Portrait of a Malaysian Hero: Fan Yew Teng (1942-2010)


A year ago today I was jolted by the news that Fan Yew Teng had succumbed to cancer in a Bangkok hospital. I hadn’t been in touch with the man since the mid-1980s, though I recall bumping into him a couple of times, either in theatre foyers or at public forums, but the last real conversation I had with Fan was perhaps when he commissioned me to do a campaign poster in 1984 for his Social Democratic Party which never saw the light of day, apparently because he couldn’t find a printer willing to do the job.

In retrospect the cartoons I did for the poster weren’t all that hot, but it was my first attempt at political cartooning and laid the groundwork for the drawings I did four years later for ADOI!

Fan Yew Teng, the public
intellectual, in 1980

Malaysians were terrified of Mahathir’s secret police – and for good reason. A certain amount of dissent was tolerated but whenever it cut too close to the bone or threatened to make an impact in the public psyche, the full force of the regime’s monolithic power would come into play, making life utterly miserable for anyone who dared speak truth to power openly.

Fan Yew Teng and Mahathir Mohamad are what you might call diametric opposites – not unlike Arthur Koestler’s Yogi and Commissar archetypes, the ultraviolet and infrared ends of the psycho-emotional spectrum. The Yogi, representing inner evolution, envisions a world where every single soul is enlightened, liberated and in a natural state of bliss; while the Commissar, representing external revolution, has wet dreams about lording it over a perfect mechanical anthill colony where every atom knows its proper place and nothing irregular goes unpunished.

The Yogi and Commissar polarity is more or less the same as the Christ-Caesar dichotomy. Is it possible for these polar opposites to align and merge? I would say it’s not only possible but absolute necessary if we are to survive as a tool-using species – however, the only way such a magical fusion can arise from the general confusion is if the Yogi or The Christ is accorded supreme and ultimate power, to be equitably shared with all strata of life and consciousness. What characterizes a true Yogi or Christ is the conscious renunciation of wielding power over others – and loving compassion for each and every expression of life, even apparent enemies.

The Commissar or Caesar types are what we might call younger souls – brash, ego-driven and reckless, but charged with a pragmatic dynamism that can and must be harnessed to loftier goals than crass power-over-others world domination. In the Pentagonian Hawk or Umno Warlord we see a classic example of Little Boys with Dangerous Toys whose playground brawls will inevitably bring about massive carnage and ruin.

Fan at a socialist convention in Paris, 1976

The Commissar or Caesar personality is a jealous, vengeful, spiteful, insecure and malicious Old Testament god who becomes utterly anal and aggressive when confronted with the prospect of having to share power. You can observe this behavior pattern among the Greek gods who were known to devour their own children rather than accept the possibility that one day their offspring will grow strong and take over.

Indeed, you don’t have to go so far back in time – only 14 years ago, Mahathir Mohamad did exactly that to his hand-picked successor Anwar Ibrahim. As usually happens when demented old gods devour their own progeny, the outcome is a gigantic bellyache, followed by violent convulsions, a great deal of vomiting and angry rivers of diarrhea destroying all that we deem decent and honorable.

Well, as one who embodied everything we deem “decent and honorable,” Fan quickly became marked as an “enemy of the state” – and the state took pains to crush Fan’s political aspirations and thwart his dream of an enlightened and liberated Malaysia.

Fan & Noeleen in Salzburg, Austria, 1976

Fan experienced this faceless form of bureaucratic intimidation repeatedly but remained defiant and undaunted. In the 1960s he became active in the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and took over editorship of The Educator, the union’s bulletin. He was among the organizers of the 1967 nation-wide teachers’ strike demanding fairer wages and benefits for this very important profession. The Ministry of Education tried to break his spirit and browbeat him into silence by transferring him to increasingly remote towns and villages. This only served to nudge Fan into full-time politics.

He joined the Democratic Action Party (DAP) in 1968 and was soon appointed Acting Secretary-General and editor of the party organ, The Rocket. In 1969, Fan was elected MP for Kampar and in 1974, for Menglembu. The home ministry used the archaic Sedition Act against Fan for publishing a speech by the Penang DAP Chairman. Although he was never formally disqualified as a Member of Parliament, Fan was deprived of his MP’s allowance, salary and even his pension.