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October 2011

SP – The Much Misunderstood Politician

By |2011-10-26T00:09:33+08:00October 26th, 2011|Categories: ipoh, Memories, People|Tags: , |

Yes, this is long overdue…..but thank you all for waiting so patiently. Here is Andrew Lin’s article on the other ‘famous brother’ – S P Seenivasagam! Due to the length of the article, only part of it has been put up on the blog. The rest, together with the credits, can be read at our database….

SP: The Much Misunderstood Politician

“Isn’t it a pity that S P Seenivasagam should go down in history as such a greatly misunderstood politician after having given his all for Ipoh? Andrew Lin recalls the life and times of the other half of the legendary Seenivasagam brothers.

Sri Padhmaraja Seenivasagam, fondly known as SP, was the other half of the famous Seenivasagam brothers of Ipoh, the other being D R Seenivasagam (DR). Both men were brilliant lawyers and founder members of the Perak Progressive Party in 1953. The party changed its name to the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) two years later. SP was generally perceived as the quieter of the two; a man of few words, at least during the time when his younger firebrand sibling was the president of the PPP and concurrently the Member of Parliament for Ipoh. SP himself was the MP for the adjacent constituency of Menglembu in the heart of the Kinta Valley.

Despite the frequent comparisons made between them by the local media, the Seenivasagam brothers’ genuine concern for the welfare of the people, especially the poor and the needy, was never in doubt. It was precisely this trait in SP that prompted him to make what most people at that time considered his biggest blunder in his long and illustrious record of public service – the fatal decision to join the Barisan Nasional (BN) in 1974 so that the PPP could continue serving the people of Ipoh through the administration of the municipal council of Ipoh (the Ipoh Municipality).

Outstanding Lawyer

In the heyday of the PPP between 1957 and 1969, SP was the vice-president of the party. Although credited by many as the “brains” behind the success of the party, SP remained in the background during that golden era, playing the role of a strategic planner while DR time and again dominated the headlines as a fierce and harsh critic of the then Alliance government. SP only came to the fore upon the untimely death of DR in early 1969, barely two months before the nation’s third general election. The racial riots of May 13, which took place immediately after the election, changed the entire course of the nation’s history.

As a result, very little information was available to the public on the personal side of SP. Like DR, SP was fond of liquor and was also a heavy smoker, averaging no less than four packs a day. His inner circle of close friends, which included the leaders of the PPP and his counter-parts in the legal profession, readily testified to his warm and easy going ways which often culminated in a thunderous burst of laughter. It was common knowledge that despite his hectic daily schedule, SP did his best to be available to the people at his office at the Municipal Chambers, which literally became his second home.

SP was first and foremost an outstanding British-educated lawyer, perhaps one of the best the nation has ever produced. Civil law was his forte. Together with DR, an equally eloquent and much feared criminal lawyer, their professional services were very much sought after. Both brothers featured prominently in numerous high-profile cases in the country. Their remarkable talent and extraordinary contributions as legal practitioners are well documented in the annals of the Malaysian Bar Council. Till today, the Seenivasagam brothers are still fondly remembered and respected by the legal community. Once, a rumour went round that SP had been offered a judgeship on more than one occasion but he turned it down.

Among the most memorable court appearances featuring SP was the Rahman Talib corruption case in 1964 where DR was sued for libel and slander by the then Education Minister. SP was engaged as the defence counsel for the co-respondent, one Abu Bakar, the businessman who tipped off DR on corruption allegations against the minister. (DR himself was defended by a young up-and-coming barrister by the name of Chan Nyarn Hoi, better known today as Dato N H Chan, an eminent and respected retired judge of the Court of Appeal.) The minister lost the case (and his job too) and the subsequent appeal the following year. Another case that attracted national interest was the Fan Yew Teng sedition appeal in 1971. Fan, then a Democratic Action Party (DAP) MP for Kampar, faced possible disqualification from Parliament as he had earlier been convicted in the Sessions Court under the Sedition Act for publishing an offensive article in the party’s newsletter. In the hearing at the Federal Court, SP successfully argued the appeal for Fan on the grounds of technicality. The court concurred with SP and ordered a fresh trial. The rest, as they say, is history.

