Lim Fong Seng: Malaysian Civil Rights Leader

single cover (2)

Lim Fong Seng: Malaysian Civil Rights Leader Editor: Kua Kia Soong
Publisher: LLG Cultural Development Centre Published: April 2015
ISBN: 978-967-11616-7-8
Price: RM40.00


Lim Fong Seng led the Civil Rights Movement during the Eighties, displaying decisive, inclusive and visionary leadership. He articulated the historic civil rights demands in the National Culture Memorandum in 1983 and the Joint Declaration 1985. He will also be remembered for leading the campaign for Merdeka University and taking the case to the highest court of the land. He paid a high price for leading this civil rights struggle by losing business opportunities and suffering detention without trial under Operation Lalang in 1987.

During the seventies, Lim Fong Seng provided the leadership to the Malaysian Independent Chinese Secondary Schools Revival Movement which succeeded in developing the system from fourteen independent schools in 1961 to the present sixty schools. In 1975, he inaugurated the first Unified Examination of the Independent schools despite warnings from the government not to do so. In 1990, he was one of the prime movers of the “Two-Front System” when he led a group of civil rights activists into the Opposition Front to defend democracy and human rights in Malaysia. This political scenario is now a reality in Malaysia.

This tribute to Lim Fong Seng is an inspiration to all Malaysians who treasure civil rights, democracy and the rule of law as the common values for building a united and progressive nation. His leadership of the Malaysian civil rights movement provides us with an exemplary model for leaders in the community.

This book is the collection of the articles selected and translated from Essays in Honour of Lim Fong Seng (2014) (《林晃昇纪念文集:不让他们渡黄河》)

Part 1: Lim Fong Seng and The Malaysian Civil Rights Movement 1. Poet, Miner & Civil Rights Leader            Chiam Yan Tuan / Translated by Tan Wen Hui 2. A Strategic Thinker & Practitioner            Lee Ban Chen / Translated by Ling Boo Chong 3. The Merdeka University Campaign        Ser Wue Hiong / Translated by How Xian Neng 4. The Civil Rights Struggle & Operation Lalang    Ong Seng Huat / Translated by Chee Nyuk Yan 5. Chinese Educationists in Politics            Tan Yao Sua 6. A Commitment to Multiculturalism        Kong Wee Cheng / Translated by Show Ying Xin

Part II: Selected Speeched by Lim Fong Seng Translated by How Xian Neng 1.International Opinion on Multi-Lingualism  ,9th April 1983 2.The Two-Coalition System & Democracy  ,14th July 1986 3.Mother Tongue Education & Human Rights,  2nd October 1986

Illustrations Appendix: The Joint Declaration 1985 Notable Events in the Life of Lim Fong Seng

FOREWORD By S. Pasupathi President of Tamil Foundation Malaysia

The growth of Tamil education in Malaysia has been very much in the shadow of the struggles led by inspired Chinese educationists over the years. Lim Fong Seng is one such inspiration whose contributions we are very appreciative. Lim’s development from being a strong advocate of Chinese culture and language to one that transcended ethnicity and embraced the rights perspective was truly remarkable. His vision stretched beyond polemics and party politics.

Through the years, the Tamils in Malaysia have also struggled for the survival and growth of Tamil education in the country. They have done this with emotion and energy but largely have lacked the backing of the middle class Indians who have not been supportive of Tamil schools. The struggles of Tamils in Malaysia were thus confined to those who were literate in Tamil and these largely belonged to the working class. They trace their origins to the largely plantation based Tamil school system. The Indian community as a whole has been split on the choice for language and culture. The working class Indians has held on to the notion that their ethnic language and culture are non- negotiable essentials for simple dignity and a mother tongue pride grounded in the rich cultural literature in Tamil.

In the Malaysian Chinese community, Lim Fong Seng and other Chinese educationists have transformed the struggle to one that is based on civil rights and not just a cultural need of an ethnic community. A need is usually envisioned as something that is subjective and the fulfilment of that need is treated as a private matter for which the government has no obligation to fulfill. On the other hand, a rights perspective to mother tongue education creates    an obligation on the part of the government to recognize, respect, promote, protect and realize those rights.

