Umar Tan: Perginya Seorang Pejuang November 6, 2006Posted by elizabethwong in Columns, Democracy, Human Rights, Malaysia, RIP, Writings.
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.
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)