A recollection of Lee Kuan Yew and the man who fell from grace as the President of Singapore.
THE late Devan Nair Chengara Veetil, more commonly known as C.V. Devan Nair, was once a close comrade of the late Lee Kuan Yew who ended up as a disgraced, bitter foe.
Since Lee’s demise on Monday, much has been written about the Asian giant who is credited with building the city-state to what it is today, and more tributes are expected to flow until his funeral on Sunday.
One could speculate over what Nair might say if he were alive. But some 28 years ago, he did say, in my presence, that despite what Lee had done to him, he was “still fond of him”. Well, he used a not-so-polite term to describe Lee and the words still ring clear today.
As Ambrose Bierce defines in his Devil’s Dictionary, a eulogy is praise of a person who has either the advantages of wealth and power, or the consideration to be dead.
Like most people, much of what I know about LKY is based on what I have read about him.
However, a bizarre tryst with Nair on July 29, 1987, when I was The Star’s correspondent in Malacca, provided some interesting insights.
The meeting with the man, who had fallen into ignominy from the exalted position as Singapore’s head of state two years earlier, was totally unexpected.
It was the birthday of my friend Kerk Kim Hock, the former secretary-general of the DAP, who was then a first-term assemblyman for Durian Daun.
We had planned to go out at 8pm but DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang, who was then MP for Tanjung, called and asked me to go to his house in Taman Sinn, Ujong Pasir.
I told him about my plans with Kerk, but he said he had also told him to come along.
“It’s a surprise,” I remember him saying.
It was indeed.
A smiling Nair greeted us. He and Lim were halfway through a bottle of XO brandy and both looked quite inebriated.
“Tonight, you can ask him anything you want. He has promised to tell all,” said Lim.
Nair, who was born in Malacca, started by recalling the fond memories of his childhood in Jasin where his father was a clerk in a rubber estate and went on to his early days as a teacher and unionist.
He spoke about how he joined the People’s Action Party in 1954 and his long relationship with LKY, who started out in politics as legal adviser to a group of unionists and socialists who were detained by the British.
Among those jailed in 1956 were Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, James Puthucheary and Samad Ismail.
Nair recalled his role in persuading his left-leaning colleagues to be committed to the policies of the PAP, as requested by LKY before the 1959 election.
The PAP won and they did get out of jail and Nair became political secretary to the Minister of Education.
But he quit as tensions rose between leaders in the right and left wings of the party.
Nair also spoke about his role in the setting up of the National Trades Union Congress and involvement in PAP’s expansion across the Johor Strait.
In the 1964 general election, the first after the formation of Malaysia, he won the Bandar parliamentary constituency, to become the PAP’s sole MP in the peninsula.
When the separation with Singapore came a year later, Nair stayed back to serve his constituents and founded the DAP in 1966 with several others, including Dr Chen Man Hin and the late Chan Kok Kit.
It is not often highlighted, but Nair was the first secretary-general of the DAP. It was he who persuaded Lim, who was then a journalist in Singapore, to join the party.
LKY recalled Nair to Singapore and was quoted as saying years later: “It was not a lack of courage that made him leave Kuala Lumpur. The Cabinet decided that Singapore-Malaysia relations would always be bedevilled if Devan Nair remained as a DAP leader.”
He returned as the first secretary-general of NTUC and in 1979 when he was president of the council, he contested and won the Anson parliamentary constituency.
Two years later, he was told to resign from the seat to become Singapore’s President, a position he stressed that he never wanted but he complied anyway.
Nair became most animated when talking about the circumstances which led to his resignation – his alleged alcohol-induced misbehaviour during an official state visit to Sarawak.
In short, he said what was done to him was a grave injustice and he was bitter about the gross character assassination that he and his family had to endure.
That’s when he said, with tears welling in his eyes: “Despite what has been done to me, at moments like this, I’m still fond of him”.
But the story then came to an abrupt end because a glass was accidentally knocked over the table and Nair ended up stepping on a fragment.
It was a surreal scene. Lim was holding on to Nair’s right foot and blood was oozing from a deep cut on his sole.
We stood there helplessly and were thinking about taking him to the nearest clinic but he declined.
Lim’s wife eventually bandaged his foot and the bleeding stopped.
On the way back, I recall laughing over the famous joke about LKY: Kuan Yin is the Goddess of Mercy but Kuan Yew is the God of No Mercy.
A year later, Nair gave a detailed version of his side of the story in an open letter to the Straits Times.
Among other things, Nair, who passed away in Canada in 2005 at the age of 82, wrote: “What is it that you are afraid of, and that impelled you to such a massive public exercise in the total denigration of a comrade of nearly 30 years?”
“All my comrades in party, trade unions and government, including you, have always known me (you often extolled me), as a highly moral man over nearly three decades of intimate comradeship in a common struggle for a common cause – the building of a nation.”
“How does a clearly transient condition transform me overnight into a hopeless alcoholic, womaniser, wife-beater, among other lurid depictions of depravity?”
> M. Veera Pandiyan likes this famous quote by Napoleon Bonaparte: Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.
>The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.