Remembered for his commitment to virtue and his uncompromising character, Fan Yew Teng lived a life that empowered others through knowledge, inspired them through his action, and lead them with boldness and humility when asked. As with many heroic figures, his story is packed with incidents of courage, risk and compassion that were never boasted about. Here are some of the heroic actions and decisions we have heard.
Born May 12, 1942, Fan would soon become the eldest in a family of nine children. He studied hard and became well read in history and economic theory. During his college years Fan traveled to England to receive training to become a teacher, and soon after earned a Masters in Education from the University of Sussex followed by studying journalism and international affairs as a Parvin Fellow at Princeton University. While in college fan participated in the Nuclear Disarmament movement and attended many rallies and marches.
Fan returned to Malaysia to begin his life’s dream of teaching in Kuala Lumpur. He became known as a skilled orator who could debate intellectual leaders on social issues and lofty theories for hours on end, all while bringing the debates down to a level the audience could easily understand.
When not teaching, Fan was editing for “The Educator” and was tapped to be a Director and later Assistant Secretary within the National Union of Teachers. Fan’s strong beliefs in fair wages for women and fair benefits for all teachers led him to co-organizing a nationwide teacher’s strike in 1967. The strike was a success, women began receiving pay equal to men and all began receiving health and living benefits accorded to other professions. His activism with the National Union of Teachers infuriated those in power and the Ministry of Education began moving him to various rural communities where they felt he would be less influential and hopefully give up. However, being forced to move allowed Fan to meet many different people from different backgrounds and races and witness the social injustice happening across his country in the legal, social and economic institutions.
Previously Fan had only stood against the faceless intimidation and meddlesome bureaucracy of the Ministry of Education. The powerful Executive Branch and dominant ruling party had control of the press, placed limits on the spread of information, passed oppressive laws and silenced the efforts of activists and protesters.
Elected MP at age 27
Fan decided to join the small but growing opposition party (Democratic Action Party), in hopes that political change might bring about faster national change. Noticing his exceptional skills as a writer, he was recruited as editor for the party’s publication “The Rocket.” At the age of 27, Fan was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1969 and became known for his inspiring speeches. While Secretary-General Lim Kit Siang was detained without trial, for speaking against the ruling party, Fan was asked to step in as Acting Secretary-General.
The Executive Branch used the violent race riots of 1969 to suspend Parliament for two years and regain political control. Parliament was allowed to return after the majority agreed to a Internal Security Act (ISA) limiting political dissention. Fan Yew Teng and a few others were the only MPs to cast an opposing vote.
Soon many who tried to influence the political sphere against the will of the ruling party were silenced or detained under ISA. Knowing of the risks, Fan continued to publish what he thought was important for the public to hear. After publishing a speech by Dr Ooi Kee Saik, Fan was publicly charged with sedition. He was later told to pay a fine or risk being jailed for six months. Since Fan was found “guilty” of a crime, he was no longer allowed to retain his position as an MP and was stripped of the pension he would have earned.
“Matters of principle cannot be compromised.” -Fan Yew Teng
Ever the optimist, Fan used the time join his wife Noleen (an impressive woman in her own right) who was living in England completing her Doctorate at Cambridge University. From afar, Fan witnessed his former party fall into racial animosity and division, and he observed his beloved country struggle to unite for a healthy democracy. Every few days he would write an article to be published and was constantly writing books, such as; If We Love This Country, and Oppressors and Apologists. A few years later Fan and Noleen moved back to Malaysia, bringing with them their new twin daughters. They lived simply, with Fan freelance writing and lecturing and Noleen working for the United Nations. Fan was fondly remembered for carrying his typewriter everywhere as well as a book filled with collected quotes and ideas from men like Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Gandhi.
Fan Yew Teng’s Later Years
Fan united with other leaders and formerly detained activists to found a nonpartisan human rights organization name SUARAM (“Voice of the Malaysian People”). Their goal was to abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA), end detention without trial, and begin a movement towards achieving a Malaysian human rights bill. Fan also became known for leadership in peace activism including taking a role with Centre for Peace Initiative (Cenpeace). However, true to his character, when the Cenpeace leadership withdrew from a coalition when threatened with arrest under the ISA, Fan stepped forward to become the public spokesperson for all the groups in the coalition.
Fan consistently used his position of influence and social privilege to advocate for the marginalized. Often he was the only ethnic Chinese attending events aimed at solving problems faced by minority Muslims, Indians, Aceh, and those living in Sri Lanka and East Timor. He was a public intellectual who dedicated his life to raising the quality of life of all those around him. Fan Yew Teng’s reliable character, conviction through trials, and effort to unite his fellow countrymen were remembered by many following his death on December 7, 2010.
Speech written about Fan Yew Teng