SIM Kwang Yang, the three-term opposition member of parliament for Bandar Kuching, recently died of an apparent heart attack. He was 66.
Despite his relative youth, he was a larger-than-life political figure from another era, more than capable of holding his own as a lone-wolf opposition figure from Sarawak at a time when little was expected of opposition parliamentarians except, well, opposing.
That role suited Sim’s inclinations, born poor and with an abiding lifelong ambition to speak out for those underprivileged like he once was.
Sim Kwang Yang, the former three-term MP for Bandar Kuching, left DAP to join PKR.
A brooding, if somewhat frustrated philosopher, he was an idealist and a dreamer.
But after spending the bulk of his political career with DAP and reaching the pinnacle of that party’s decision-making organs, Sim had a falling-out with the party leadership and quit the party. He was no longer MP then but that decision, from a towering political figure who was instrumental in having DAP branch out east, was still monumental. Still, he preferred to not lash out publicly over his reasoning for quitting.
Sim joined PKR despite musing publicly about the trustworthiness of its de facto leader, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
If Anwar had issued any public tribute on Sim’s death, this writer has not seen it.
The trouble with politics in these parts is that it can often be too disturbingly unyielding and righteous. Much is made of some political individuals whom, it was said, wanted to make a real difference by reforming politics from within government by joining Umno, for example.
Anwar purveyed that about his controversial entry into Umno.
The beauty of that line is that he can now argue that the “system” failed him rather than the other way round. A few others followed but left as well, always in a predictable huff about the impossibility of attempting reform from within.
But the fact remains that some leaders of impeccable conscience and integrity joined PKR and DAP and fell out rather dramatically as well. Unfortunately for some of these, less than honourable and unfounded motivations were imputed to them where none was heaped on those who left “governing” parties even when the “opposition” parties are now governing in several states.
We impoverish ourselves and our politics if we impute sinister motives only to those who left the parties we prefer. Parties may or may not be beyond reform and redemption but their leaders, including those who chose to leave, are all but only human.
Recent weeks also saw the passing of another exemplary regional public figure whom this writer was privileged to have some association with.
Vicente Paterno was 89 when he died. Throughout his long life and almost right till the very end, he had been a notable Filipino public servant, a senator of the Philippine Congress and a regional statesman. Paterno served Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos as his trade and later public works secretary (minister).
Few cared to know that the almost evil genius of Marcos, who was elected president in 1966 but later declared martial law so he could stay on till his overthrow in 1986, had been his cunning ability to persuade individuals of great personal integrity such as Paterno and Cesar Virata, who served as the only prime minister the Philippines ever knew, to enter public service.
In later years, Paterno was to regret not having quit Marcos’ cabinet sooner but rationalised that by saying that had he quit earlier, he was not certain that his appointed replacement would have been made of similar moral fibre to keep ensuring the department he headed was reasonably upright in a highly corrupt administration.
Paterno was prevailed upon by Marcos’ successor, president Corazon Aquino, to enter politics and win a seat in the Philippine Senate.
Upon retirement from public life, he built up a chain of 7-Eleven stores in the Philippines and was that rare elder statesman involved in the early years of the Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines — East Asean Growth Area, out of a sense of calling that long-neglected Mindanao deserved better.
Paterno is an inspiring example of how even a leader can make much of a difference to his country working through an imperfect, even corrupt, system.
Sim and Paterno were cut of different cloth and made their own contributions to their countries but alas, one wishes there were more leaders in their mould.