Lim Fong Seng was an extraordinary civil rights leader who fearlessly intervened in Malaysian politics for the realization of the rights to mother tongue education. He knew the hostile terrain and the obstacles in the way of achieving these goals. His strategies focused on seeking a political solution to the problems faced by mother tongue education of the ethnic minorities in Malaysia. He concentrated on this work while serving as the President of the Dong Zong from 1973 to 1990. He was instrumental in two distinct political strategies adopted by the Chinese educationists in 1980s and another in 1990s.

The so-called ‘3-in-1’ strategy attempted to unite all the three major Chinese-based political parties (MCA, Gerakan and DAP) to defend the rights of mother tongue education beyond their respective political beliefs. This strategy resulted in 18 Chinese educationists resigning from their various positions in Dong Jiao Zong (DJZ) and joining the Gerakan Party to participate in the 1982 general election. Lim admitted that the failure of this strategy was due to the political differences with DAP and Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammed’s Malay hegemonic agenda.

Lim’s second strategy in the 1990s moved away from merely working with Chinese-based political parties to a broad based political participation. The formation of the Civil Rights Movement within the DJZ was a progressive move and immediately opened the gates  for cross participation of like-minded groups from other ethnicities and in particular with the Islamic party PAS. However Lim was not successful in forging a link between DAP and PAS and consequently, the much anticipated Two-Front strategy did not materialize at the 1986 General Election. Just a year later the political turmoil within UMNO and the courageous actions of the civil rights movement caused the UMNO regime to launch ‘Operasi Lalang’ in 1987. Lim, together with another 106 Malaysians were detained under the ISA.

These were inspiring moments in Malaysian history when a new political landscape evolved to challenge the BN in the 1990 general election. To provide credence and support, Lim and other prominent Chinese educationists, including civil rights activists such as Kua Kia Soong and Lee Ban Chen joined the DAP prior to the 1990 General Election. Unfortunately, the failure to unite the opposition led to a two front opposition, Gagasan Rakyat led by Semangat 46 and Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah led by PAS. Lim Fong Seng resigned from Dong Zong to join DAP and was appointed adviser of DAP in its 1991 General Assembly.

The policy makers in Malaysia do not seem to have learned the lessons created by Lim Fong Seng and other civil rights activists. Our system of education at the primary level is a combination of national schools and vernacular schools. About ninety three per cent of Chinese children and slightly more than fifty per cent of the Tamil children   are enrolled in Chinese and Tamil primary schools respectively. The percentage of enrolment is increasing with no sign of their numbers dwindling. In addition, the number of non-Chinese children enrolled in the Chinese-medium primary schools is increasing and the figure has reached more than one hundred thousand. Still, the government refuses to treat Chinese and Tamil schools as part of the national education system and entitled to equal and proportionate financial allocation and other resources.

The vision to create national unity through education requires broad and clear thinking. It cannot be achieved covertly. In the past, the vernacular schools were neglected by the British colonial government and the segregation of the different school systems suited their divide and rule strategy. Despite the obstacles, the nation was united in demanding self-rule within a multiethnic political fabric. We achieved independence despite the trying moments and became    a multilingual, multicultural and multi-religious country. Through the years, these struggles have enriched our communities and in the process, these experiences have contributed to our strengths.

Together we recognized the constitution as the supreme law guaranteeing our fundamental rights. Our growth in the last fifty seven years has been remarkable and we could have achieved even more if the economic, educational, social and cultural opportunities had been more equally shared. Our co-existence nurtured by tolerance and acceptance has opened up avenues for respect and dignity. In the process, the nation-state concept of a single identity has proven illusory and that is fast becoming history.

Assimilation is no longer an option for Malaysia – anyone who demands that today is out of step with the progressive positions of the United Nations. The time has come for the ruling party to bury its prejudices against Chinese, Indians and other ethnic groups, the so- called “Non-Bumiputeras”. The national language (Malay) is spoken in every nook and corner of the country while the English language is ubiquitous in the globalized world.

Why then is the government refusing to recognize the roots of our diverse ethnic cultures and languages when our diversity can be seen as a source of our strength? There are enough examples around the world to show that multiculturalism can expand opportunities for people in many ways. Restrictive policies that deny the growth of ethnic identities have been denigrated in the enlightened world community. People the world over want a sense of belonging, to be proud of their origin, culture, religion and language. This is a phenomenon that has been emblematic of human progress through the ages. This inalienable right to mother tongue language, education and culture has even been institutionalized in the United Nations’ International Mother Tongue Day.

