MCA veteran Tan Sri Lim Ah Lek has a record which not many party politicians can claim – the silver-haired retired politician has served under Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak as a state executive councillor and beside him as a Cabinet colleague.
There’s another accolade, Ah Lek was recruited into politics by Tun Abdul Razak, the former premier and father of the present Prime Minister.
“I can still remember clearly that fateful day – Aug 5, 1974 – my late father (businessman Tan Sri Lim Eng) had called me up. He was in the foulest mood that I have ever seen.
“Shouting at me, over the phone, in Cantonese, he was upset that I had let down the PM.
“He said I was being disrespectful,” he says.
A day earlier, a senior aide of Razak had met Alex, as Ah Lek is affectionately called, for three hours at a local hotel to persuade him, who was then an active Red Cross leader with strong links to the Chinese guilds and associations, to enter politics.
Disappointingly, the aide had to report to the PM that he had failed in his mission to persuade Ah Lek to be a politician and to wrest back the then Bandar Kuantan state seat from Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia.
Not one to give up, Razak then took it upon himself to call up Lim Eng, an old friend, to end the impasse with a swift move.
The distinguished looking Ah Lek, who is now 73, recalls:
“As a filial son, I had no choice. I had to respect my father. It was decided, with no more arguments, that I should become a politician.”
As fate would have it, Ah Lek ended up serving under Najib who became the Pahang MB from 1982 to 1986.
Najib was earlier elected as an MP in 1976 at the age of 23, replacing his deceased father in the Pekan parliamentary.
Says Ah Lek: “He was 29 years old and I was then 40 years old and serving my third term as a state exco member.”
Ah Lek tells he wants to share his experiences on Najib to fill up the gaps in history, which needs to be recorded, as Najib marks his 40 years in politics.
He adds that there were many decisions made by Najib that had benefitted Chinese education, but were little known, and as a result, Najib was sometimes a misunderstood man.
“I am not here to suck up to Najib. I am a retired man and I don’t need any rewards or awards from him or the government.
“I just want the people, especially the Chinese community, to know this man better,” he says.
The biggest decision Najib made as Education Minister was to give up his power – as then provided for under Section 21(2) of the Education Act 1961 – to close down Chinese schools and convert them to national schools, Ah Lek highlights.
“He voluntarily gave up that authority and removed the uncertainties that used to hang above the heads of the Chinese community.
“The irony is that many young Chinese, who don’t know the nation’s history, have idolised Anwar Ibrahim not knowing that when he was education minister, he rejected the community’s call to remove that power.
“In fact, he also directed all state education departments to allocate land reserved for schools to national schools only. His most controversial act was to send non-Chinese speaking headmasters to Chinese schools.
“He will be remembered as the education minister who publicly announced that he was giving only RM10 to Chinese schools.
“These are not made up by me. They were well reported in the media.
“The young just need to Google and check what I have said. In fact, he also reportedly ordered the crosses in mission schools to be removed.”
In another case during Najib’s tenure as MB, says Ah Lek, the Maran MCA division had run into a snag when a piece of land, meant for a low-cost housing project, ended up as a Malay reserve land.
“That meant that the Chinese and other races would never be able to build any homes. When they applied for that land, it was not a Malay reserve land.
“I took the matter to Najib and showed him the facts.
“He immediately called up the district officer and was told that it had indeed been gazetted as a Malay reserve land.
“He apologised and said he would work out a compromise, and the land was eventually partially returned to non-Malays to continue building the low-cost homes,” Ah Lek said.
Ah Lek says Najib had acted swiftly and fairly despite being a young MB who had to face the wrath of the local Malay politicians and voters, but he always believed in the politics of consensus.
“Najib, as a MB then, sought my views on how best to resolve this issue as a senior member of exco.
“I suggested to de-gazatte and apportion 30% as non-Malay land so that other races can apply.
“Najib instructed me to write in officially. I did the appeal letter and submitted it to Najib the next day. Najib very swiftly approved the appeal the very same day.
Ah Lek wanted the Chinese community to know that Najib, as MB, created a RM2mil allocation specifically for the 49 Chinese new villages in the state.
“It had never been done before.
“He was the first. He stated clearly that the money was for development in new villages,” he says.
Adds Ah Lek, Najib also converted the temporary occupation licensed (TOL) land owned by Chinese farmers into a 99-year-old leasehold land at 50 sen per sq ft.
“We are talking about a young MB here, just 29 years old, but it didn’t deter him from making the bold decisions to help the Chinese in a Malay majority state.”
The former MCA deputy president says that when he decided not to seek re-election in the 1999 general election, he had gone on to complete some unfinished business for Chinese schools, which he was entrusted by the MCA to handle despite his English education background.
“Our offices at Pusat Bandar Damansara (where the ministries were then located) were just next to each other. I was Human Resources Minister and he was Education Minister.
“I had announced my retirement and had spoken about going on holiday.
“It was the eve of nomination and his office was packed with party supporters and workers. It was standing room only.
“But he had time for me. I went to see him, holding a memorandum, prepared by (Datuk Seri) Liow Tiong Lai (his then political secretary) to appeal for 16 new Chinese schools to be newly approved or to be relocated.
“It had been left unattended because of bureaucracy. He looked at the list, one by one, and put his signature as approval for every application.
“With a stroke, he approved the largest number of Chinese schools – 16 schools got new approval and relocation.
“It was unprecedented and all done in 20 minutes. He then looked at me and asked if there was anything more.
“Taking the opportunity, I realised that on the way to see Najib, I had encountered a group of people from the prominent Foon Yew independent school in Johor Baru, who was desperate to see him to get approval for an extension. It was actually more of a branch school.
“I told Najib that if he would also kindly approved that extension. He took out his pen again, scribbled on the same memorandum and approved it.
“When I left his office, I told the waiting group of Foon Yew officials that there was no need for them to see Najib as he had also approved their school extension. You should have seen the joy on their faces.
“The move for a branch Chinese school was also an unprecedented decision, initiated by Najib.”
Ah Lek believes it is important that these decisions are made known to the public so that they can appreciate Najib’s term as an MB.
“Politics is about perception, rightly or wrongly.
“Often, an outspoken politician is perceived as a hero even though he talks more than he contributes.
“He may have zero contribution, but because of his rhetoric, those who actually helped develop Chinese education are not recognised or worse, dismissed with scorn.
“Emotions often take over rationality.
“With a shrinking population, I pray that the Chinese voters would re-assess their political thinking and vote cleverly and strategically.
“We can still retain our political clout, even with our smaller numbers, if we are able to place ourselves cleverly, or else, our clout will be greatly reduced along with our shrinking numbers if we live by wishful thinking without being politically realistic.”
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