It is with much sorrow and a heavy heart that we learned of Gan Kong Hwee’s passing on 16 September 2021.
P Ramakrishnan, past president of Aliran and Gan’s closest friend and ‘sidekick’ since I got to know them, shared with me this unwelcome news.
Rama was clearly saddened by Gan’s death. When I enquired about his own wellbeing, Rama intimated he was “feeling rotten…all over”. He explained: “When you have been friends for more than half a century, and have shared so many joys and sorrows together, you do not lose just a friend, you lose a member of the family!”
Yes, Kong Hwee and Rama were brothers! And their children grew up with one another too. And best of all, Aliran benefited from their close relationship – for we always got two instead of one.
Kong Hwee was born on 17 July 1939 in Mentakab, Pahang. He lived through the Japanese Occupation as a little boy, watched the transition from British overlord-ship to an independent Malaya during the turbulent years of the Emergency and the struggle towards Merdeka.
Upon completing his Senior Cambridge, Kong Hwee chose to become a teacher, as so many intelligent young Malayans were channelled towards. It was a noble profession. The new nation needed teachers quickly. Education would propel Malaya forward. It would be an opportunity to serve the new Malaya.
So, Kong Hwee enrolled in the Malayan Teachers College in Bukit Dumbar, Penang. Upon completion of his course, he was posted to teach in Pahang.
In 1964, Kong Hwee was selected to attend the Specialist Teachers Training Institute (STTI) in Cheras. He embarked on a special needs education course to teach visually disabled or blind children. After the course, he was posted to teach in Seremban and then transferred to Kuantan.
Shortly after, Kong Hwee was appointed to St Xavier’s Institution in Penang, one of a few schools to implement the “integrated programme for the blind”. The programme allowed for blind students who had completed their primary school education in St Nicholas School for the Blind in Penang to enrol for regular secondary school classes with sighted pupils. It was here that Kong Hwee first met Rama and Xavier Anthony, who were pioneer teachers in this exciting programme.
The unstated flip side to this programme was getting sighted students to volunteer to read for their blind classmates during recess, after school hours, or sometimes on Saturdays at St Nicholas. Reading did not simply entail reading some textbook; sighted pupils also shared their notes taken during lesson time, which obviously the visually disabled needed help in recalling. This allowed them to make friends with the visually disabled.
This was my introduction to Kong Hwee (and Rama). I had a blind classmate, Godfrey Ooi, whom my classmates and I took turns reading for. Thanks to the integrated programme and teachers like Kong Hwee, Godfrey and another boy (later a sixth form girl as well) gained admission at the local university and completed their first degrees.
I also interacted with Kong Hwee in the school field. In my sixth form years, I joined the school hockey team which was under the charge of “Coach Gan”. The Saints team was not among the top teams in Penang. But I enjoyed playing hockey all the same.
Perhaps this had to do with Coach Gan. One day he said to me at practice: “Francis, you are short of skill but courageous and full of effort.”
I have pondered over his words many times over the years. No doubt Kong Hwee was right. But he was also sharing with me an important lesson for life: it is not enough to be courageous and to put in hard work; we must also learn new skills and knowledge and upgrade ourselves all the time. “Dare to venture out, work hard, learn new skills.” I have borrowed from Kong Hwee and shared the same message with my own students after I became a teacher in the university.
Now I know, but I did not know then, that Kong Hwee and Rama had been active in the National Union of Teachers and later the union’s cooperative. For a while, the two of them and another friend shared a room in the union’s building in Jalan Mandalay in Penang.
With other teachers, they fought for an improved pay scheme for teachers. After initially resorting to industrial action like working to rule and boycotting extracurricular activities, the teachers went on strike throughout the nation in 1967.
This shook up the government, which finally agreed to establish the Aziz Commission to review the various salary schemes and regularise them into a single one. Thanks to the teachers union, some of the teachers’ pressing demands were attended to.
Meanwhile, Kong Hwee had married Betsy Lim Suan Sim, a registered nurse. They continued to live in Penang, where they had three children: the eldest Lena, Dennis and David.
Like all parents in post-colonial Malaysia, Mr and Mrs Gan were confronted with the problem of providing their children with the best educational opportunities so they could achieve their potential. This was the era of the “brave new world” out there.
This era, especially after May 1969, saw the introduction of the New Economic Policy, the National Cultural Policy and major changes to the national educational system. These led to the withering away of the English-medium schools, which Kong Hwee had been brought up in and in which he taught.
Turbulent times were in store, and the 1970s and 1980s became a period of heightened ethnic tensions. The temperature rose every year when national exam results were announced, as many top non-bumiputera youths would suffer the disappointment of not being able to gain entry into local universities. (Back then, there were only five public universities – no private universities and no so-called “twinning colleges”.) With the introduction of the quota system to reserve places in public universities for bumiputera students, competition for places for applicants’ preferred courses grew tougher.
So, Kong Hwee and Betsy, like so many other non-bumiputera parents I know, decided they would do all they could to raise funds for their children to study abroad in the fields of their choice. Ultimately, this meant Betsy had to go to Saudi Arabia to work as a nurse in hospitals there, as they offered higher salaries than their Malaysian counterparts. Indeed, many of our experienced qualified nurses, regardless of ethnic backgrounds, took time off to work in the Middle East (plus Brunei) to raise extra money for their children’s further education overseas (among other reasons).