In Malaysia, the cooperation and peaceful coexistence of our diverse cultures within a single state is an excellent example to the world. We are proving that national identity need not imply a single homogenous cultural identity. We have certainly not attained the ideal model of that desired society when there are still so many neglected and marginalized communities.

The political will to define a multicultural Malaysia is still elusive and our expectation of the present government to commit itself to this demand still stands. This tribute to Malaysian civil rights leader, Lim Fong Seng is a timely reminder to Malaysians of what still remains to be done to make this a more equal, democratic and just society.

•25 February 2015


INTRODUCTION by Kua Kia Soong SUARAM Director & Former Publicity Secretary of the Civil Rights Committee

This tribute to Lim Fong Seng (LFS) could not have come at a more opportune time as the most serious crisis facing the Chinese education movement since its formation deepens and the Chairman and Deputy of Dong Zong (United Chinese School Committees’ Association of Malaysia) still cling on to power despite having lost the confidence    of the majority of its leadership. Clearly, the quality of leaders in the movement has deteriorated in recent years and it is worth the while    of the movement as well as the whole Chinese community to study  the example of Lim Fong Seng as a model leader. He led the Chinese education movement from 1973 to 1990, displaying decisive, inclusive and visionary leadership.

I first came to know Lim Fong Seng in early 1983 when I had just returned to Malaysia from my studies abroad. LFS invited me to serve in the organization and it was my honour and pleasure to be in his team. He had known about my human rights work and firmly believed that the struggle for mother tongue education had to be advocated as a human rights issue and not as a communal issue. My official post was academic adviser in the campaign for the recognition of the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) throughout the world. In the eighties and nineties, the mother tongue education and civil rights movement faced numerous obstacles put in its way by the ruling party, UMNO (1).

As LFS’s comrade-in-arms, I had the opportunity to observe at close quarters and study this model of a Malaysian civil rights leader.

Leaders to model Lim Lian Geok, acknowledged as the soul of Malaysian Chinese education, had a well-known rallying cry to the community which was: “The best antidote to sabotage is to construct!” Throughout the fifties and sixties, Malaysian Chinese education faced incessant sabotage from the ruling party, UMNO, and Lim Lian Geok paid the price of adhering to his principles by losing his teaching permit and even his citizenship.

Later, LFS, the father of the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) and the Malaysian Independent Chinese Secondary Schools (MICSS) movement, ignited the campaign to construct Merdeka University. In the eighties and nineties Lim was leader of the Malaysian Chinese Civil Rights movement and he too paid a high price for holding firmly to his principles by losing business opportunities and suffering detention without trial under Operation Lalang in 1987.

Sim Mow Yu, the highly respected elder of the mother tongue education movement likewise paid for his principles by being charged under the Sedition Act in the seventies and losing his freedom during Operation Lalang in 1987 together with Lim Fong Seng and the author.

Inspirational leaders such as Lim Lian Geok, Lim Fong Seng and Sim Mow Yu adhered strongly to their principles. And they stood out because they walked their talk! They had a vision of upholding and developing mother tongue education into a complete and excellent educational system in the country. Leaders such as LFS inspired confidence among all sections of the community. Likewise, his vision for Merdeka University and his defence of our civil rights through a two-front political system was unflinching.

These leaders had character which includes honour, integrity and a deep respect for others. They stand out as having vision which allows them to transcend the “small mind” mentality of lesser leaders. They were not men who hankered after titles or other superfluous statuses; they had a sense of serving their historic destinies. These leaders had an authentic presence and were able to connect with their team through dialogue and mutual respect. Such competent leaders command respect and history has accorded them due recognition.

Chiam Yan Tuan’s paper, “Poet, Miner & Civil Rights Leader” (Chapter 1) gives us a fuller picture of the experiences and accomplishments of Lim Fong Seng before he came into the mother tongue education movement and established his credentials as a civil rights leader. Lee Ban Chen’s analysis of LFS as “A Strategic Thinker & Practitioner” (Chapter 2) explains how he led the movement so successfully and initiated the creative campaigns that   are now part of our history. Kong Wee Cheng’s “A Commitment to Multiculturalism” (Chapter 6) shows how LFS took the mother tongue education movement beyond the narrow communal confines of the ethnic community into the international community’s safeguards for multiculturalism.

