries were the squatters, the hawkers, the coolies, the trishaw pedallers and other deserving members of the local community. This was followed by another housing project, the Sungei Pari Towers in the Silibin area near Buntong. The Ipoh Municipality also initiated the Star Park housing estate near Kampong Simee, aptly named after the party’s symbol, the unmistakable six-pointed star in bright red colour.

Recreational activities were encouraged and actively promoted. In the days before the completion of the Perak Stadium and other sporting complexes, the Ipoh Padang, the Coronation Park (now renamed Taman D R Seenivasagam), the Perak Chinese Recreation Club (PCRC) Ground off Jalan Chung Thye Phin and the Jalan Abdul Jalil field in Greentown served as the venues for various football clubs and divisions. The Ipoh Municipality had a team of their own in the First Division and produced some notable players who made it to state and national levels. SP’s term of office in the municipality coincided with the good old days of sporting glory in the country where Malaysian sportsmen and women excelled in many sports internationally.

Agonising predicament

The sudden death of DR on 15 March 1969 was a severe blow to the PPP as the country was about to go to the polls. In fact, barely two weeks later, Parliament was dissolved to pave the way for new elections. DR had, in the last few months of his life, initiated and successfully negotiated with the newly-formed Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan) and the DAP a common understanding to avoid splitting the opposition votes in Penang, Perak and Selangor.

With this electoral pact in place, SP led the PPP to its best ever performance in the 1969 general election, winning four parliamentary seats and 12 seats in the Perak State Legislative Assembly. The DAP won six state seats and the Gerakan two but with Gerakan’s abstention, the combined PPP/DAP total was a little short of a working majority to form the state government. Hence for the next two years or so, both parties continued their cooperation in the state assembly and were seen to take a common stand on most issues. When Parliament was re-convened in late 1970 after a 17-month suspension, SP was elected Deputy Opposition Leader of the new Parliament. (the late Mohd. Asri Muda of Pas took the leadership role. The DAP stayed away.)

SP’s predicament

SP’s agreement to form a coalition government with the Alliance Party in Perak in early 1972 took the nation completely by surprise. This announcement came about not too long after similar arrangements were made in Penang and Sarawak involving the Gerakan and the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) respectively. Such co-operation at state level was originally intended to be in effect only until the next general election. At that time not many people, including SP himself, had any inkling that Tun Abdul Razak, the then prime minister, had plans to crystallise this maneuvering of opposition parties into an enlarged Alliance – the present day Barisan Nasional (BN). Many people attributed this apparent oversight or unawareness on SP’s part to his lack of political acumen. They opined that had DR still been alive and being a far more astute politician than SP, such an overture by the prime minister would have been rejected outright in the first place.

The voters of Ipoh and Menglembu in particular were totally astounded and incensed by SP’s action. Never in their wildest imaginations had they expected the PPP to join hands with the Alliance, their archrivals for nearly two decades. Public reaction was loud and swift with the DAP leading the onslaught. Almost overnight, the PPP and the DAP became deadly foes. Relations between both parties deteriorated further in the next two years and reached its climax at the next general elections in August 1974. By then, the BN had already been registered to supersede the Alliance; and the PPP was part of the coalition. The much-awaited clash between the PPP and the DAP had finally arrived.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is not difficult to comprehend SP’s predicament. The agonising fact of an imminent mandatory acquisition of the Ipoh Municipality by the state government hung over his head ever since the federal government declined the recommendations of the Athi Nahappan Commission Report on local government. The only way to circumvent the surrender of the Ipoh Municipality was to be a part of the ruling government. In other words, the PPP had no choice but to be an integral part of the BN in order to continue its administration of the Ipoh Municipality. Partnership at state level was not enough. A local daily reported that Tun Razak himself gave an ultimatum to SP in a private telephone call one morning sometime before the 1974 general elections. The daily quoted the prime minister as saying that “with or without the PPP in the BN, the state government would take over the municipality”or words to that effect.

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It is therefore erroneous to infer, as suggested by some reports, that SP initiated the move to join the BN on his own volition so as to retain control of the Ipoh Municipality. As a responsible leader, SP was determined not to let the people down knowing full well that a state government-appointed municipal council would not be able to provide the same standard of services for the people. SP could have relinquished his post as municipal president in despair and devoted his time to his flourishing legal practice. After all, his monthly allowance as municipal chief was nothing to shout about vis-à-vis the responsibilities that went with the job. The long hours spent at the municipal chambers effectively meant a substantial loss of his professional income. Strictly speaking, he had nothing to lose personally by opting out.

