Carrying Sarawak DAP’s minutes of its first meeting and a hardcover book celebrating its 30th anniversary, Chong Siew Chiang entered his office meeting room and sat in his usual leather seat.
He spoke softly, reaffirming the purpose of the meeting. Conversing in Mandarin, the prominent lawyer related how Sarawak DAP was set up, referring to the first meeting’s minutes with the signatures of the founding members in a well-kept red book.
It was 1978, the same year Chong and some 200 members quit the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP).
Chong met DAP leader Lim Kit Siang in Kuala Lumpur and discussed possible collaboration and the Sarawakians’ main demand – that they have a say in issues pertaining to Sarawak, including electoral candidates.
The founding members later decided to join DAP over setting up a local party or joining another opposition party, as they wanted to be in a national party to have greater power to face Barisan Nasional.
“Looking back, we made the right decision (to bring in DAP). Most of the local opposition parties are now defunct. Till today, the principle of DAP remains unchanged and we are still fighting for a better Malaysia for Malaysians,” he told The Malaysian Insider in a recent interview at his legal firm Chong Brothers Advocates in Kuching.
Recalling the dates, years, number of votes lost in every election, the people involved and every detail as though it had happened yesterday, Chong recounted his political journey and struggles throughout the years.
“I always knew we would succeed with strong determination, but I did not expect it to be that long. It took us 20 years to change Sarawak’s political landscape.”
Initially branded as a “foreign” political party and having been through 14 parliamentary and state elections with mostly heart-breaking total defeat, Sarawak DAP has faced a lot of challenges to become the biggest opposition party in the state today.
DAP won the Kuching and Sibu seats in the 1982 general election, but never succeeded in any state seat until 1996.
Chong contested and lost seven parliamentary and state elections before he gave up. It was only 28 years later that DAP won the Sarikei seat, the small town in central Sarawak famous for its juicy sweet pineapple, the founding place of DAP and Chong’s hometown.
When pressed on his reasons for quitting SUPP, Chong showed that he was still emotional about the issue.
“I felt betrayed,” he said.
He referred to a letter written by his party president to the then chief minister, accusing Chong of sabotaging the chief minister, the late Tun Rahman Yakub.
“SUPP had become different. They were no longer fighting for the interests of the Chinese. The party was fighting for an independent university, and had also vowed to use the party’s logo in elections, but they (party leaders) just changed overnight.
“I know others say I quit because I did not get a ministerial post. If I really wanted to be a minister, why would I have left SUPP?”
For the first time in 38 years after bringing DAP into Sarawak, the state opposition party founding member is relaxed and confident over the coming state polls, where he foresees many multi-cornered fights.
“People are well informed now in this new age. Urban areas, no problem (despite Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem’s popularity). Rural areas will be a huge test for money politics, whether people can still be bought by money,” he said.
Chong had a painful experience in the past when he stayed at his supporters’ longhouse in the central region a day before polling day.
“It was 3am. I woke up, I saw lights, so I went to check and saw my good friend (the headman) counting a stack of cash inside a room.
“Those days you don’t even see a RM20 note. And here they were, a group of people surrounding a huge stack of cash. I kept quiet and went back to sleep.”
He left the next day and did not return until today. Expectedly, Chong did not gain any votes from that longhouse. However he did not report the incident as he had no proof.
At the age of 78, Chong is still active in his profession, working more than 12 hours a day. He is also a committee member in the state DAP and Sarikei DAP branch.
“They (DAP leaders now) still listen to me, out of respect, even though I know they might not agree with me,” he said.
With the help of a group of legal practitioners in his legal firm, including his son, state DAP chairman Chong Chieng Jen and Padungan state assemblywoman Violet Yong, Chong Brothers is piling up many court cases, including cases involving his son Chieng Jen.
Chieng Jen’s latest court case is for taking part in the Bersih 4 rally.
“This is about sense of responsibility, and also justice. Most of the judges now are younger than me. I don’t know when I will stop.”
Showing a pile of neat handwritten notes of all the cases in which he has been involved, bound together in a book bigger than any encyclopaedia, Chong said, “This is my 50 years of work.”
After his graduation in the early 60s, Chong worked as a magistrate for two years before setting up Chong Brothers Advocates with his elder brother Chong Siew Fai in 1968. His brother was the former chief justice of Sabah and Sarawak.
Every Saturday night, Chong plays musical instruments and sings with a bunch of friends, his only hobby and time off after all these years.
Glad with his decision to bring DAP to Sarawak to work towards a two-party system, Chong has no regrets in life. The only disappointment, he said, is that none of his children or grandchildren shares his passion for music. – March 14, 2016.