Malaysian Civil Rights Leader If Lim Lian Geok is the “Soul of the Malaysian Chinese” (2), then Lim Fong Seng surely deserves the epithet “Malaysian Civil Rights Leader”. The Malaysian Chinese leaders before Lim Fong Seng had not articulated the demands and aspirations of the non-Malay communities within the ambit of international human rights and the realization of civil society. Even if they had done so, it was LFS who embraced civil rights as the consistent vehicle to demand the rights of the non-Malays in Malaysia.

Lim Fong Seng (departed 13 March 2002) shall be remembered as a visionary Malaysian civil rights leader who fought courageously for mother tongue education of Malaysians and civil equality to   be recognized as basic human rights and constitutional rights. As Chairman of the United Chinese School Committees Association of Malaysia (Dong Zong), he led the movement through many landmark episodes in its history and became a victim of Malaysia’s infamous Internal Security Act which allows detention without trial in 1987 and 1988. Dr. Ong Seng Huat provides us with a detailed account in “The Civil Rights Struggle & Operation Lalang” (Chapter 4).

Background to the rise of the civil rights movement Soon after Independence, the passing of the Education Act 1961 discriminated against mother tongue education by leaving Chinese- medium secondary education out of the national system and empowering the minister to convert Chinese and Tamil primary (SRJK) schools into “national schools”.

After the 1969 May 13 incident, the New Economic Policy 1971 introduced racially discriminatory economic, educational, social and cultural policies. The “bumiputera/non-bumiputera” dichotomy became a carte blanche for social engineering benefitting the Malay capitalist class and their social base, Malay civil servants and settlers. There was stark discrimination in government expenditure for the Malay and non-Malay sectors. Thus while huge amounts of public money was spent on agricultural and rural development, the New Villages and plantation sector received a pittance. Investment schemes and public enterprises were set up “for bumiputeras only” even though they were secured by all Malaysian tax payers. The issuance of shares in government-linked companies also saw  gross discrimination in favour of bumiputeras (3) .

The grievances felt by the non-bumiputeras over the NEP were exacerbated by the global recession in the mid-eighties. The tin market collapse in 1985 and the drop in rubber, cocoa and palm oil prices hit non-bumiputera smallholders and plantation workers alike. Private investment declined and the Malaysian economy registered a minus one per cent growth rate, its worst since Independence. The scandal involving the MCA-led cooperatives produced general disaffection among the Chinese against the ruling coalition.

The drop in living standard caused by the recession affected not only workers, farmers, fisher folk, hawkers but also the middle class. The unemployment rate reached 10 per cent; 130,000 workers were retrenched between late 1984 and mid-1986, and there were 35,000 unemployed graduates in 1987. Malaysian workers faced labour laws which inhibited effective trade unionism (4).

The NEP also introduced the racially discriminatory “quota system” for enrolment into tertiary institutions while some such as Institut Teknologi Mara were restricted to bumiputeras only. The Universities & University Colleges Act 1971 further disallowed the use of any non-Malay language in any private university, which spelled the death knell for the Chinese community’s Merdeka University. Another cause of discontent was provided by the 1972 Education Amendment Act which intended to do away with the school board, a crucial institution in the preservation of the Chinese schools. This “bumiputera” policy was taken to extreme lengths by overzealous Malay civil servants and politicians and explains the frequent occurrence of controversies during the seventies and eighties.

When Dr Mahathir took over as Prime Minister in 1981, he embarked on economic projects and privatization policies which adversely affected indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities. These included dams, airports, golf courses, highways, plantations, townships, logging and industrial plants. In 1983, residents at Papan, Perak protested against dump sites for radioactive wastes from the plant belonging to Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd. The relocation of the proposed dumps to Bukit Merah in 1985 led to more protests there. The decision to build the 2400MW Bakun HEP project led to protests by NGOs and the indigenous peoples in the area. The indiscriminate logging of Sarawak’s rainforests led thousands of indigenous peoples there to form human blockades across logging roads to stop the destruction of their native customary lands.

Standing up to authoritarianism During the seventies, Lim Fong Seng provided the leadership to the MICSS (Malaysian Independent Chinese Secondary Schools) Revival Movement which succeeded in developing MICSS from fourteen independent schools in 1961 to the present sixty schools. He was the key figure in fund-raising and organising the committees which made this possible. Throughout this movement, he displayed clear vision, implacable resolve and courage.

