Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Khoon -
A Life of Service
Tan Sri Dato' Dr David Tan Chee Khoon, born on 4 March 1919, was a V.I. student at High Street and later at the new V.I. in 1937-1938. He is perhaps the most renowned and respected Malaysian opposition leader of all time. He was also a most selfless doctor, a tireless educationalist, a humble Christian and an avid reader and writer to boot. His two sons — Tan Kee Keong and Tan Kee Kwong - were Victorians (and doctors) as well. The latter was also the V.I. School Captain in 1965 and is now the Deputy Minister for Land and Co-operative Development. Tan Sri was close to his alma mater, and he even attended both the Centenary Countdown and Centenary Dinner in 1993. The following is the story of Tan Sri's inspirational life, extracted from his autobiography, Tan Chee Khoon: From Village Boy To Mr Opposition and from various articles.
ost Malaysians of the post-Tun Hussein Onn generation would have little inkling of the late Tan Chee Khoon, who has been often proclaimed as "the Conscience of the Nation". Most would be aghast to learn that this Conscience, what more a Tan Sri, was the leader of the Opposition during his three Parliamentary terms! But in his own words, 'The voice of dissent is so vital in a parliamentary democracy', a view respected by the former Lord President of the Supreme Court of Malaysia, Tun Suffian Hashim, and many of Chee Khoon's political rivals as well. At various points of his political career, the sterling Chee Khoon would be invited to 'come to tea' to talk about joining the government's ranks. However, firmly believing in the importance of a multi-party democracy, Chee Khoon, with characteristic wit, would retort, 'No thanks, I have enough tea in my own party'.
Many of his life-long qualities he learned through the hard life of his father, Tan Chin Ghee, who had left his homeland, Chan Tow in China for Nanyang (South-East Asia) when he was just 19 in 1898. Chin Ghee was, at various times, a fisherman, a harvester of sweet potatoes and groundnuts, a rickshaw-puller, an earth-mover at an Ampang tin mine, a rubber tapper and an odd-job labourer. He carried 140-kati sacks of rice and animal fodder as a labourer. While others drank and smoked opium, Chin Ghee saved up by eating a simple meal of gruel and vegetables or feeding on rice with salted coconuts and black beans. He would then post his savings back to family in China. Once, on his way back to China, he was even captured by bandits, but was released when they discovered he was only a poor peasant.
Chee Khoon, the second eldest of the family, helped whenever he could. On weekends, he would wake up at 5.30 a.m., help his father feed the animals, cycle five miles estate from their Cheras home to the Sungei Long rubber, return home at 4 p.m. and continue working on the family's vegetable patch and fruit trees. Fifteen hour work days were the norm for father and son, resulting in their bare backs covered with bites from blood-sucking mosquitoes. In later life, even after retirement, Chee Khoon would continue to keep such long hours with little sleep in order to complete his busy schedules.
Every Sunday, the family would attend the Cantonese service at the Methodist Church in town. At night, with no television and radio for entertainment, the Tan children would huddle around their mother, Tay Kim Siew, listening attentively as she enthralled them with stories from the Bible. There was one occasion when Kim Siew allowed her elder brother to mortgage their small land as collateral for his borrowings and even when the loan defaulted, Chee Khoon's forgiving mother never appeared vengeful. On another occasion, when a young mother ran desperately into the family hut with a bleeding infant daughter, Kim Siew promptly applied medicine and dressed the wound, to the relief of the thankful mother. Thus did the young Chee Khoon absorb his mother's Christian values - the importance of constantly having faith and giving thanks to the Creator, and the importance of being forgiving and kind to other people. And most certainly, Chee Khoon was inspired enough by his mother's folk knowledge of medicine to take up medical studies.
Chee Khoon had his early education at the Pudu English Girls' School, before going over to the Victoria Institution on Jalan Bandar. His contemporaries included Ong Yoke Lin (later Tun Omar Ong and a Cabinet minister), Frederick Arulanandom (later a judge, and brother of Ross, a V.I. Queen's Scholar), and Toh Boon Huah (later a redoubtable V.I. Science Master). Later, he transferred to Kajang High School, which was nearer to home, where he remained until 1937. There, voracious reader that he was, he borrowed three, four or even five books at a time from the library and finished them in a week. (Over his lifetime, he subscribed to book lists from overseas and eventually built up a collection of over 5,000 books in his home! His particular passions were history, especially military history, the Middle East history and the Arab-Israeli conflict). Besides reading, Chee Khoon found time at Kajang High School to become a Scout, rising eventually to become a Patrol Leader. He also made many friends, such as Kadir bin Shamsuddin who later became a Tan Sri and Chief Secretary of the Cabinet. When a classmate, Lai Peng Seong, asked him to help him in his preparation for the Senior Cambridge exams in 1936, Chee Khoon very generously invited Peng Seong to live with him in his Cheras home for about three months so that he could coach him. As a result of this selfless act, Chee Khoon himself did not do as well as he had hoped in the Senior Cambridge.
