Review: An Uncommon Hero. M.K. Rajakumarin Politics and Medicine

Garry Rodan

 An Uncommon Hero: M.K. Rajakumarin Politics and Medicine 
Tan Pek Leng (editor). Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2011, pp. 451.

The use of repressive laws to suppress contenders for power in Malaya/Malaysia and Singapore is well documented. Such work contradicts official histories rationalising abuses of state power as timely interventions to pre-empt chaos and safeguard national security. Now the complexities and actors involved in historical battles that fundamentally shaped regimes in Singapore and Malaysia are under new focus. The voices of those detained under internal security or sedition laws are finally being given due prominence. The four books The Fajar Generation, Comet in our Sky, Dark Clouds at Dawn and The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya, for example, are in this category. 

An Uncommon Hero makes a distinctive contribution to this unfolding literature. It highlights the remarkable commitment and achievements of M.K. Rajakumar. This book celebrates a political warrior and medical doctor whose determination to serve the people was durable, creative and multifaceted. According to Jomo in the volume’s Introduction, Rajakumar was: ‘Arguably the most profound Malaysian public intellectual of the second half of the 20th century.’ 

Dr. M. K. Rajakumar

Dr. M. K. Rajakumar. ‘Arguably the most profound Malaysian public intellectual of the second half of the 20th century.’

Rajakumar’s integral roles in many key political developments and conflicts in Malaysia and Singapore included: co-founding the University Socialist Club and the its publication Fajar; participating in formative discussions about the creation of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in Singapore; a leading position in the 1960s debate over merger between Singapore and Malaysia; involvement in the establishment of the Barisan Sosialis (BS) party in Singapore; and a central role in the Labour Party of Malaya (LPM) and the Socialist Front (SF) in the 1960s and early 1970s before the former was deregistered. 

Rajakumar and colleagues successfully defended a sedition charge in 1954 for a Fajar article condemning Western aggression in Asia, but he was eventually (1965-67) incarcerated without trial under the Internal Security Act – as so many of his colleagues had been earlier. Given Rajakumar’s commitment to constitutional struggle, the 15 charges against him were a measure of how threatened the political elite was by the authority his views commanded in socialist circles and among the masses. 

Following the deregistering of the LPM in 1972, Rajakumar redirected his energies, working tirelessly as an advocate for equitable and affordable health care. While President of the Malaysian Medical Association, he instigated The Future of Health Services in Malaysia report. Completed in 1980, it remains one of the most significant studies ever undertaken on Malaysia’s health system. He also established, and for three decades fostered, the Academy of Family Physicians of Malaysia. After his death in 2008, his work to promote and improve primary health care was recognised with the global movement for mentoring young family doctors, The Rajakumar Movement, named in his honour. 

Importantly, An Uncommon Hero gives powerful expression to the complex and dynamic nature of attempts to build progressive political coalitions. It does this by bringing together observations and analyses from many of Rajakumar’s colleagues, friends and admirers, as well as Rajakumar’s own thoughts. Judgements about how best to progress the causes of egalitarianism and social justice are reflected on that reveal dilemmas and machinations now clearer with hindsight. 

The 451-page book includes 15 pieces of Rajakumar’s own writings and 33 chapters from political colleagues, academics and friends. The latter examine different aspects of his political values and struggles as well as his service, philosophies and professional and organisational initiatives in medicine. Included here are pieces by fellow combatants such as Said Zahari, Lim Hock Siew and Poh Soo Kai – amongst others – who served longer periods under detention in either Singapore or Malaysia than Rajakumar. Collectively these contributions exude two potent themes: one testifying to the sheer volume and range of efforts by Rajakuma and colleagues to fight for a fair society; another to the respect and affection held for a comrade, friend and professional whose political rhetoric and practice were indistinguishable. 

Editor Tan Pek Leng deserves high praise for a volume whose scale and breadth is disciplined to the central aim of detailing and explaining the significance of Rajakumar. The book’s coherence owes a great deal to substantive essays by Tan at the beginning of each of the book’s various sections explaining and analysing the major conflicts and dynamics Rajakumar and colleagues were caught up in. Tan’s writing style is crisp and lucid, her ability to distil the political and historical context sharp and evocative. 

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“Rajakumar never wavered in his belief that egalitarianism is not just morally desirable but socially and economically responsible.”

Although Rajakumar’s formal political activities ceased in the 1970s, his political writings and thoughts continued to exert an influence. His advice and insights were sought by public intellectuals and politicians seriously committed to social justice reform agendas. Rajakumar never wavered in his belief that egalitarianism is not just morally desirable but socially and economically responsible. He remained especially suspicious of self-serving ideologies used by Malaysia’s ruling coalition. Writing against the backdrop of the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis he observed: ‘The theory was that if you fed the best quality grain to horses, you get better quality manure for the grass. It did not work out that way. The creation of handpicked Malay “bureaucratic capitalists” to take over and own productive assets of the state, resulted in risk-taking behaviour without personal risk. We have seen the outcome.’ 

Many contributors to An Uncommon Hero underline and illustrate how Rajakumar was a force for keeping activists focused on their points of ideological convergence. He placed particular emphasis on not getting sidetracked from social justice aspirations by the strategies of the ruling party. Rajakumar wrote: ‘We belonged together in a multi-ethnic opposition group, which clung together in spite of most wicked attempts to divide us ethnically.’ Political opposition in Malaysia has struggled in recent decades to match an ideal that could not be sustained even in Rajakumar’s heyday. With the advent of the Bersih movement and recent electoral cooperation among opposition parties, this book is a timely resource for considering the lessons of earlier attempts at building reformist political coalitions and social movements. 

Reviewed by Garry Rodan

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 12 (September 2012). The Living and the Dead