If a government finds it necessary to continually add to the arsenal of laws that govern expression of alternative views, it would indeed take a brave and committed citizen to come forward publicly to point out the injustices and wrongs perpetrated in that society.
For this reason, Aliran decided that the Outstanding Malaysian Award for 1984 should be bestowed on Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Khoon for his concern and courage.
He has not failed to speak out against unjust policies and actions that had caused untold pain and suffering to the Malaysian people.
Though now far removed from the days when his father, a poor estate labourer, was struggling to feed five hungry children, Dr Tan has not forgotten the misery and desperation experienced by the poor. In fact, the days, when his family’s staple diet was salted coconut and rice, tapioca and yam, had engraved in his heart a burning desire to do something for the poor.
Unlike many other socially mobile professionals, Dr Tan considers it his bounden duty as an intellectual to contribute to the upliftment of those who are oppressed and in need.
Indeed, during the course of his political career, Dr Tan had many a time found it necessary to stick his neck out, so to speak, to publicly expose certain unjust actions in order that a wrong could be redressed.
When many others around him were cowed or had remained indifferently silent as their interests were not affected or because by speaking up they would lose favour with the rich and the powerful, Dr Tan Chee Khoon had the integrity and courage to point out that an unjust act had been committed.
A case in point is the issue of the female guru ugama which was brought up for debate in the Selangor State Assembly in the late 1960s. Where Wanita Umno had remained conspicuously silent while Pemuda Umno was not in the least interested, Dr Tan had spoken out against the cheap monthly allowance of $60 – $70 paid to these teachers.
It is Dr Tan’s belief that Malaysians should take a wider view. Lessons from our own recent history show often that to be selfishly unconcerned about public issues is to adopt a shortsighted view in life. For if we speak out only when someone close to us suffers the consequences of certain unjust policies, it would be too late.
The recent arrest of three Pas members under the ISA is a stark contrast of tragic irony. When the issue of the ISA was discussed in Parliament, assuming that the act would never be used against Pas, the Islamic party voted in favour of the act. Today, they believe differently.
But alas, it is too late for expressions of regret. The Sarawak National Party (Snap) similarly went along with the majority and only when Datuk James Wong was arrested under the ISA, which his own party had previously condoned, did Snap come out strongly against it.
To remain silent and know that a wrong has been committed is as much a sin as abetting that act of injustice. But to speak out in the face of stony silence takes a lot of nerve, integrity and commitment.
These are precisely the qualities we admire in Dr Tan, qualities manifested in his many years of service to the nation. Malaysians should be proud we have in this fine man one who is courageous and unstintingly concerned; one who is bothered enough to take pains to write a weekly column that has served to educate and pubIicise issues of social concern. Although this incurs the rancour of the powerful and unscrupulous and jeopardises his own comfortable position, he has the satisfaction of knowing that he has done right.
Malaysians should therefore take courage and know that what today appears to be so wrong and yet so strong and powerful will one day be destroyed and weakened. Truth and progress can be hindered or hampered but only tempo-rarily; their victory is inevitable. The question is whether humankind is prepared to fight for truth.
People like Dr Tan, because they are not afraid to stand up against existing power structures, have earned for themselves a noble role in the march of civilisation.
[The citation above was read out by Mariam Zamani.]
Originally published in Aliran Monthly 1984: Vol 4 No. 10