A rare occasion when SP’s private life caught public attention was in October 1965 when he married the former Miss N Danapakia Devi from a well-known family of lawyers from Seremban. (Datin Seenivasagam died of a heart attack in 2006 at the age of 72). SP was then in his late forties. Prior to this, the Seenivasagam brothers were among the most eligible bachelors in the country. SP was conferred a Datoship by the late Sultan Idris Shah of Perak in 1964, an honour seldom bestowed on an opposition personality even to this day. The Dato Seri title was awarded in 1972.

Senior citizens and those in their fifties may recall that for a very brief period in 1973, Belfield Street and Hugh Low Street, two busiest streets in Ipoh were originally renamed Jalan S P Seenivasagam and Jalan D R Seenivasagam respectively in one of the earlier road-renaming exercises. At that time, the naming or renaming of roads within the municipality was the prerogative of the Ipoh Municipality and it had been the council’s policy to grant such a privilege to serving municipal councillors as well, irrespective of party affiliation. Thus we have Jalan Megat Khas, Jalan Chew Peng Loon, Jalan Yin Choo Han, Jalan Chan Swee Ho, Jalan S A Lingam, Jalan R C M Rayan (all situated in the Ipoh Garden housing estate), Jalan Leong Boon Swee and a few more in other parts of Ipoh. The first two mentioned councillors were from the opposition Alliance while the rest were from the PPP. But in this instance involving the names of the Seenivasagam brothers, the renaming was met with stiff opposition from certain quarters. To avoid further escalation of the controversy and being a true gentleman, SP voluntarily withdrew his consent to use his name for the road which subsequently became known till today as Jalan Sultan Yussuf. But SP told a press conference that the municipal council would appeal to the state gpvernment to retain the name of his late brother in place of Hugh Low Street. The appeal was however turned down. Hugh Low Street was subsequently renamed Jalan Sultan Iskandar. It was ironical that whilst his municipal colleagues had roads named after them long before this outcry, the president himself was unreasonably denied this honour.

Opposition Luminary

SP was elected to Parliament as the representative for Menglembu in the first general elections in post-independent Malaya held in 1959. He also won the state seat of Kuala Pari in the Perak State Legislative Assembly the same year. Both these two seats were successfully retained by SP in the subsequent general elections in 1964 and 1969.

As a parliamentarian, SP was ranked among the luminaries of the Opposition Bench in the infant days of the nation’s Parliament. Indeed both SP and DR left their indelible foot-prints in our parliamentary history. SP’s attendance record in Parliament, however, was rather dismal, averaging about five per cent. His opponents capitalised on this glaring weakness during pre-election rallies and other public gatherings – but with minimal effect as Menglembu was a stronghold of the PPP during that time due to the Seenivasagam brothers’ immense popularity.

To be fair to SP, he was never found wanting when important bills affecting the nation were discussed in Parliament. He participated actively in the debates relating to the Internal Security Act Bill in 1960, the Constitutional Amendment Bill, which saw the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965, the controversial Constitutional Bill relating to the Sarawak Council Negri crisis in 1966 and the contentious National Language Bill in 1967. All his speeches in unequivocal support of the stand taken by DR were crisp and concise and reflective of the hopes and aspirations of the people.

Many observers believe that SP chose to remain in the shadow of DR in the discharge of their parliamentary duties out of sheer respect for the latter’s position as the party leader. Not one to relish undue media attention, SP never attempted to steal the limelight when DR was still around. In spite of his own enormous personal attributes as a shrewd and distinguished lawyer, SP took great pains to ensure that the celebrity status enjoyed by his flamboyant brother in Parliament was never in jeopardy at any time.

Most importantly, SP would also go down in history as one of the handful of opposition parliamentarians who courageously stood up and opposed the highly sensitive Constitutional Amendment Bill, which removed the parliamentary immunity of MPs in 1971.

Read the rest of the article here.

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