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Umar Tan: Perginya Seorang Pejuang November 6, 2006

Posted by elizabethwong in Columns, Democracy, Human Rights, Malaysia, RIP, Writings.

(Umar freed outside Pudu Police Station, after his arrest during an anti-fuel hike protest)


Some two hundred people, from friends to civil society leaders, dropped in at Pak Lang’s Bangi house to offer their condolences and prayers for the departed. Those present included Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, president of People’s Justice Party; Syed Shahir, president of Malaysian Trade Union Congress; Dr. Hatta Ramli, Treasurer of PAS and Kuala Lumpur’s own bon vivant, Hisham Rais.

Reformists. NGOs. Students. Writers. Editors. It felt almost like a reunion of our restless generation.

There were others in their cars and vans, racing from Perak, Penang and Melaka, unaware that the burial would be conducted in a matter of hours. Amin, who lives in Korea, asked if he should take the next flight back to Kuala Lumpur.

The send-off was not for a titled person or a celebrity. He was neither a tycoon nor a political dignitary.

Tan Soi Kow (who, of late, went around as Umar Tan Abdullah) or just plain old ‘Ah Tan’ was a most ordinary man who made our lives most extraordinary.

Unbeknownst to most Malaysians, even those who unabashedly wear the velveteen tag of “human rights activists”, Tan was without doubt one of the most committed fighters for democracy and human rights in this country. But one would be hard pressed to find a feature on him or read his words laid out on glossy magazines.

Once, an “activist” asked, “How could you possibly hang out those people (Reformists)?”

The unspoken observation from this person was this; “They aren’t middle-class, they don’t speak English, they probably don’t even own a tie. Urgh. Now can we talk about our international campaign on ….”

To that I answered, “They has done more for the cause than all your years in *—.”

We would find Tan present in almost every protest. He’d be there, helping to carry banners, sometimes delivering materials or bottles of water, making sure we were alright. He would pass around his kretek or offer to buy a round of tea for some of the young ones.

In fact, Tian Chua, who, at that time, was in the Secretariat of Suaram and chair of the Coalition for People’s Democracy, first met Tan when he was thrown into lockup. We had unwittingly sent Tian to monitor one of the demonstrations and he got arrested instead.

Tan became our comrade. Our brother-in-arms. Our family of fighters.


He didn’t begin this way. Tan wasn’t born into an illustrious family nor was he chauffeured down the Ivy-league trail. He wasn’t one of those garden-variety ‘activists’. He worked hard to earn his keep. He kept only one bank account. He went around his trusty little motorbike, more Brando than Bogart, on a Honda kapchai. He collected chunky watches that looked like weapons of mass destruction.

He was hardly different from you and me. A Commoner. A Citizen.

Then September 2, 1998 came and changed everything.

His name first appeared on our long list of arrestees who bravely reclaimed the streets of Kuala Lumpur and demanded the resignation of then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. Over time, as the protests became more frequent and the lists piled, it seemed as if his name never left the pages.

Last night, I opened one of Suaram’s boxed archives sitting in my living room, labeled “Police”. An orange folder sat on top. Inside were stapled sheets and crooked columns of handwritten names. My finger traced its way down stopping at “16. Tan Soi Kow”

Tan took care of Tian, in fact all of us, through these eight years. He was Tian’s travelling companion, driving up and down the country during the Reformasi years.

His favourite words to me were: “Relaks….” and “No problem….”

He would often ask how Dr. Wan Azizah was doing in Parliament and inquire the whereabouts of Anwar Ibrahim; the well-being of Dr. Kua, Beth, Debbie and Jonson.

He enjoyed teasing young women in my presence, with the cheek, charm and twang of a Kedahan. And all those questions about his iBook that I couldn’t answer and weekly politically incorrect jokes he’d send around.

Nothing said here can do Tan any justice. Every time something’s written, the words fade away.

To suggest that, “He touched everyone’s hearts” or “He was a good man” is woefully inadequate, too facile. He was so much more than all the glowing adjectives known to the English language.

He didn’t touch our hearts. His passion scorched and burnt through our flesh and bones, putting the best of us to shame. Berani kerana benar – ‘Courage because of Truth ‘. He lived, walked, breathed this motto and asked nothing in return – no honours, no rewards, no acknowledgement, save, that we should never give up; that we must believe our victory is close and within sight.

