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Tuesday July 19, 2011

James Wong dies

KUCHING: Sarawak lost its Grand Old Man of Politics when former Deputy Chief Minister and one-time longest-serving politician Datuk Amar James Wong Kim Min passed away yesterday.

Wong, 89, suffered a sudden heart attack and was rushed to Normah Medical Specialist Centre at about 10am, where he died shortly after. He leaves behind his wife Datin Valerie Bong and eight children – five daughters and three sons – as well as 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Wong played an instrumental role in the formation of Malaysia as a member of the Sarawak delegation in the Malaysia Solidarity Consultative Committee in 1962, a precursor to the Inter-Governmental Committee that led to the nation’s birth a year later.

He would later say that he supported the idea of Malaysia from its early stages and even risked his life to get the people’s support for the formation of the new country.

“The Indonesian rebels were after me as Ketua Malaysia because I supported Sarawak joining the proposed Federation of Malaysia,” he explained in one interview, adding that he had to hide in the jungle to avoid the rebels.

Born on Aug 6, 1922, in Limbang, Wong began his political career as a member of the Limbang District Council in 1951, when Sarawak was still under British colonial rule.

He was elected to the Council Negri (now State Legislative Assembly) in 1956, a position he held until 2001 when he did not seek re-election.

With nearly 50 years in the legislative body, he was the state’s longest-serving assemblyman.

When Sarawak gained independence through Malaysia in 1963, Wong became the state’s first Deputy Chief Minister in the inaugural eight-man Cabinet headed by then Sarawak National Party (SNAP) president Tan Sri Stephen Kalong Ningkan.

In 1966, SNAP pulled out of the Alliance government and became an opposition party. Standing on the SNAP ticket, Wong won the Miri-Lubis seat in the 1969 general election and was appointed opposition leader in Parliament in 1974.

However, he spent the next couple of years in detention under the Internal Security Act. He later documented his experience in the Kamunting detention centre in a book entitled The Price of Loyalty.

SNAP later rejoined Barisan Nasional and Wong continued to serve as an assemblyman and minister in the state Cabinet.

He was Environment and Tourism Minister from 1987 to 1994, Environment and Housing Minister from 1995 to 1997 and Environment and Public Health Minister from 1998 to 2001. He was conferred the prestigious Langkawi Award in 2001 for his contribution to environmental protection, including launching a reefball project and satellite tracking system to increase the population of sea turtles.

Wong also became SNAP’s third president in 1981.

Unfortunately, he saw party leaders like Tan Sri Leo Moggie and Datuk Seri Daniel Tajem leaving SNAP to form Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak.

Another leadership struggle saw SNAP deregistered by the Registrar of Societies (ROS) in 2002.

Following a stay of the deregistration by the Court of Appeal, Wong stepped down as president in 2003.

The ROS decision was eventually set aside by the Court of Appeal last year.

By then, Wong was already enjoying a quiet retirement, during which he published a new book entitled Memories of Speeches at the Council Negri and the third edition of The Birth of Malaysia.

Wong was also a poet and published several collections of his poems including A Special Breed (1981), Shimmering Moonbeams (1983), Buy a Little Time (1989) and Beautiful Butterfly (2009).

When Sept 16 was declared a public holiday last year, Wong saw it as a dream come true.

“It is my hope that Malaysia Day will be celebrated every Sept 16. People should remember it because it’s a historic occasion,” he told reporters during a book launch last year.

Wong will be laid to rest in his hometown of Limbang in accordance to his request.

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