Dinner with Dominic Puthucheary

In the easy-going way that’s typical of Malaysian society — no matter how rancorous many of its citizens are about the National Front (come to think of it, whoever thought up that name, given that it recalls the fascist National Front of the UK) I ended up sitting next to Dato Dominic Puthucheary, a founding member of the People’s Action Party, at a totally unplanned gathering!

My KL hostess, TES, a friend, SF, and I were going to dine at the Royal Lake Club. But when we got there, TES saw an old friend of her late husband and be4 we knew it, we became part of his dinner party, that included a China-born Penang-based entrepreneur and an ex-Malaysian with dual UK and Canadian citizenships and back to work in his old country.

And of course Dato Puthucheary, who bought the party a bottle of red wine, in addition to the many rounds of beer, wine and gin and tonic that went with the Club’s Friday special roasts of beef, lamb and chicken.

And because I was from Singapore and a newcomer to the dinner gathering –he is an old friend of the others — Dato spoke mostly to me, reminiscing about his youth, his first meeting with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, his meeting with MM Lee at the launch of Men in White, his three grandsons in Singapore and his son and daughter-in-law who are both doctors, like his wife.

What came thru most clearly was that this somewhat shy, grey-haired man, at 76, was still a hero-worshipper of MM Lee.

Or perhaps his mind was still filled with thoughts of what might have been, if he didn’t take the road less travelled, if he were less enamoured of Lim Chin Siong, his brother Lim Chin Yew and more particularly, the girl who became Chin Yew’s wife.

I could see his eyes mist over when he recalled the indelible memory of how she had translated the poem he had written — “Merdeka” — into Chinese and sang it, accompanying herself on the erhu. At one of the then young PAP’s gatherings on a roof-top somewhere in Middle Road.

Nothing about his own detention under Operation ColdStore. Nothing about his being banned from entering Singapore till 1990. No rancour. Or bitterness. Just gentle recollections of comrades who had gone into the great beyond; worries about those who are still here but who are in poor health. Then there are those whom he felt hesitant or too diffident to contact.

firebrand no more?

And given the fact that he is the most senior in age at the Lake Club dinner party, he made several attempts to leave be4 us, on the ground that he never stayed beyond 7pm or 8pm at the club. He was polite enough to be persuaded to stay for “just one more round”, again and again, but fretted more and more that he won’t be able to spend his usual time in his study be4 hitting the sack.

“You need to pray?” I asked.

He smiled. “No, I’m agnostic. But I like to have a certain discipline in my life.”

For the same reason, he still goes to court, to “get a feel of how things are”.

Age mellows all of us. As it has the Dato. 

I could hardly believe that the mild-mannered and avuncular man who sat next to me for more than two hours over a meal and quiet conversation was a political detainee and part of the mass defection from the PAP that led to the formation of the Barisan Socialis in 1961!

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