Historians wax lyrical of those they wish to deify. Their subjects are easy to write about. Plenty of materials, plenty more in the newspaper archives. Antics, scandals, public displays of ‘good’ which mask fetid souls, fouled blackened pits.

But who would bother writing about someone like Tan and others who were in fact part and parcel of this intricate web, who all but changed the course of history?

In Tan’s Living Room

While frantically going through every inch of his flat for a contact number of his brother in Sik, Kedah, I found a photograph under a stack of ironed shirts in his closet.

In it, he wore a blue shirt, his slacks pressed. He was walking towards the Courts near Selangor Club, helping a lawyer carry his heavy trolley bag.

I didn’t know whether he was there for one of his many court cases, or to lend support to others.

He flashed his signature toothy smile.

His dwellings were surprisingly neat. He had put his bed in the middle of living room, presumably to watch movies from his little iBook and to let his hundreds of books lining the walls lull him to sleep. The walls held posters of protests, Aung San Suu Kyi and a one-of-a- kind original caricature of Anwar Ibrahim by cartoonist Zunar.

His amazing collection of funky bright trainers were kept near the door, one of the pairs a bright orange Puma. His second-hand iBook purchased from Beth Yahp was tucked away near a bookshelf.

The table was unmistakably his. Two boxes of Gudang Garam. A cigarette roller. His phonebook. A Chinese-Malay dictionary. A Chinese book which looked thick and difficult. A stack of anti-US Free Trade Agreement analytical documents. His Hong Leong Bank savings passbook. His black pouch and leather cap.

I was amused to find a little jar of hair gel.

You see, Tan didn’t have much hair left on his head.

Every minute spent there was in desperation, cramming in as many mental keepsakes as possible. When we locked up the flat, I went off to smoke.

His photograph safely in my backpocket.


We were in a mad road-trip in September. It was Budget Day and I was stuck in Parliament. I thought I was the last person from our team to leave for Penang. At 6 pm, I still didn’t know if I were to fly, train or bus there.

I found out Tan was planning to leave that night too. He decided to forgo his bus ticket in order to accompany me in a dodgy-looking bus. I had a cold dinner in the drizzle outside Puduraya’s Seven-Eleven, while marveling at Tan charming yet another young woman.

Later that night in the bus, I helped him figure out his seat’s entertainment unit and learnt that he loved country music. So we drifted to sleep – me with Voldermor prancing across the screen, him with dear old Patsy Cline.

On the morning of my departure for Korea we spoke on the phone. He asked another difficult question about programming on Mac and enquired if I had posters of Aung San Suu Kyi to give to his new Burmese friends living in Bukit Bintang. We spoke about the brutal raids and how he could give them some advice based on his own experience dealing with the police.

Ten days later, we met again, in the mortuary. There was an unfortunate but minor glitch – he had no immediate family in this city and we didn’t have the necessary information to contact them. His friends spent the next four hours, trying to get his body released to our care, while thwarting frantic calls of those not there.

For a moment, I thought we were going to organise a protest at the hospital. That would have been too fitting for Tan and the occasion. But friends from ABIM soon arrived with their hearse. Ten minutes after Zul Nordin turned up and went into the meeting room, it was resolved.

We all gathered at the mortuary which was drenched in the sickly-sweet scent of death. Just as the men began to move a body wrapped in white, one of the hospital attendants said, “You should check if it’s really him.”

We must have had the same thought for a split second. “Maybe it’s not Tan.” But when the cloth fell from his face, there was no mistaking who laid in front of us.

We covered his casket with the green cloth inscribed with verses from the Quran.

As we lay him down to sleep…

We were late.

We had been in Tan’s flat, looking for that elusive number of his brother. Predictably, we got lost and spent 30 minutes driving up and down the maze that was Bangi.

By the time we turned into the right lane, the entourage was already on its way from the house. We decided to wait under the overhead bridge.

Tian stood ten feet away from us. His cheeks wet, as each drop found its way down the front of his shirt, making it cling even more to his reed-thin body, now weighed down and weary. His stoicism has all but left him.

