"Papa believed in people and principles, not in ideologies and systems”
A tribute to my father, Fan Yew Teng
Thank you, dear friends, for being here this evening to commemorate the life of my father, a man who touched so many not just by his tenacious commitment to social justice and through his incisive political writings, but also through his warm, radiant, playful personality. As my mother and sister have said, we have been deeply moved by the outpouring of love and support, the heartfelt condolences and tributes that have been offered to us during this difficult period. It brings us solace to know that Papa is remembered as a humanist, a patriot, and fighter for political freedom and human dignity. I know Papa would have been pleased to see so many of his friends and comrades here today, so many great men and women who have dedicated their strength, mind, and spirit to fight for a Malaysia for Malaysians.
Papa was a wellspring of strength, joy and laughter in our family. He loomed large in our lives; his presence was indelible, his charisma unmistakable. It is difficult for us to think of Papa as being absent from life, for he was always brimming with life. But in the weeks since his passing, I have come to know Papa differently, perhaps more completely, for the totality of one’s life is illuminated only in death. I know that Papa isn’t really absent at all, that he has simply transformed from ephemeral physical existence to a subtle, perennial presence in our lives. And if his spirit is felt among us more powerfully now than ever, it is because Papa lived and died by what he believed in – his uncompromising principles and deep-seated ideals.
The complex layers of Papa’s personal history have revealed themselves to me over time – from his activism with the National Union of Teachers in the 1960s to his years with the Democratic Action Party, to his tireless writing and activism outside formal politics. Papa’s fighting spirit was irrepressible; even in his hours of political defeat and isolation, he remained convinced that political change was both necessary and possible. Papa believed in people and principles, not in ideologies and systems. I think this is why he was so fascinated by history, the narrative of humanity itself. And he felt it his task, as a citizen and writer, to bear witness to history, to the triumphs and follies of his people, of his country and of his time.
Papa’s personal legacy to me is a passion he cultivated in me since childhood, a passion that shaped my life profoundly through young adulthood and continues to this day to mould who I am and how I relate to the world: an undying love of literature. Papa constantly invoked the spirit of the writers he loved most – George Orwell, James Joyce, Albert Camus among other. He imbibed and lived, in his own flesh and blood, the writer’s life: he wrote only by hand, or on his beloved old typewriter, he smoked a pipe in the style of Bertrand Russell, he read voraciously, and his room was a labyrinth of books, newspapers, magazines.
Papa was urged by an intellectual restlessness that is the mark of all true writers. He believed in the power of the written word to encapsulate the interminable drama of the human spirit, of the individual and society. Like his literary hero the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Papa believed that literature was the “living memory of a people”.
Language and politics were inextricably linked for Papa. His commitment to the written word reflected his conviction that writers had a duty to uphold the integrity of language, to employ it as a weapon of truth against a political rhetoric riddled with lies. It was this belief in the ability of language to speak truth to power that urged Papa to read and write to the very end. I imagine Papa now taking his place among his literary heroes; I imagine him engaging in endless conversations (and arguments) with them, in a place beyond space and time, beyond history, beyond language — a place, in the words of the poet, Yehuda Amichai, “where there is time for everything”.
Note: Eulogy by Sdr Fan Yew Teng’s daughter, Pauline, at memorial tribute service for Sdr Fan in Kuala Lumpur on 5th January 2011