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The young lawyer waited anxiously at his office, hoping to be engaged as counsel to represent eight university students facing charges of sedition over an article they wrote in their campus newsletter.
He didn’t want to miss the golden opportunity to provide legal advice to the defiant undergraduates and thus boost his standing as a defender of the underdog.
He was none other than Mr Lee Kuan Yew. The year was 1954. The students were all members of the University Socialist Club (USC) that was formed a year earlier at the University of Malaya with its campus at Bukit Timah.
This little nugget of hitherto unknown fact and other information came to light on Saturday, 14 Feb 09, at a memorial to mark the recent death of Dr M K Rajakumar, the lead writer of the editorial titled Aggression in Asia in the student publication Fajar (dawn).
Dr Agoes Salim who was president of the USC in 1956 made this revelation to the surprise of many in the audience who had thought that the students were the ones who had sought out after Mr Lee when in fact it was the other way around.
Dr Salim had travelled from Malaysia to chair the four-hour memorial which was steeped in history.
Young Rajakumar, came to Singapore from Malaya to study medicine under a government scholarship. Along with other like-minded student activists of their day who were highly motivated in fighting for independence from British colonialism, Rajakumar was one of the prime movers in founding the USC in 1953. The first president of the club was another medical student Poh Soo Kai who was detained under the ISA by Mr Lee Kuan Yew for years.
Rajakumar became the editor of Fajar when he and seven of his colleagues were arrested in 1954 for the seditious editorial. They became known as the “Fajar 8”. Rajakumar was only 22 then and was in his fourth-year medicine studies. The vice-chancellor of the university, Sidney Caine, put up bail and got the eight released.
Another bit of information that came to light at the memorial was that the services of the Queen’s Counsel D N Pritt. The students wanted a QC to represent them. Mr John Eber, vice-president of the defunct Malayan Democratic Union (MDU), had approached Mr Pritt on behalf of the Fajar 8.
This contradicts Mr Lee who had written in his memoirs:
Things always seem to come out of the blue. On 28 May 1954, a group of students at the University of Malaya were arrested and charged with sedition. They wanted me to defend them. I agreed to act for them, and after some reflection, advised them that theirs was a case best treated as a political contest, not a legal one. I proposed that we bring out from London a British Queen’s Counsel D.N. Pritt, famous for championing left wing causes.
In Lee Kuan Yew’s words, it was he who had engaged the services of Mr Pritt. In any event, the QC came from London to defend the students and got the charges quashed in two-and-a-half days.
At Saturday’s memorial, close to fifty of Dr Rajakumar’s contemporaries and friends, both young and old, gathered, ironically, at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the same Bukit Timah Campus to remember him.
Dr Rajakumar passed away on 22 Nov 2008 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at the age of 76.
In his tribute to Dr Rajakumar, Dr Salim said:”He is not only a friend, but a philosopher guide, he was my mentor. In a way he was a genius.”
Another speaker, Mr Dominic Puthucheary, a contemporary of Dr Rajakumar and fellow freedom fighter said: “The present financial crisis has shown how we were right then. Our group was a world by itself, so selfless, kept our soul together and did not lose our idealism.”
Mr Puthucheary, a lawyer from Malaysia, was a trade unionist in Singapore in the 1960s and detained under Operation Coldstore in February 1963 and subsequently expelled to Malaysia by Mr Lee.
Speaking next, Professor Arthur Lim, a former classmate of Dr Rajakumar pledged $10,000 to organise the first anniversary of his friend’s passing away. The two were hostel mate.
There were also moments of reminiscence. A man in his late 50s, then a student, remembered Dr Rajakumar speaking at a Fullerton Square lunchtime election rally together with Dr Lee Siew Choh, the late chairman of Barisan Sosialis in 1963.
The student activism of early 1950s greatly promoted public awareness in the political struggle of our people, which lead to the formation of the PAP on 21 Nov 1954.
Together with the other members of USC like Dr Poh Soo Kai and Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Rajakumar also became a founding member of the PAP.
Forged from the crucible of the struggle for freedom, the PAP turned around and denied that very freedom to the people when it ascended the throne.