Though many from our fold had fallen, including Kamal Bamadhaj who was shot by the Indonesian military and Oday Sadat who perished in the Riyadh bombing, I have never seen Tian grieve this way in all the years I’d known him.

The hearse stopped under the bridge for Tian to climb in and sit next to his friend for the final stretch of the journey.

We were the third car behind Tan. I turned to look at the convoy of fluorescent orbs blazing a trail down the edges of the village road.

We reached near the entrance of the cemetery, only to be greeted by a makeshift signboard ‘Jalan Runtuh’ (fallen road) in front.

A hundred pairs of feet alighted and trudged down mud and clay, helped by volunteers holding lighters and pocket torches. Someone joked, “This is Kesas Highway demo, Part 2.”

Tan’s grave was under a large tree whose branches extended like a canopy. As we moved closer, on cue, a symphony conducted by nature played for our warrior.

The leaves whistled.

The fugue of croaking frogs, crickets chiming at syncopated intervals.

The nearby river gurgled in bass.

As prayers were softly spoken, the faces of his friends surrounding Tan folded in sorrow. Some could no longer hold back their tears, falling fast, glistening under chins. Women passing on their packets of tissues to the men – an effort most futile.

Tonight, we bathed the earth with our moist salts.

Death invokes a tenderness inside of us. Tonight, it binds us once more under the crescent moon. Multiply that a hundred-fold, and it becomes a cocoon, of love most true, of brotherhood so real, that it wraps us like a second skin.

The way Nasir, Badrul and the rest cradled Tan before gently settling him down on the earth.
Another who tenderly lifted his head before slipped the pillows under.
The way droplets of water clung onto stalks of bamboo, placed at the head and feet.

We held on tight to our fistful of rose petals, not wanting to stretch our fingers, finally watching them float down, cloaking the freshly covered ground of pink and green.

We did this again and again. Until our baskets gave no more.

I wished we had a truckload of roses on standby.


The measure of a man is by his true friends.

Judging from those who called him friend and comrade when he was alive, those who were at the hospital, Pak Lang’s house and the cemetery, those who called, sent SMSs and emails, Tan was a giant who towered well above us.

Ah Tan.

Reformist. Activist. Former political prisoner. Teacher. Friend. Brother.


Farewell for now.

I hope you’ve finally hooked up with Kamal and Oday. Enjoy the view from there and wish us well. (End)


1. Jerry’s Alter Ego > 亂語胡言 » Blog Archive » RIP: UMAR TAN - November 6, 2006

[…] I will never forget catching a glimpse of the Queen, who wrote a beautiful piece about him, lifting her glasses to wipe her tears off her cheek, while I pretended to drink from the already emptied glass of Coca-Cola. […]

2. Ginie - November 6, 2006

thank you eli for making ah tan ‘alive’ again. but it is mean to realise the fact that he has already left us more than 96 hours.

last sunday, i bumped into a car in cheras when four of us were rushing to malacca for a raya program. it was a small car accident so we carried on with our drive.

then we got lost and trapped in a teribble traffic jam on the way to semenyih. we were already late for two hours when we finally got ourselves back on the right track.

i was so frustrated and panic at that time, and i thought of ah tan, who not only drive fast, but know every single path and lane at any place he goes. he could tell where every road leads to as if he has all the map in his little mind.

i called him up a day before he passed away, wanted to ask him to join us to kemaman and malacca as he knows the roads well. but there was no answer because his handphone was left at home.

all these mess could be avoided if ah tan was with us. i thought. at least we would not lost our way, as ah tan was a person with calm mind and clear direction. tears carefully filled up my eyes.

yes, so much thing could be different if ah tan was around, and so much thing would be different without ah tan around.

ah tan was a reformasi posman, he brought the reformasi leaders to the people at the ground and kampung nationwide who want to know about the agenda of reform. that is how reformasi sustains.

may you rest in peace dear reformasi posmen.

