I was glad to see the Malaysiakini interview with Toh Kin Woon and sorry to hear that he is retiring from politics soon.
I would say Toh, the Gerakan vice-chairman and Penang state exco member, is the most principled politician in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. He has called for the abolition of the Internal Security Act and was one of a handful of ruling coalition politicians to say he disagreed with ISA arrests in the past.
What I find most remarkable about Kin Woon is his down-to-earth nature, his sincerity and utter humility – the total absence of any arrogance of power. What a stark contrast to many other BN politicians!
He is one ruling coalition politician that Penang opposition politicians and civil society groups find difficult to criticise. Indeed, Kin Woon is so highly regarded that when 25 Penang-based NGOs organised the Pesta Rakyat Merdeka recently to mark 50 years of Independence and 44 years of Malaysia, they unanimously agreed he should launch the event.
I believe that was an especially meaningful occasion for him. I don’t think the folks in the BN appreciate him as much as many of us in the civil society movement do! Indeed, his has often been a lone voice articulating progressive views on the importance of dissent and how it should be institutionalised (as a form of check and balance) especially through the civil society movement.
I once spoke to an opposition politician who contested against Kin Woon in his Machang Bubuk constituency in a previous general election and he told me that he avoided any direct attacks against Kin Woon because it would not go down well with voters.
Kin Woon has been concerned about the poor and marginalised and the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor in our land. And on more than a few occasions, he went out of his way to help migrant workers in distress.
His progressive views extend to religion. One of his happiest moments was when he was baptised a Catholic several years ago. But his is not a narrow understanding of Christianity. He believes that the Jesus of the Gospels had a lot to say about justice and compassion in society and empowering the poor – and that His views were often what we would describe today as “political”.
In a sense, I am glad Kin Woon is retiring soon. The BN could suffer an erosion in support and he doesn’t deserve to be part of that backlash. Still, even if he did stay on, I dare say it would be tough for the Opposition to dislodge him from his Machang Bubuk seat.
He tried his best to reform the system from within but, like he was frank enough to admit in his Malaysiakini interview, it was too daunting a task for any one individual to accomplish against a behemoth that has held on to power for over 50 years through its race-based politics.
Over the years, he must have felt the dichotomy between his own value-system and the BN’s dominant and stifling values – and perhaps the stress and strain took its toll.
Kin Woon may be too humble to say he has made much of an impact. But his contribution to society – principally through his witness of what the ideal, ethical ruling coalition politician should be like – will remain as his legacy to Malaysian and BN politics.