At Kajang High School, Chee Khoon hoped eventually to win the Queen's Scholarship to study medicine in England and communicated his aspirations to the Headmaster, Mr C.E. Gates (who was later to become the V.I. Headmaster). Knowing that a language paper was compulsory in that exam, Mr Gates undertook to teach Latin to Chee Khoon personally. Such was the devotion of Mr Gates that when the Headmaster returned briefly to England on leave, he corresponded with Chee Khoon to ensure that his pupil's progress in Latin was not impeded. With that language requirement fulfilled Chee Khoon joined the V.I. again. There, he became a prefect and an active debater. But his ultimate goal in the V.I. was still the coveted Queen's Scholarship. But, unfortunately for him, in his cohort there was a bright lad named Yap Pow Meng, the grandson of one of the founders of the V.I., Capitan Yap Kwan Seng. Chee Khoon lost out to Pow Meng in the 1938 Queen's Scholarship exam, but fortunately did not leave the V.I. empty-handed. He managed to gain from the V.I. a Victoria Scholarship, worth $25 a month, and a scholarship, worth $50 a month, from the King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore, where he would begin his medical studies.
Later, in his working life, Chee Khoon never forgot the contributions of his various alma maters. For Kajang High School, he would create the Gates Medal - for the top student of the Senior Cambridge Examination in the school - in 1950, and the Tan Chin Ghee Scholarship - for the best scholar in the Fourth Form - in 1955. For the V.I., he would donate a hefty $20,000 in 1983 for a scholarship fund in his name. Dr Tan would also finance many prizes in other schools, such as Tan Chin Ghee Medal in the Methodist Boys' School where he was on the Board of Governors from 1958 to 1989. And not forgetting his mother's 'doctoring' of the local villagers, he would honour her memory by establishing the Tay Kim Siew Scholarship for the top medical student in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya. He once said of such acts: 'The magnates should have a social conscience and help the children of the working class who have gained entry into the universities'. He also urged graduates to start student loan funds 'to repay to society that which they have so abundantly received from society'.
Indeed, Chee Khoon had had a rewarding life as a student at university; which he managed to enter primarily because of the scholarships he received. The King Edward VII College of Medicine through whose portals he first walked as a freshie in July 1939, has produced many eminent graduates of the region including Dato' Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia. One of Chee Khoon's early memories of the College (which eventually became the Faculty of Medicine in the National University of Singapore) was his experience of ragging. When he became President of the Medical College Union, he had to organise the traditional 'Air Raid' by the freshies in the quadrangle of the FMS Hostel, a hostel reserved for students from the Federation. For this, the male freshies had to strip naked and creep into the drain of the quadrangle, remaining there at the pleasure of the Seniors. The principal, Dr G.V. Allen got wind of this plan and summoned Chee Khoon. He allowed the ragging to go on, but reminded Chee Khoon that the students would have to be responsible for any mishaps that occurred. Half a century later, with this lesson vividly remembered, Dr Tan still championed the importance of ragging but only if it was strictly supervised by the seniors and only if extremism on the part of seniors was checked.
But those were not just heady days of wild adventures. Chee Khoon was elected Treasurer of the Medical College's Students' Union in 1947, Vice-President in 1948 and President in 1949. One of his important tasks was to chair a committee charged with drawing up the constitution for the new students' union of the new University of Malaya to be established in Singapore. For that purpose, he consulted with prominent lawyers and government officials and held many meetings, often stretching till midnight, with his fellow students. While Chee Khoon's acumen and mind for detail grew as a result of participating in so many activities, he was merely an average performer in exams. For instance, he was a borderline case in Obstetrics and Gynaecology! Nonetheless he never ignored his studies despite his activeness in leadership activities and social functions, such as the occasional gatherings and dinners for V.I. Old Boys. Chee Khoon had for company V.I. Old Boys such as Keshmahinder Singh (later Dato' Dr and one of the most famous opthalmologists in Malaysia), Hera Singh (an exceedingly gifted cricketer) and Toh Boon Huah. But such fun and frolic ceased when Japanese forces stormed across the Johor Bahru causeway in February 1942.