By then, Kong Hwee had joined Aliran in February 1980, remaining a member for four decades. A couple of years later, he was elected to the executive committee and served on it for 25 years. When he retired from teaching in 1992, he worked part time in the Aliran office, in return for a meagre ‘allowance’, which he reluctantly accepted.
I want to share, especially with younger Aliran members, the important work Kong Hwee performed as coordinator of our distribution bureau, from the mid-1980s until 2008.
Distributing our hard copy print magazine, Aliran Monthly, to our subscribers was as important as finding the writers and getting their articles in. It was a lot of work.
Every month, we had to distribute an average of 5,000 to 10,000 copies, and at its peak, during the judicial crisis in 1988, up to 20,000 copies each month. This was during the pre-IT and pre-social media era. We did not even have a single computer in the office initially, and when we did, they were nowhere as ‘canggih’ as they are now!
Aliran Monthly was one of the few critical sources of alternative news and analyses of current affairs, and there was much demand for it out there. Each month, with bated breath, Kong Hwee and his distribution team waited for the latest printed copies to arrive at the office.
Then, Aliran’s distribution bureau began their work: folding the magazines in half, fitting the folded copies into specially printed jacket envelopes, stacking these into bundles of 50 copies each, held together with strong rubber bands, and then dumping these bundles into large postal bags. They also had to insert reminder slips into the magazines of those subscribers whose subscriptions were about to expire.
(When I informed my daughter Sara that Uncle Kong Hwee had passed away, she remarked that he was the one who taught her how to fold Aliran Monthly into half, but a little “off-centre” so it could slip into the jacket envelope comfortably, yet not fall out of the jacket at the other end. Apparently, there is some special skill involved here! And, yes, we brought our children, friends and students to help with this work. The example was set by Kong Hwee and Rama!)
Depending on the number of copies to be despatched, the work could be finished in half a day, sometimes longer. About nine or 10 of these large postal bags then had to be transported, usually in two cars, to the main post office in George Town, half-an-hour’s drive away.
At the post office, Kong Hwee would fill up the postal documents, stating the number of copies being sent out. He also had to provide other relevant data for the magazine to be deemed “printed matter” and thus eligible for a lower postal charge. Once this eligibility was given, the postal staff then “franked” the postage stamp onto the jacket envelopes. This was crucial, for franking saved us having to paste postal stamps onto the several thousand individual envelopes! Phew!
Kong Hwee and Rama, along with a couple of others, would also drive around Penang, distributing loose copies to street vendors, newsagents and bookshops as well as collecting from them the unsold copies of the previous issues and the money for the actual number of copies sold over the previous month.
For the rest of the month, Kong Hwee maintained the Aliran Monthly subscribers list. Every month, he printed out all the subscribers’ names and addresses – a few thousand of them – on a long list. He then snipped out each subscriber’s details, turning them into individual address labels, and pasted these onto the jacket envelopes, ready for the next mailout. It was a tedious and sometimes messy affair in those primitive computer days. (When we had more money to spare, we ‘farmed out’ this task to others for a small fee.) Then, there was the separate task of pasting the postal stamps onto the envelope jackets meant for overseas subscribers.
Kong Hwee also had to ‘chase’ our distributors for payments. These distributors were always willing to accept hundreds, even thousands, of copies of the magazine each month. They would then sell the magazines in their own outlets or distribute them to smaller outlets and street vendors.
However, it was often difficult to collect payments from several distributors. Kong Hwee shared this task with Rama and some others. On one occasion, we went to court to seek payment from one of the distributors.
We also issued many legal notices to those with long overdue debts, to no avail. Kong Hwee had to alert us to these defaulters. Tardy payments from such distributors was one of the reasons why we could not make ends meet, prompting us to end the publication of Aliran Monthly.
The incredible thing is that Kong Hwee coordinated the work of this distribution bureau, which no other executive member wanted, for almost three decades. And he did this silently and with little fuss.
Many of us on the committee and other ordinary members and volunteers came in to help with the mailing out for a few hours each month. That was the least we could do to support Kong Hwee.
Kong Hwee had already stepped down from the executive committee but was still working in the Aliran office when I became president of Aliran in 2011. I think he stopped working in 2012. It had become apparent he was suffering from dementia. Evelyn Tang, our office administrator, took over his tasks.
Soon after, we published our last edition of Aliran Monthly in 2014. It was the end of an era in which Kong Hwee had played an invaluable role. No doubt, he supported how we then turned fully digital, as we supplemented our website aliran.com with Aliran e-newsletters, webinars, social media outreach and Zoom meetings.
Betsy stopped working in one of the local hospitals to take care of Kong Hwee. However, she too fell ill shortly after and passed away in January 2017, ahead of Kong Hwee.
I will always remember Kong Hwee’s message to me when I was still a student: be courageous and dare to venture forth, put in the effort unhesitatingly (the same way he ran the distribution bureau) and keep learning new skills.
Rest in peace, dearest Teacher, loving Father to Lena, Dennis and David, and Silent Stalwart of Aliran.