Few have earned the distinction of being a renowned upright politician and social activist. One requires a steely determination to stay faithful to the path chosen.
A rare person who for decades has embodied these virtues is Lee Lam Thye. Born to a poor family on 30 December 1946, his tenacity and true grit made him a well-liked person by his peers, classmates and teachers at St Michael’s Institution and his friends all over Malaysia.
Lee attributed his commitment to serving the people selflessly to his parents. They motivated him at a young age to be unassuming and caring. And within a brief span of time, it became part of his DNA.
First elected to the Selangor State Legislative Assembly in 1969, he served the parliamentary constituency of Bukit Bintang for four terms from 1974 to 1990. He was popularly known as the “MP with a typewriter”, as he always had one with him when discharging his duties.
Lee was ever ready to type a letter of complaint to the authorities to solve any problem for anyone or any community.
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For Lee, help has to be given to anyone who needs it, irrespective of ethnicity or religion. Party affiliations too were unimportant to him when helping someone.
Upon his retirement from politics, Lee donated his famous typewriter to the Election Commission Museum at a special ceremony on 30 August 2007.
In 1969, his allowance as a state assembly member was a meagre RM500 a month. So, to service his constituents, he raised funds from the public to finance his work.
Widely respected for being a voice of moderation and noted for his fluency in Malay, he easily earned the trust and confidence of the people. As an MP, he consistently raised pertinent issues affecting the people and the country.
While many of his colleagues in the opposition were vocal dissenters, to the extent of being confrontational, Lee took the road less travelled.
He avoided provocative behaviour, preferring to work together with civil servants and those in authority to arrive at tangible solutions. And it paid off, as he got many problems resolved. He was well respected by the civil servants.
Perhaps he is one of the few people in Malaysia who is revered by people of all walks of life and backgrounds. Sadly, only a minority like him have crossed the ethnic and religious divide in our country.
National unity is of paramount importance to Lee. As a trustee of the Malaysia Unity Foundation, he works tirelessly to promote inter-ethnic unity among the people. Lee believes that being a Malaysian does not mean one has to be less Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, Iban, Dayak and so on.
He believes Malaysia’s diversity is its invaluable asset and that we must learn to accept one another. Such bonds advance harmony and reduce ethnic polarisation.
Lee proposed that Malaysia Day be declared as unity day to reflect the aspirations of the people, despite the challenges we face as a nation. He believes Malaysia Day can provide a platform to unite the diverse ethnic groups, to strive together for a common goal for the success of the country.
Lee’s reputation as a social activist is legendary.
Renowned cartoonist Lat once drew a cartoon of a man, struggling to hold up a riverine house which was on the verge of collapsing into the river following erosion caused by floods.
The father told his son, “Quick! Call Lee Lam Thye (instead of the authorities).”
“Papa, he’s retired!” the son replied.
Such was Lee’s national standing as a social activist.
In a nutshell, whenever a problem arose, the first person many people would think of was Lee Lam Thye.
Throughout his journey as an MP and social activist, Lee had friends helping when discharging his duties. Among them were the late Orang Asli activist Anthony Ratos and his wife the late Dr Leela Ratos.
Even at 77, Lee is still actively involved in various organisations. Many are puzzled and astounded at his bundle of energy, zest and zeal.
Lee does not seem to have slowed down with age. Instead, he appears to be still enjoying his passion in life and shows no signs of imminent retirement.
I bought a copy of his book Call Lee Lam Thye, which illustrates his entire lifetime of service to the country and its people. He is a rare breed, a remarkable person by any measure.