When war erupted, almost all the medical students were registered with the Medical Auxiliary Service (MAS), helping to dress casualties, transport patients and give medical attention to those in need. On the morning of 14 February, a bomb hit Tan Tock Seng Hospital and injured many, including a student, Yong Tatt Sin. He was immediately brought to the General Hospital for operation but to no avail. As it was decided to bury him that very afternoon, around 21 students, including Chee Khoon, gathered to attend the funeral. Suddenly, artillery fire rained on those present. Some students darted back into the College Building, but Chee Khoon and others were awestruck and stood rooted to the ground. When there was a lull in the fire, Chee Khoon gazed around him and saw that 10 students had lost their lives, including Hera Singh and one Chen Kok Kuang who had his head blown off. Chee Khoon himself had a close brush with death as there was a small shrapnel wound in his left calf; a wound which he would carry for the rest of his life to remind him of that close encounter. Three days after the fall of Singapore on 15 February, described by Sir Winston Churchill as the greatest military disaster for the British in World War Two, Chee Khoon packed up his belongings and cycled back to Kuala Lumpur where he remained during the Japanese Occupation.
After the war, Chee Khoon completed his medical studies and joined a private hospital in Singapore for three months and then served for two years at the General Hospital in Kuala Lumpur. In May 1952, he went into private practice at 329 Batu Road (now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman). As he healed the sick, Chee Khoon derived much inspiration from Oo Peh, his family's sinseh when he was a little boy. Oo Peh would many a time undercharge his patients or even treat them for free. So Chee Khoon himself was also generous in giving free treatment throughout his career. Aware of the importance of communicating well with patients, he even learned Tamil and Punjabi.
Tan Chee Khoon was not rich, but through careful planning and deals with friends and colleagues, he was able to open his own private practice. In the late 1960's, he decided to open a private hospital, the Sentosa Medical Centre, the land for which was granted to him on 13 February 1967 by the Menteri Besar Dato' Harun Idris (another prewar old Victorian). There were other applications for the land from Dato' Harun's own political party members, but Dato' Harun treated all applications on par, including the application from Chee Khoon who was then the leader of the Opposition! In 1972, Sentosa Medical Centre was ready for service, and it was opened by none other than the Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak himself!
Community-minded as he was, Chee Khoon served as a member of the Council of the University of Malaya from the mid-1950's until 1978. One early battle he faced was over the tender for the Science Building. A Council member had insisted that the tender be given to the second lowest offer, but Chee Khoon's investigations revealed that this Council member actually had a personal interest in that tender and he later had to resign from the Council's Tender Board. Chee Khoon also made his mark in the selection of Faculty Deans. For the Professor of Economics post, he put up a strong fight for Dr Ungku Aziz, against Professor Silcock, much to the chagrin of the expatriates on the Selection Board. Chee Khoon won and the phenomenal contributions of his choice, Dr Ungku Aziz (later Royal Professor), are history too well-known to be repeated here.
There were similar scenarios in the selection of the Professor of Physics and Professor of Medicine. In each case, Chee Khoon succeeded in convincing the Council to select Dr Thong Saw Pak and Dr T.J. Danaraj (later Tan Sri) to the respective positions. During Professor Danaraj's tenure, the General Medical Council of the UK had no qualms in giving recognition to the M.B.B.S. programme. Indeed, Tan Chee Khoon was a man of keen foresight, and helped lift the standards of the university to those of an internationally respected institution. As a result, he was elected as Vice-Chairman of Council of the University of Malaya in 1967 and Chair in 1971. At the end of his chairmanship, Chee Khoon was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws (LLD) by the Chancellor, the Raja Permaisuri Agong, Sultanah of Kedah.
Perhaps Chee Khoon is most remembered by Malaysians for his role as 'Mr Opposition'. To date, he is the only Opposition member to have been awarded a 'Tan Sri', such was the high regard in which he was held by the Government and by Parliament. Chee Khoon first ventured into politics when he was persuaded by his friend, Lee Moke Sang, to join the KL Branch of the Labour Party of Malaya in 1952. Few know now that Tan Chee Khoon helped the Labour Party to prepare submissions, along with those from other parties, to the Reid Commission which was charged with drafting the constitution for a new, independent Malaya. Among those helping him in that historic task was Yong Pung How (an Old Victorian and now Chief Justice of Singapore). Chee Khoon became Labour Party Chairman of the KL Branch in 1956, Chairman of the Selangor Branch in 1959 and National Vice-Chairman in 1959. But in all those years, he never contested in elections because he felt that one's goal is not to gain quick promotion, but to serve the people, and to serve the people well, one must first have to learn and be very good at what he is doing. Only in 1964 did he finally contest his first seat. He won the Federal seat of Batu, and held it for the three terms. He also contested in the State elections, and won the seat of Kepong between 1964 and 1978. In that time, he also helped found the Gerakan Party, with people like Dr (now Tun) Lim Chong Eu and Professor Wang Gung-Wu. Later, in 1971, he helped found the Parti Keadilan Malaysia (PEKEMAS). But starting new ventures does not make a statesman. Rather, it is what one does with those ventures that determines the worth of that person.
