We lost another courageous activist on 4 May. Comrade Helen was admitted early in the morning to the Johor Bahru General Hospital with upper back pain and difficulty breathing.
The doctors diagnosed a major heart attack as her heart was already struggling at the time of admission – her blood pressure was low and water was accumulating in her lungs. They attempted to lyse the clot in her coronary arteries using intravenous medications to stabilise her, but they were not successful.
Helen passed away within 12 hours of admission. She was 55.
Helen became part of our group in the early 1990s. Her husband, Muthumani, was one of the workers retrenched when Klebang Estate was sold to a private developer. Helen and her husband were among one of the 17 families who fought for alternative housing – a struggle that spanned a decade and at one point resulted in the arrest of 20 Klebang Estate residents for the ‘crime’ of picketing peacefully in front of their estate.
Incidentally, that was the first arrest for our group, Alaigal (the Socialist Party of Malaysia or PSM was not in existence yet), and it was an important learning process to overcome our fear of the police and of getting arrested.
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The police had identified the Alaigal members who were present at the picket. They swooped upon us and loaded us into their Black Maria (a type of police carrier).
The Klebang Estate workers spontaneously rushed forward and climbed into the Black Maria, announcing that if Alaigal members were to be arrested, the police would have to arrest them as well. This act of bravery had not been rehearsed or discussed previously.
The spontaneous solidarity and courage of these ordinary estate workers inspired us and gave us strength. Our fear of police arrests reduced markedly soon after. Eventually, after years of struggle, the 17 Klebang ex-worker families received a free housing lot each.
Many of the people whom we help remain grateful to us after winning some concessions from private developers or the government. But they get caught up with their own lives and are usually unable to give time for Alaigal or PSM activities. Life is tough for the bottom 40% of households, and it’s a constant struggle to make ends meet. Consequently, many find it difficult to take part in campaigns to improve their conditions.
However, this was not the case with Helen and Muthumani. They became strong supporters of the Estate Workers Support Group that we had set up to campaign for better monthly wages, a housing scheme and other amenities for estate workers.
This campaign had us doing a multitude of things – visiting many estates, pamphleteering during Thaipusam and other occasions, holding a signature campaign and conducting bus trips to Kuala Lumpur to deliver memorandums with signed postcards to Parliament, as well as the prime minister’s office.
Helen and Muthumani were active frontline participants. Both of them held the belief that workers in Malaysia are not being given a fair share of the wealth they have played a major role in creating. They found an avenue to do something about this injustice through Alaigal and later in PSM.
In the early 2000s, Helen played an important role in building the Factory Workers’ Association (GPKK) that was formed under Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas (Oppressed People’s Network or Jerit for short). This workers’ network articulated many issues, including paid maternity leave for three months, minimum wage legislation and a retrenchment fund. Helen was the national chairperson of the GPKK.
Helen was also the secretary of the union in an electronic chips producing factory in Tasek, Ipoh, that employed over 1,000 workers.
The management of the factory was not comfortable with Helen and used the pretext that she had used the office photocopier to make some copies of GPKK material in order to sack her.
Helen took the case to the Industrial Court and won an award for RM 30,000. Despite that, it was a hollow victory – as she had been excised from the factory workforce.
The worst thing was that none of the several factories that Helen applied to were prepared to employ her. Apparently, the personnel managers of these factories had been tipped off that Helen was a “troublemaker”.
This is the price that worker leaders often have to pay! Helen eventually found a job working as a cleaner in a bank – but with a significant drop in pay compared to her salary as assistant supervisor in her previous job. This setback did not deter Helen, and she continued being active in GPKK and in other PSM activities.
Helen was among several hundred PSM members and supporters who rallied together when six PSM members were detained under the Emergency Ordinance in 2011. Helen and Muthumani were among those who came to give support in Penang, where we were arrested, and then in front of Bukit Aman police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. It was the bravery of these activists that saved the “EO 6” from a prolonged stay in Kamunting!
However, Helen apparently did not give enough attention to her own health. She was diagnosed as diabetic several years back and was on medication from government clinics.
Unfortunately, our management of non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes, high blood pressure and ischaemic heart disease) isn’t quite up to par. We do not practise a proper primary healthcare system which assigns a particular doctor to each patient with non-communicable diseases so that the doctor would know the full history of the patients coming for follow-up.
The current system where a doctor has to ‘clear’ a crowd of 50 patients in the morning leaves little time to go through the notes of each patient or offer them personalised treatment or proper counselling. As a result, diabetic patients in Malaysia suffer a high incidence of serious complications, such as leg amputations, kidney failure and heart attacks. Helen, sadly, happened to be one of them.
It is extremely ironic and infuriating that despite her participation in several PSM protests against the privatisation of healthcare services in Malaysia, our public healthcare system still failed her – a system that she relentlessly sought to defend and improve.
We rallied in 2004 against the plan to open private pharmacies in government hospitals. We organised pickets several times to protest the “full-paying patient” scheme because there were rightful concerns that it would divert attention away from non-paying patients. We pamphleteered government hospitals many times over plans to institute a health tax and other similar issues.
It might seem from all this that Helen paid a huge personal price for her activism – but it was not in vain. Minimum wage legislation was enacted in 2012, and its level has been raised from RM900 in 2013 to RM1,500 in 2022. Hundreds of thousands of workers have benefited.
An employee insurance scheme was implemented in 2018, and it provided much-needed support and relief for the workers being laid off during the Covid pandemic.
These schemes were among the key demands of the GPKK that Helen played a major role in; 98 days of paid maternity leave, another of the key GPKK demands, was legislated in Parliament in 2021.
Helen Mary Johnson would’ve been proud to proclaim she did not regret a single sacrifice forced upon her. Her efforts have resulted in immensely better conditions for workers all over Malaysia. This country needs more worker leaders like Helen!
Farewell, saudari! The torch of struggle will be taken up by those inspired by the ongoing efforts to make our nation better and more inclusive.