In 1975, when the Chinese Education Movement decided to hold the first ‘Unified Examination’ for all the Independent Chinese Secondary Schools, they were asked to rescind that decision by then Education Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The grounds given were that the independent schools were trying to set up a separate education system and that this would disrupt national unity. When the Unified Examination was about to begin, the Chinese educationists led by Lim Fong Seng were summoned to Parliament House by Dr Mahathir. The latter did not mince his words but told the Chinese education movement leaders that the Unified Examination had better not be held “or else…” He did not ask for any response and dismissed the Chinese educationists with a curt “…that is all.” (5)

Under LFS’s leadership, Dong Jiao Zong (6) decided they were prepared to face the consequences and the first Unified Examination was held as scheduled at the end of 1975. Through his foresight and courage, the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) is today recognized all over the world except in Malaysia. The National University of Singapore (ranked #21 in the world) for example, accepts hundreds of UEC graduates.

Lim Fong Seng will also be remembered for his courage in taking the Merdeka University case to the highest court of the land. This became a cause celebre from the end of the sixties after then Minister of Education Mohd Khir Johari announced that students going overseas for further studies would need to have a credit in SPM Bahasa Malaysia. This would have deprived many students in the MICSS the opportunity to continue their tertiary education abroad since they were/are barred from the local public sector educational institutions.

In 1978, the Minister for Home Affairs Ghazali Shafie summoned the Chinese educationist leaders and warned them of the consequences of pursuing the Merdeka University campaign and that the Government would not change its policy on private universities. The police even banned a meeting called by all the registered Chinese associations on 22 October 1978.

LFS subsequently took the Merdeka University case to court but the suit was dismissed in the Kuala Lumpur High Court. The Chinese educationists finally lost the appeal at the Federal Court on 6 July 1982. Despite losing this legal battle, the justice of the Chinese educationists’ cause was clear for all to see from their Queen’s Counsel’s presentation of their case and the dissenting judge’s summation (7). Dr. Ser Wue Hiong’s article, “Leading the Merdeka University Campaign” (Chapter 3) takes us through LFS’s leadership of this historic campaign.

The Malaysian Civil Rights Spring The Eighties can be described as the Civil Rights Spring in Malaysia and will remain an inspiration for the ethnic minorities in our country. If it had not been for this civil rights movement, the questionable National Culture Policy would have been steamrolled over the rights  of the non-Malays; Bukit Cina, our centuries’ old heritage would have been leveled for commercial development, and even more discriminatory policies implemented against the interests of the non- Malays. When the 1980 controversy erupted over the Education Ministry’s “3 M” system in which all subjects other than Chinese and Mathematics in Chinese and Tamil schools were to be conducted in Malay, LFS led the protests against this injustice. Again in 1983, he was at the forefront of the opposition to the National Culture Policy, which he saw to be an attempt at assimilation of the non-Malay cultures in this country.

Through many attempts at changing the character of the Chinese and Tamil schools, eg. the Kuala Lumpur Education Department’s directive in 1984 and the ‘Integrated Schools’ proposal in 1985, LFS provided stoic leadership to withstand these challenges. At the same time, he continued with his efforts to constructively develop the independent schools through fund raising, promoting the Unified Examination, compiling textbooks, publishing magazines,   planning teacher-training, awarding scholarships and loans.

During the Eighties, the historic role played by the 13 state Chinese Assembly Halls which united with Dong Jiao Zong in the ‘15 Huatuan’ (Chinese Associations) can be attributed to the leadership provided by Lim Fong Seng and Khoo Siong Chi. Together they put forward the historic civil rights demands in the National Culture Memorandum in 1983 and the Joint Declaration in 1985.

One of the concrete measures taken by the 15 Huatuan after endorsing the National Culture memorandum was to establish the Huazi Research Centre. (8) It was set up in 1985 for the purpose of sourcing data and other resources and to act as a think tank for the civil rights movement. I became its first research director.

One of the first tasks of Huazi was to organize intellectuals in   the community to draft the Joint Declaration (JD85) to point out government policies and measures that had eroded our civil rights and to show the way forward for the nation. The declaration issued demands and proposals to the government in the form of a charter on civil rights for all Malaysians. In this work, LFS demonstrated a spirit of inclusiveness that succeeded in mobilizing intellectuals from all shades of the political spectrum to draft this civil rights charter.

