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The writer behind the politician

by Margaret Apau. Posted on July 24, 2011, Sunday

UNDER the light of a kerosene lamp, William Wong Tsap En typed a letter to his children, where, among other pieces of advice for them, particularly James, were love, hope, and maybe a father’s natural trepidation for their future.

BUILDING A NATION: The MSCC meeting in Kuala Lumpur on January 6, 1962. The Sarawak delegation comprised (from left) Dato Abang Haji Openg, Temenggong Jugah Barieng, Ong Kee Hui, Yeo Cheng Hoe, Ling Beng Siew, Wong, Montegrai Tugang and Remiguis Durin Nganau.

“No joke to take my place – one must know quite a lot and have some grit and courage to gantee [replace] me. You will have to learn much arithmetic, little surveying, chemistry and booking, and carpentering and little engineering &c. No joke, James, to be a man. Not easy at all,” he typed on a portable Underwood typewriter.

Datuk Amar James Wong Kim Min’s introduction to his book No Joke, James begins with this memory of his father typing the first of many such letters to him and his siblings in the pre-dawn hours on June 21, 1935.

Until his father’s untimely death in 1945 at the hands of the Japanese Kampeitei, Wong would have learnt many things from him, among them honour in hard and honest labour, humility, compassion and never passing on a chance to instruct.

And so it was with Wong and many of his writings throughout his lifetime. Whether it was a recollection of his childhood in Limbang, his role in the formation of Malaysia in The Birth of Malaysia, his detention without trial by Sarawak’s Preservation of Public Security Regulations and Internal Security Act in The Price of Loyalty or Memories of speeches made at the Council Negri (from the Hansard) 1960-2001, Wong wrote to share, and often times, enlighten.

Wong was already a member of the Sarawak Council Negri in 1956 when the state was still under British colonial rule. It was only natural that the then young rising star in the state’s politics was chosen to be one of the pioneer members of the Council when Sarawak achieved independence through the formation of Malaysia in 1963.

Of the formation of Malaysia, Wong was compelled to write in the introductory chapter to The Birth of Malaysia, aptly titled, Lest We Forget, that “WE DID NOT ENTER MALAYSIA BUT WE FORMED MALAYSIA TOGETHER WITH NORTH BORNEO (NOW SABAH), SINGAPORE AND MALAYA.”

At the time of his writing 30 years after the formation of Malaysia, he was the remaining member of the Sarawak delegation in the Malaysia Solidarity Consultative Committee (MSCC) formed in 1962.

“There were skepticisms and doubts of sincerity on our long-term position in Malaysia,” he wrote of their initial apprehensions.

Sarawak, at the time, was seen as a poor state with low economic potential.

“These were typified by what the late Temenggong Jugah (later Tun Jugah), the Paramount Chief of the Ibans, used to repeat in Iban: Anang Malaysia sebaka tebu, manis dipohon, tawal  dihujung — which means Malaysia should not be like the sugar cane, sweet at the head and  getting less and less sweet towards the end.

At the time, Wong described Sarawak’s independence within Malaysia as a Hobson’s ‘take it or leave it’ choice motivated by the following factors:

* We did not have the expertise, experience and maturity to run the country if we were independent by ourselves;

* We were short of financial resources;

* The CCO threat;

* The Indonesia Soekarno threat;

* We had confidence in Singapore and Malaya and Sabah since we all had the same Legislative System and government and were English speaking, and therefore had much in common.

Once the MSCC had made the decision to federate, the Inter- Governmental Committee (IGC) was formed to discuss and draft the terms and conditions of the Malaysia Constitution.

To convince Sarawakians to accept Malaysia then, the MSCC strenuously emphasised the need to put in entrenched clauses on special autonomy rights.

“If they were not properly written and recorded, then we could not convince our people to accept Malaysia, in which case, Malaysia would be a non-starter. Now, 47 years after the formation of Malaysia, I am sure we are all delighted to note that the sugar cane is still sweet,” Wong noted in an article he wrote for The Borneo Post’s Malaysia Day supplement last year.

Even though he was cast in an opposition role by events in 1966, Wong remained politically active. From 1970 to 1974 he was a member of the Malaysian Parliament and the official Leader of the Opposition.

Of this role, Wong claimed in Price of Loyalty that he was not an oppositionist by nature but said : “When my party (SNAP) was thrust into opposition, I continued to do my best because it would have been tantamount to treachery not to. One cannot reasonably claim to believe in parliamentary democracy only when in government! If electoral or other processes cast one in an opposition role, then one must accept it and play it to the full, as a member of the loyal Opposition, even if it should lead, as in my case, to detention.”

Only in this way, he added, could parliamentary democracy survive.

As a result of his activity at both state and federal levels, he was detained at Kamunting in Taiping, Perak in 1974-76, a total of 15 months in detention without trial on trumped up charges of disloyalty as described in his book The Price of Loyalty, published on Malaysia’s 20th anniversary. He also had to undergo a period of restricted residence in Limbang until 1977.

His detention and incarceration saw tragedy, drama, and some lighter moments but, as some lighter moments during his detention revealed, pathos soon followed as in the case of Rahim, a black and white cat that kept him and his fellow inmates company for two months until it was caught and eaten by inmates from another ‘kawasan’ on the compound.

“If this book helps to stir the conscience of those in authority and bring about reforms to ensure that the innocent do not suffer injustice through wrongful imprisonment, then I shall have achieved my goal,” Wong wrote.

A week since his own death at 89 years old, the candidness with which he wrote his memoirs makes them all the more bitter sweet.

He wrote two books of poems titled A Special Breed and Shimmering Moonbeams, dedicating them both to his wife Datin Amar Valerie Bong, his family and friends.

In them are the humorous musings of a man moving into his golden years, his love for his wife in Lady of Contradiction and Understanding Wife, his country and hometown, politics, golf and some personal reflections on The Distant Shore and The Tragedy of Growing Old, a poem in which he asks: “Why can’t life be always joy and laughter and happiness and friendship last forever?”

At the time of writing, the seven-term Limbang assemblyman will have been buried at the family cemetery at Jalan Pandaruan, 48 years after his appointment as the state’s first Deputy Chief Minister.

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