Never the same again

That he chose not to abandon his people at such a turbulent time speaks volumes of the man. SP was fully aware that his decision to join the BN would not go down well with some of his party leaders and members, let alone the people whose mindset had all along been opposition inclined. Nevertheless, SP was hopeful that the people would understand the logic of his decision and see the situation from a totally different perspective. Unfortunately, this was not to be.

SP was nominated to defend his Menglembu parliamentary seat and also his state seat of Kuala Pari under the BN ticket using its now-familiar “dacing” symbol. In the former, he faced a formidable opponent, Fan Yew Teng, the man he once “saved” in the Federal Court three years earlier. Although most people predicted a very close fight for the Menglembu contest, SP was defeated by a big margin in a three-cornered tussle which included an independent candidate. More humiliating was the loss of his state seat at the hands of a complete unknown, a lowly-educated shop assistant. SP was totally devastated by his shocked defeats. Party insiders recalled the pathetic sight of SP breaking down in tears when the election results were known. In his moment of anguish, SP was seen clutching a framed photograph of DR close to his chest. That was the lowest point in his whole political life. He was absolutely heart-broken. It was also the beginning of the end for the PPP.

Notwithstanding his personal disappointments, SP put up a bold front and continued to perform his duties as the municipal president with the same degree of fervour and dedication. He was still convinced that the people of Ipoh and in other parts of the Kinta Valley had made a wrong choice by rejecting the BN (read PPP) at the polls. Painful though it may have been, SP remained magnanimous throughout this ordeal by accepting the verdict of the people graciously. Never once did SP use words like “ungrateful” or other similar equivalent to describe the voters whom he had served so faithfully and conscientiously for nearly two decades. Ever an optimist, SP was confident that the PPP, like the proverbial phoenix, would rise again from the ashes of its worst electoral set-back at the next general election.

On 1 March 1975, SP was appointed a senator by the government. Exactly two months later, he was re-appointed to his position in the Ipoh Municipality by the Perak state government. Despite his stoical appearance in public, SP was never his same jovial self again and kept to himself most of the time. His ill health which had dogged him for a long time took a turn for the worse soon after; and SP had to seek frequent medical attention outside Ipoh. He passed away peacefully following a heart attack at the official residence of the president of the Ipoh Municipality along Tiger Lane in Ipoh on 4 July 1975 at the age of 58, less than a year after his electoral defeats, a broken man indeed. He left behind his wife, Datin Seri Seenivasagam. The couple had no issue.

Recognition for the man finally came, albeit a little too late. Nearly two months after SP’s demise, the road fronting my alma mater, the St. Michael’s Institution was renamed Jalan S P Seenivasagam as a fitting tribute to the man who was largely instrumental for the success of Ipoh – the town he loved so much. Sadly, it was also the town that rejected him in his most critical hour.

In conclusion, I wish to re-produce an excerpt from a media statement issued by lawyer and MP Karpal Singh on 13 March 2007 which may shed some light on people’s perception of SP’s so-called biggest error of judgement:

In 1975, I had occasion to speak to Datuk S.P. Seenivasagam who told me that the PPP joined the Alliance after the 1969 elections because of the impact on him of the May 1969 racial riots which caused bloodshed and loss of property. It was a sincere move by Datuk S.P. Seenivasagam.

Many Malaysians share Karpal’s observation. Isn’t it a pity that Dato Seri SP Seenivasagam should go down in history as such a greatly misunderstood politician after having given his all to Ipoh?

May his soul rest in peace with DR and all his other loved ones. Amen.

Andrew Lin, whose hometown is Ipoh, is a retired bank manager currently residing in Sydney.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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24 Aug 2012 1.05pm

For me the names SP and DR Seenivasagam were names that I heard my parents, both of whom were from Ipoh, mention quite often. They used to reminiscence how well Ipoh was run back in those days, how clean it was. Thank you Mr Lin for bringing back the memory of the Seenivasagam brothers, especially SP. It’s great that despite residing in Sydney, you still research and write about Malaysia. Once a Malaysian, always a Malaysian!

LH Lim
LH Lim
12 Jan 2011 7.00am

This is indeed a very well written and indepth article of SP , especially more appreciated because the view is more from the misunderstood side of things. How often man’s perception and opinions follow the herd opinion on hindsight but seldom on the possible reasons for taking that action , given the day’s scenario .No one can see the future and SP did what he felt was right for the people then.

I recall another well written article by Andrew Lin on DR earlier which I enjoyed .Give us more on such great people whose great contributions seem to have been lost in our Malaysian history .

29 Dec 2010 11.04pm

He was simply great, actually both the Brothers are well respected, I was young at the time of DRs death, and I can still remember one of the UMNO MP rejoicing that a strong opposition in parliament is no longer there (sic).

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