JD85 – A consistent commitment to civil rights The JD85 stands as the historic document which best represents the aspirations and concerns of the Malaysian civil rights movement of the Eighties. It is not a document written only from the point of view of the Malaysian Chinese community as in previous memoranda by the Chinese associations. Its demands for civil and political rights are part and parcel of the general demand for democracy and human rights   of all the Malaysian peoples, including the poor and marginalised in all the communities, the repeal of draconian laws that violate basic human rights and the condemnation of all acts of aggression by imperialist powers.

Another unjust Government directive in September 1987 to send non-Mandarin qualified officers to the Chinese schools led to widespread protests by the Chinese community. LFS was one of the key leaders in the campaign to rescind this directive. The Mahathir government resorted to the use of detention without trial under ‘Operation Lalang’ to detain among others, LFS, Sim Mow Yu, Tuang Pik King and the writer. Throughout his detention at Kamunting, Lim Fong Seng withstood the camp conditions with dignity despite poor health and advancing age.

Forging inter-ethnic solidarity through the Civil Rights Committee Throughout my association with Lim Fong Seng, he impressed me as  a Malaysian Chinese leader who genuinely believed in forging a civil society through inter-ethnic understanding. He was instrumental in initiating the historical dialogue with PAS leaders in 1986 after then PAS Vice-President Haji Hadi Awang announced that “the question of privileges for the Malays does not arise under Islamic law”.

To implement the demands of the Joint Declaration 1985, the 15 Huatuan set up a Civil Rights Committee (CRC) to champion the civil rights of Malaysians. Throughout the second half of the Eighties, the CRC played a vital role as the voice of the Malaysian civil rights movement. Besides criticism of the New Economic Policy and the National Culture Policy, the CRC supported the civil rights    of the people in Papan and Bukit Merah in Perak who were opposing the siting of radioactive waste in their locality; at Bukit Peninjau, Sarawak where plantation workers were protesting against wage   cuts and other management policies in 1986; at the Upper Baram river, Sarawak where the Kenyah, Kayan and Penans were protesting against logging on their ancestral lands, and also at Bakun where indigenous communities were protesting against the building of the 2400MW Bakun HEP dam.

Taking civil rights into the political arena The government’s crackdown on dissent through Operation Lalang in October 1987 was as much a subterfuge to crackdown on the judiciary as it was to punish all the NGOs that had been demanding civil rights in the Eighties. But LFS’s detention under Operation Lalang failed to break his resolve and commitment to civil rights. In 1990, he was one of the prime movers of the “Two-Front System” when he led a group of civil rights activists including the writer into the Opposition Front to defend democracy and human rights in Malaysia. Sim Mow Yu, the respected elder in the Chinese community called this movement the “1990 Democratic Uprising”. This action revealed his principled political analysis, courage and willingness to put conviction into action.

Lim Fong Seng did not take an active part in politics but believed strongly that the issue of civil rights in Malaysia had to be resolved politically. Few successful businessmen would have been prepared to risk victimization and deprived opportunities as he had done for the sake of his beliefs. Dr. Tan Yao Sua’s critical look at “Chinese Educationists in Politics” (Chapter 5) evaluates the successes and failures of the Chinese educationists in the political arena in the eighties and nineties.

Watered down civil rights after LFS After LFS stepped down as chairman of DZ, the Chinese associations were infiltrated by leaders who leaned toward the ruling coalition and they began to methodically defuse the civil rights movement. The long-awaited registration of the Federation of Chinese Assembly Halls (Tanglian) after years of official denial also saw the withering away of the CRC. In contrast to the 15 Huatuan, Tanglian began to function separately from Dong Jiao Zong. The national CRC became neglected as the new Tanglian leaders did not want to embarrass their allies in the ruling coalition. The palpable change in the quality of the leadership of the Chinese associations including Dong Jiao Zong was seen when they backed down from the Suqiu election demands after the 1999 general election in the face of threats by UMNO Youth. Such a climb-down would have been inconceivable during the civil rights movement under LFS’s leadership.

It was through Lim Fong Seng’s principled and firm resistance to UMNO’s encroachments on the rights of non-Malays in this country that we value our civil rights and the need to defend the limited rights we have today. It was his leadership in this resistance that has ensured that our civil rights have not been completely taken away.