3. b o b j o t s - November 7, 2006

Rest Well, Good Patriot

该死的不死 A man, I wished I knew better, has passed on. Truly committed to the cause of justice and humanity, truly humble and always around to lend a hand. I was recently made to recall my first encounter with this…

4. Amir Hamzah Amha - November 7, 2006


May all remember his heroism, his almost fanatical pursue of fighting for what is right and denouncement of evil. May Allah SWT shower His blessings on him and for the good he has taught to be considered as Amal Jariah. I will stand witness for Abang Tan on the Day of Judgment on his actions. He will always be in my memories and no worthy Reformasi fighter can afford to forget this kind-hearted soul.

Saya halalkan semuanya dan memohon agar semua yang lain memaafkan hutangnya sekira ada.

Wabillahi Musta’an

5. jamil kucing - November 8, 2006

Abg tan semoga roh anda di cucuri rahmat dan di letakan bersama para shuhada, jamil amat terkejut sampai sekarang apabila menerima berita terhadap pemergian abg tan dari seorang pemandu bas metro. itupun suhdah tengah malam , memang sedih, kerana orang raformasi atau keadilan hanya abg tan seorang sahajalah yang selalu melawat jamil di bukit bintang,abg tanlah yang memberi nasihat kepada jamil agar tidak melayani karenah adan tomahan yang di lemparkan terhadap jamil.terasa sungguh kehilangan abg tan.tidak ada seorang pun reformis atau pemimpin keadilan dapat menandingi abg tan.

6. sam - November 8, 2006


7. Dominique Ng - November 8, 2006

(Excerpt from the Diary of Dominique Ng)

6,29am, Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Passing of Umar Tan, Reformist Extraordinaire

Was reading up the very moving obituaries about Umar Tan, an extraordinary man who gave his life to the Reformasi Movement. He really touched the lives of many and I was privileged to have known him even if only for a brief moment. I was in Penang for the PKR Congress recently and I was introduced to a solid looking man and his name was Omar Tan. I was curious and he told me, was it he himself or someone else nearby, that he had made a vow that if Anwar was released from prison he would convert to Islam! And he really lived up to his pledge when Anwar was released! That captured my imagination and I had fixed forever in my mind a vision of a very balding man with a very toothy smile. And a heart of pure gold. I only now know how a great man he was. And his very premature calling back to be with his Maker came as a shock to me and to many who have known him and loved him. Please see the very moving piece on him by Eli or Elizabeth Wong, the avant gard reformist who is an assistant of Kak Wan (President of PKR).

In Memory of a Fallen One

I met him but once and I was touched by him
His was the hand that would lift a fellow stumbling soul
and gently urged, “Go on, Man ”
His was the one that was always around, giving a helping hand
The one carrying the bottles of drinks for others, no job too small,
making sure everyone was all right, who took care of all
and was totally selfless, and totally unstoppable.

His was the life lived that made all our lives extraordinary
His was the life that upon his death the most battle hardened and stoic
would stop and weep, for a life, that was truly heroic

Alas his was the life that was just too short
but in living he has in his many ways added to all
and made it all that more wonderful and worthy
Alas his was the life that glowed just too briefly
and in dying… blinded us too brilliantly

A simple man who sought no glory or fame
but in passing towered above all
An ordinary man that wanted no recognition, or name
but in living came to exemplify the struggle

Reformasi was the cause that he lived and gave his life for
And Reformasi has now its first fallen hero
The ever struggling, undaunted warrior, forever uncowed

And he is Umar Tan Soi Kow

Or simply Ah Tan

Reformist, Activist, Former Political Prisoner, Teacher, Friend, Brother,

Comrade, And now the Fallen One

Let not his life be in vain
Let us carry on what he has given his life for
Let us forge ahead with even greater stride
Let us strive resolutely and with the greatest of might

There is no greater tribute that we can pay to him
Other than to continue until his and now our collective dream
Has become a reality.
When Malaysia is reformed, truly, finally.

