Monday, November 06, 2006

In memorial of Umar Tan

Oleh Tian Chua

Umar Tan Soi Kow passed away of Thursday. Till now I still could accept he's gone, he is not present in my life anymore. I still cannot believe he just disappeared from my reality. I lost not only a good friend, but a brother who had guided me through these turbulent years.

ImageI met Tan first time in the lock-up of Dang Wangi police station. I was arrested by the police during a demonstration. In fact, I was not one of the demonstrators. I went to Dataran Merdeka because I heard a gathering was broken up by the police out the courthouse on Jalan Raja Laut.

I rushed over and witnessed FRU and SB were cashing people along the riverbank beside the court. Many were seized and assaulted. The policemen were beating and kicking demonstrators in broad daylight. When I tried to intervene against the blatant brutality, I too was apprehended and thrown into the truck. In the truck I was beaten up.

By the time I entered the lock-up. To my surprise, I found there were some 20-30 persons already in the cells. They cheered when I rebuke the police officers. In front of them, I resisted the police order to strip. Among the detainees, I got to know Tan. Through the bars, he told me his name and informed me that they had been arrested several days earlier in another demonstration.

I was released without charge early morning the next day—that was the day Anwar was brought to court first time after his arrest on 14 April. I wasn’t sure when Tan and the rest were released. I didn’t meet him again until much later when the reformasi movement was better organized.I believe that was the first time Tan was arrested. I believe like many of us, he went with an impulse to express his sympathy with Anwar, or perhaps anger toward injustice. Tan was probably still holding a job as a cook in certain high-class hotel then. Like thousands of others, reformasi changed his life.

I don’t know what force triggered him to join the struggle. Tan was just another ordinary person; he knew no Anwar Ibrahim, and had no stake in Anwar staying in power. But his life was totally transformed by the call for reformasi. Tan remained committed to this cause till the end. People like Tan also transformed reformasi struggle.

I would say Tan was the most loyal activist in this struggle. Certainly I had met many committed reformists, none is as consistent as Tan. All activists have their ups and downs: some drop out, some slow down, some go off temporary to take care of our affairs (and return later), some are frustrated with the lack of success, and some betrayed.

Tan was always full of conviction and confidence with the struggle. He had never merajuk, never despair, and I would say he probably never missed a demo. He held the record of second most arrested person after Nasir Isa, his good brother.

In fact he was the one who led me in the struggle. He escorted me from north to south, from west to east, often he was my only companion who relieved my hardship and solitude. In these journeys, he shared with me the vast knowledge that he accumulated—about the people and places we came across.

His memory was my resource book for everything: geographical location of ceramah, telephone numbers, personal history of each and every reformist, and so on. With his guidance, I never lost my way, literally and metaphorically.

I might have joined this struggle based on some abstract principles. Tan might not have expressed these principles with the same language as me. But he held on to something more real, more concrete—the simple sense of wrong and right, and wholeheartedly defending one’s own conviction.


Tan had taken good care of me. I feel guilty unable to do the same for him. I grieve not being with him during his suffering.He fell sick during the Raya break. He was down with high fever for 4 days in hospital. I was only told by him during Anwar’s open house, days after his release from hospital. Last Wednesday (1 November) I got a call from him, with an unknown number. He said he was in Putrajaya Hospital and left his handphone at home.

He told me that he was again hospitalized the night before due to fever. He requested me to go to his flat to pick up his handphone, which he left behind as he was rushed to the hospital.I went to the flat but couldn’t find the keys which he kept in a specific place. Again I spoke to him on the phone through a friend who was visiting him. He gave another vague instruction the location of the keys. I tried again but in vain. So I decided to sort it out when visit him the next day.

The next day, I delayed my visit till the afternoon as I was caught up with an article deadline. By noon, a friend called asked me to confirm whether Umar Tan passed away. I dismissed it as rumour. In an hour time, another call came asking the same question. An omen surged in my head and I began to panic.

Finally, Nasir confirmed the bad news when he arrived personally in the hospital. I went blank and couldn’t believe he had parted so abruptly. I held my tears and sent out the message through ADIL sms.

By the time I reached Putrajaya it was 5pm. I came to know that Tan passed away at 4am in the morning, because of heart attack. Until now, I still do not know what triggered the heart attack. Perhaps he didn’t suffer much pain. However, I regret not seeing him last. The fact that he was left dying alone in hospital saddened me enormously. And I could not forgive myself for not bother to find out his well being nearly 10 hours after his death.

Throughout his life, Tan Soi Kow was selflessly contributing to the struggle. He had been a comrade and fellow traveler for all of us in reformasi. The news of his death is like an eclipse, suddenly light’s gone off in our heart.

I don’t know who can replace Tan’s role in the remaining journey of our struggle. He will be remembered by his resilient and relentless spirit, ever tirelessly working for the movement, till his last breath.

His body was taken out of the mortuary at 7pm. By 11pm on the very night, he was soundly buried in the cemetery in Bangi.

Tan and I walked along this path for 7 years. 7 years is not considered a long period. But in this short life, he was a shooting star that burned up its entire physical existence to emit light in the darkness.


When we watch the sea of people in the protest, we sometimes forget each of these individual souls in the crowd made this stirring and painful personal decision to be part of the struggle. They are not emotive mob, loyal blindly to the command of some supreme leader. Among them, there might be a few like Tan, upholding a choice of their conscience, making their life a spark that could brighten the world. -


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