Qualities of a civil rights leader How can the present Chinese education leaders who have split the Chinese education movement for the first time in its nearly century old history learn from the model set by Lim Fong Seng’s leadership? The future of the movement calls for the highest qualities of character from the leaders in the movement. Leaders like Lim Fong Seng inspire loyalty and devotion that transcend time and place and are based on trust and respect that survive through all our generations. His example uplifts and motivates all of us in the movement through his leadership qualities which include the following:

1.Being visionary and principled: Good leaders like LFS hold a vision that guides their every action as well as lead the members in the movement. It is the vision that gives meaning to their work and inspires them to strive for the attainment   of that vision. He stood firmly by his principles with courage and was prepared to sacrifice his freedom and comforts for his beliefs. Thus, while Lim Fong Seng was detained under the ISA for his defence of mother tongue education and civil rights, it did not stop him from voicing the vision and the demands of the Chinese community at every opportune time.

2.Being dignified and honourable: Secondly, Lim Fong Seng was a refined gentleman steeped in the fine traditions of Chinese culture and conducted his life with decorum, dignity and discipline. He did not hanker after honorific titles or crave for dubious educational honours. Leaders need to have capability and courage, competence and character. When we honour a leader, we have great respect for and trust in such a person. We hold in high esteem those leaders who are honest and have integrity in their values and in their actions. Honour requires living with the highest moral principles, adhering to truth and involves accepting personal responsibility for one’s own actions.

3.Being inclusive: Thirdly, LFS was a leader who was consistently inclusive in his dealings with young and old. He was non-partisan and empowered people to work for the movement. He had vision and commanded respect and commitment from members of the movement and knew how to draw people with high potential into the movement. Although he was a successful businessman in his own right, he never ever put on airs like some nouveau riche or assume the “boss’ role” within the movement. He was fully aware that the Chinese education movement was not hierarchical but egalitarian and that final responsibility rested on the shoulders of its leaders. Throughout the seventies and eighties, Lim Fong Seng did not need to play the role of “Executive Chairman” – the CEO of the secretariat executed the work for him. Leaders like Lim Fong Seng stressed empowerment and human development rather than subordination to a chain of command. It was thus a pleasure to serve under his leadership.

4.Being a good communicator: A good leader knows how to communicate with his team through his style, his voice, his manner, ie. by displaying competence and character. He does not resort to black operations and under-hand tactics to get his way. Communication is what defines the style of leadership that reconciles efficiency with human values. Good leaders need to be good listeners, to use listening both as a tool to gather information and as a way of making people feel their ideas and views are of value. A good leader is one who knows how to bring out the best in people and we can only do that if we really listen.

Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, has said:

“The biggest job in getting any movement off the ground is to keep together the people who form it. This task requires more than a common aim; it demands a philosophy that wins and holds the people’s allegiance; and it depends upon open channels of communication between the people and their leaders.”

Thus, the Malaysian civil rights movement needs leaders who are visionary, principled, who cannot be compromised by the ruling coalition, and who have an inclusive attitude to all who can contribute to the movement. Corrupt and opportunistic leaders do not have a place in a progressive movement. It was through Lim Fong Seng’s leadership and principled resistance to UMNO’s encroachments on the rights of non-Malays in this country that has ensured that our civil rights have not been completely taken away and has given inspiration to Malaysian civil society today.

notes: 1    See Kua Kia Soong, “The Chinese Schools of Malaysia”, 2008; “The Malaysian Civil Rights Movement”, 2005 2    See Kua Kia Soong (ed.), ‘Lim Lian Geok: Soul of the Malaysian Chinese’, LLG 2010. 3    See Kua Kia Soong, “The Malaysian Civil Rights Movement”, SIRD 2005:9-21 ibid, p.13 4    Kua Kia Soong, ‘A Protean Saga: The Chinese Schools of Malaysia’, 1999:106 5    The collective name for Dong Zong and Jiao Zong (United Chinese Teachers Association of Malaysia) 6    See Kua Kia Soong, 1999: 111-132 7    It has been renamed Huayan or the Malaysian Chinese Research Centre, based at the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall. 8    See the statement by Civil Rights Activists who joined Opposition Front, 1990 in Kua Kia Soong, 2005:98

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