In Parliament, Chee Khoon strongly maintained that the Constitution was not an instrument to be tampered with. He recognised that the Alliance party in the Government would always have the numbers to amend the Constitution, but still he rallied against such an exercise. Also, he constantly reminded Parliament that the founding fathers had enshrined in the Constitution that Malaysia was to be a secular, not religious state. As such, religious freedoms and cultural differences could not be elevated one above the other, aside from during official state functions where Islam is the official religion of the state. He always had the interests of the poor at heart, and often lambasted policies for economic growth which would severely hurt the poor and result in unequal distribution of gains between the rich and poor. In fact, Chee Khoon carefully avoided the ivory tower of politics and always kept in touch with the grassroots by always being at his office at least two days a week, for his constituents to drop in and talk to him. After Chee Khoon retired from politics in August 1977, he continued to champion his principles by writing his popular column Without Fear Or Favour in The Star newspaper.
Nonetheless Chee Khoon was clear that the role of the Opposition was not to oppose per se. Hence, he backed the Prime Minister in the affirmative action of the National Economic Policy which created more places for Malays in the education and commercial sectors. In his words, it was 'a necessity to give a handicap to the less advantaged. But this should not continue "ad infinitum" and must be properly used'. He also strongly supported the National Language Policy, but cautioned against extremist fervour lest the strong foundations of English in Malaysia be eroded. And in his autobiography, Chee Khoon has fine words for people like Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak, Tun Dr Ismail, Tun Tan Siew Sin and Tun V.T. Sambanthan. Sure he had clashed verbally with them many a time, but he knew that praise must be given where it was deserved.
Chee Khoon served the community in countless other ways. In the medical sector, he has been an active member of the Malaysian Medical Association (elected as its President in 1967). He also served on the Boards of Managers and Boards of Governors in many schools such as Batu Road School, the Methodist Boys' School and of course his alma maters, the V.I. and Kajang High School. Realising that he had the interest of the young generation at heart, the Government appointed him to the Higher Education Council (later the Higher Education Advisory Council) which formulated education policies for universities. Very importantly, Chee Khoon never forgot his duty to the church. A Methodist, he faithfully attended Mass with his family and served the Wesley Church on its Official Board from 1953. At various times, he became Lay Leader, Chairman of the Commission for Stewardship and Finance, and also representative at various international events. In short, he was a busy man. Once he was asked how he found the time to indulge in his life's passion - reading - given that by the 1980's, he had accumulated over 5,000 books in his private library. 'At night sometimes, and during weekends' was his reply. It seems that the 24-hour day applied to all of us human beings except Tan Chee Khoon!
Yet, Tan Chee Khoon was no superhuman. When he was 13 years old, he was attempting to carve his name on a rubber tree, using a tapping knife. While trying to carve the straight limb of the letter D, he must have applied too much force and the next thing he knew was that the knife, which, of course, had a very sharp cutting edge, had been plunged into his left eye. Sadly, Chee Khoon lost the use of that eye from then on. At various junctures in his life, this handicap threatened to hamper his progress. When he first applied to the College of Medicine, his application was rejected because of that handicap. Were it not for the intervention of the Headmaster, Mr C.E. Gates, and his eye surgeon, he would probably not have been accepted.
Fortunately Chee Khoon did rise above that handicap, and the many other obstacles that he encountered on his life's journey which ended on October 1996. Many Malaysians are the better for him. It may be the poor makcik on Batu Road whose son was cured from malaria and was given free treatment because the family could not afford it. It may be the recipient of the Tan Chin Ghee Scholarship who, as a result, could finally afford to study at university. But undoubtedly, Tan Chee Khoon has touched the hearts of many Malaysians. Perhaps this story from 1964 sums it up best. At a customs checkpoint at the Singapore railway station, Chee Khoon paid a duty of $25 levied on his goods. As he was walking to the train, he noticed, to his horror, that the receipt noted '$3'. So he went back to the officer to point out the error, but the officer blandly insisted that he had only paid $3. 'You watch out', said Chee Khoon. Upon his return to Kuala Lumpur, Chee Khoon reported the incident to the Minister of Finance. Many years later, when Chee Khoon was eating at a restaurant, a man approached him, shook his hand and thanked him. 'For what?' asked Tan Chee Khoon. 'I was the Customs Officer whom you reported in 1964', said the man. 'I was transferred in 24 hours. You put the fear of God into all of us'.
He has run the race, he has fought the good fight, he has kept the faith - Tan Sri Dato' Dr Tan Chee Khoon was truly the Conscience of the Nation.
Last update on 27 February 2006.