(By: Dominique Ng of Sarawak)

8. mebuyan - November 8, 2006

eli, i do understand the feeling of losing a dear friend, especially one you have raged against the dying of the light with so to speak. even if i havent met atan, i still have the chance to get to know him because of what you have written. and i admire him for the man that he was. for having that passion for change–a passion that;s even bigger than himself. i will say my prayers for him tonight. shanti ug padayon hanggang sa tagumpay! –from claire

9. liew - November 8, 2006


啊~~~~~歐瑪, 民主鬥爭的烈士

啊~~~~~歐瑪, 烈火莫息的先驅
烈火莫息,, 烈火莫息,, 烈火莫息,, 烈火莫息,, 烈火莫息,, 烈火莫息

10. Zahrin a/k/a Malcolm - November 9, 2006

Sedih..teringat kali terakhir berjumpa dengan beliau di demo anti kenaikan harga minyak…beliau berpesan kepada saya “Hang anak muda kena dok barisan depan…lawan betoi – betoi…aku org tua dah tak larat dok depan lagi”

ahh sedih ketika menatap wajah beliau buat kali yang terakhir di bangi tempoh hari..

Abang Tan..saya akan ingat kata – kata terakhir abang tan..

reformis tulen takkan mati sebaliknya akan diingati dan abang tan telah membuktikan..

11. Yee Ling - November 10, 2006

I don’t know much about Tan.
but i met him almost every demo,i like to call this people “kaki demo”.And Tan was one of the “kaki demo” whom I respect to.
Every time there was a protest,he sure will be there,distributing flyers,holding playcard or banner,and shouting “Reformasi!”

I still remembered,that Anwar’s alternative class in chinese assembly hall,i was so tention of how to block those audience who didn’t attend our previous class entered the hall.

Luckily Tan was there,he said to me”no need paiseh,you just stand there,very easy one”(he said to me in mandarin)

There was another event in chinese assembly hall at the same time. The PA system was so loud. I was so headache how to handle.

Once again, Tan was there,he said nothing but directly went to negotiate with the person-in-charge.And he asked them to close the door,so the sound will not be too loud.And he said to me again”eveything can negotiate,relax…relax…”

He didn’t talk much about democracy,justice,freedom or any bombastic theory on how we should do or what we should do.

He applied all these principles in his simple action.

Although you left us,but i believe the spirit will always with us, forever.

The spirit of “Reformasi”, The Passion to the movement,
& The love to the people- we shall remember~

12. rid - November 17, 2006

Takziah buat keluarganya…. Ia amat mengejutkan saya yang mana saya mengenali beliau sewaktu beliau sebagai Chef di tempat saya bertugas dulu di bangsar. Beliau yang biasa panggil Chef atau Chef Tan . Saya berjumpa dengan beliau sewaktu memberi sokong terhadap DSAI di masjid jamek setiap petang diperkarangan Masjid Jamek menanti DSAI keluar dari perkarangan mahkamah. Beliau memang seorang Pejuang Reformasi yang tulen tidak kira hujan atau panas beliau tetap ada bersama-sama pejuang Reformasi, Sebut saja ceramah parti keadilan dan barisan Alternatif pasti beliau ada bersama.dimana hidup dan mati Beliau adalah untuk Keadilan dan Parti.Al-Fatihah.

13. Jerry’s Alter Ego > 亂語胡言 » RIP: UMAR TAN - November 23, 2006

[…] Weeks ago, the Queen asked if I could help a fellow Mac user solve his problems with his Mac, an iBook. […]

14. nurislah - November 24, 2006

takziah buat kenalan Umar Tan…. pemergian beliau satu kehilangan kepada reformis…. namun allah swt lebih mengasihi beliau kerana perjuangan tulen.

Beliau telah mengotakan janji untuk memeluk islam jika DSAI di bebaskan .. alhamdullilah janji tersebut ditunaikan. terima kasih pak lang dan abim mengislamkan beliau serta menguruskan jenazahnya sehingga dikebumikan.

Kita mohon ramai lagi pejuang reformis berjuang seperti umar tan kerana perjuanganya tulen dan ikhlas. al-fatihah.

15. niknazmi.com » Blog Archive » Hishamuddin Rais the Rebel - November 27, 2006

[…] I probably should have bought yesterday’s Sunday Star, as there was another interesting piece – on Malaysia’s bon vivant (in the words of Eli), Hishamuddin Rais. […]

16. Sleep well, Koulabear « elizabeth wong - March 6, 2007

[…] Koula is the second person in our ‘family’ who’s left us after Tan. […]

17. daredevil8 - October 2, 2007

truly well written.makes me wanna to know him better.TRULY SALT OF THE EARTH

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