"Where the mind is without fear: A Tribute to my beloved father"
FAN YEW TENG
I was at my father’s side when he passed away peacefully on 7 December 2010, at Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand. He had been diagnosed with advanced cancer at the same hospital almost exactly a year ago. Finding words after the loss of one’s beloved father is one of the hardest things to do. And yet, our family has been receiving a healing river of words from near and far, from my father’s many friends and men and women whose lives he had touched through his life. These words have brought us comfort through our grief, and for this we are deeply grateful.
My father was a blessing, an inspiration and an absolute joy. He was deeply loving and devoted to our family. While he had a tendency to sometimes be protective as a father, he was also persistently provocative, incessantly reminding my sister and I to live boldly, to never be afraid of pushing boundaries in the name of our principles and dreams.
Since we were very young, Papa was our principal source of cultural exposure and civilizational education. He introduced us to the music of Edith Piaf and Om Kalsom, the writings of Rabindranath Tagore and Hannah Arendt.
His mind was epic and encyclopedic, philosophical and poetic; his historical memory as impressive as his passion for justice was inextinguishable. The shelves, tables and floors of his bedroom and study were always overflowing with books, the walls adorned with portraits of his many heroes— Bertrand Russell, Frantz Fanon, Leo Tolstoy, George Orwell, and Nelson Mandela.
Papa’s deep humanism shaped us from an early age, as did the context into which our lives unfolded. Because he and my mother raised us in an intellectually-, politically- and socially-engaged household, we were exposed early on both to humanity’s creativity and promise, as well as the realities of oppression and injustice.
Papa was through and through a public intellectual. Like the philosophers of Ancient Greece, Papa believed that the hallmark of the citizen was versatility in knowledge and a constant striving for the advancement of one’s political community. He disdained material wealth and believed that, in the words of the Stoic philosopher Seneca,
“it is the mind which makes men rich”. He was deeply concerned with the dilemmas of his time, first and foremost in Malaysia, but also internationally. He was fearless and fiercely independent, preferring to stand outside society’s institutions to raise ethical questions and critique from a position of total impartiality.
As we were growing up, we would spend hours with Papa taking long walks around Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh, visiting his favourite second-hand bookshops and coffee-shops, listening to stories of his old schoolmates at Brinsford Lodge, teaching in Kuala Lipis and Tanah Merah, the spirited years with the DAP, and his epic land and sea journey from Port Klang to Madras and New Delhi, through Afghanistan, Iran, and Yugoslavia to join our mother in Cambridge in 1975. Papa would often read us drafts of his articles, fresh off the carriage of his beloved manual typewriter, and these were the primary source of our education on local and international politics.
He would also involve us in many of his anti-war campaigns, from his mobilization against the Gulf War, to peace and solidarity activities for Bosnia, East Timor, and Sri Lanka. Papa’s tireless solidarity with struggles for justice and democracy around the world deeply influenced my own work on peace, human rights and international humanitarian law, as it was he who taught me that each of us has a responsibility to speak up against injustice in every manifestation, wherever we may encounter it. When I began working with refugees from Aceh in 1999, Papa was strongly supportive, always ready to participate in a campaign, or to offer me strategic advice and lessons in political history, just as he was when my work later took me to Burma and Haiti.
Even as he mastered the power of the spoken and written word, Papa also grew increasingly to respect the power of the sacred word and prayer. In this sense, he also became a spiritual mentor, whose daily practice taught us in a very direct way the meaning of faith. Until his last days he would make sure that he said a prayer of safe passage for us each time we travelled, even while he was bed-ridden over the past few months. Throughout his illness, Papa would continue to be more concerned by the suffering of others than his own. One day, just a few days after undergoing an operation, he told me, “My dearest, I have seen a world with endless possibilities of freedom, to which most people remain blind. The world would be a better place if people would help to set each other free. Please go and help them.” Even at the heights of his sickness, he never complained about his own condition; he only regretted that his illness limited his ability to defend those still suffering from oppression.
I know that I will always miss each and every moment that we shared together. But what I will certainly miss most are the moments of quiet simplicity, when words were not necessary:
- The mornings when I awoke to find him seated at the garden table, glowing in the gentle sunlight, whistling to the birds who were his constant companions;
- Resting my head upon his chest, feeling his hand stroke my hair gently, knowing that we would protect each other forever;
- Silently watching him each day with the deepest esteem as he would light a tea-candle at the altar in our home, lowering his head in prayer for our family and for the world.
With each day since Papa’s passing, I am coming to realize that surviving the death of a loved one is not about being left behind by the one who has died. Rather, it constitutes the binding of the living and dead to each other, and to the past, present and future, through a continuous act of love. “Survival”, in the words of the late philosopher Jacques Derrida,
“is at once the essence, the origin, and the possibility… (it is) the life beyond life, the life that is more than life… the most intense life possible.”I miss Papa more than words could ever express. But I know that he is free, that he is at peace, and that he is in the heart of God. We know that he is, and always will be, present with us—protecting, guiding and loving us at every moment. To have had him as a father has been my greatest honour; to be his daughter, my greatest joy. It is with profound reverence that we, his children, inherit his vision and dreams, and assume the responsibility of keeping his legacy alive.
I know it would have been Papa’s hope that every one of us to continue working towards a Malaysian Malaysia, a nation founded on justice, democracy, and accountability to each and every one of its citizens, compassionate to those who seek refuge upon our shores, a model of pluralism in an increasingly divided world.
He would have wanted each of us to keep fighting against the blatant inequality and discrimination that have been so entrenched in our legal, political, social and economic institutions; to resist and uproot the decay in our political culture; to keep on walking the long road to justice and true independence. To become a nation, in the words of Rabindranath Tagore:
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”
Let us keep this dream alive; let the struggle continue.
Note: Eulogy by Sdr Fan Yew Teng’s daughter, Lilianne, at memorial tribute services for Sdr Fan in Kuala Lumpur on 5th January 2011 and in Ipoh on 6th January 2011