CHENGARA VEETIL DEVAN NAIR, or C.V. Devan Nair, is dead. Not where he was born – in Malacca, Malaysia; not in the land of his adoption, Singapore whose president he became; but in exile in Canada, hounded to the end by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then prime minister but now two steps higher as minister mentor, whose colleague he was and who had him elected as President. He was born in 1923, and died in December 2005. He was, of course, a Malayali, a clan Mr Lee was, and is, afraid of, and who gave him his biggest trouble in his march to be Prime lMinister. He regarded them more dangerous than snakes, and did not look upon them kindly. Mr Devan Nair was weaned into Mr Lee's People's Action Party, from the pro-communist Anti-British League, and later, so Mr Lee's supporters said, he sold his friends to be firmly entrenched with Mr Lee. Mr Nair never wrote his memoirs, so we will never know the truth of this. He was an active writer since 1954, but wrote less and less after he was removed as President in 1993. In 1999, he attracted a libel suit from Mr Lee for what he wrote in Canada, but which was thrown out after his counter-claim. He married a Tamil, who died before he did, had four sons and five daughters.
Why he resigned as President is shrouded in mystery. Mr Lee said he resigned to be treated for alcoholism. Mr Nair said he resigned because of political conflicts with Mr Lee, and asked to resign, failing which Mr Lee said he would be removed by a motion in parliament. Mr Nair said his bizarre behaviour was officially induced: he was given drugs that made him act irrationally. At the time of his resignation, he is said to have grabbed the breasts of a Sarawak state minister's wife, when he was on an official visit. The minister's wife later told me the incident was true, but anyone who would would have who otherwise would have fallen into the pool, and was shocked to find the incident treated as an indecent aberaration. Mr Lee wanted him out, and his reason was as good as any! No one questioned his version, or asked Mr Nair for his. In Singapore. Then as today, what he says goes. Mr Lee, who is of the same age as Mr Nair, is minister mentor of Singapore, two steps higher than the Prime Minister. And so Mr Nair became a non-person. There was a humiliating condition to his pension, that he had to get a certificate from a competent authority that he was not an alcoholic before he got it. He rejected it, rightly. The only pension he got was from the Malaysian parliament, where was elected to in 1964, when Singapore was part of Malaysia. He remained in Malaysia after Singapore was ejected in 1965.
He was the son of I.V.K. Nair, from Palghat, who had come to Malaysia in 1910, and was brought to the then Federated Malay States. He appointed agents later in all districts. That is how Inspector P.C. Joseph. from Alwaye, and my father, from Thalavady, came to Malaysia. It was to Inspector Joseph's house in Johore Bahru I was taken after I was born at the General Hospital in Johore Bahru in 1939. James Puthucheary, who joined the Indian National Army in his twenties, was in detention with Mr Nair, when his father in 1956 died. He was among the small band of Malayalis who provided the PAP with the left intellectual framework, for which they were exiled in old age. Mr Puthucheary studied law, died a rich corporate lawyer in Malaysia, believed to the end he had failed. He said to me he would title his autobiography, which he never wrote mainly because of the stroke that ravaged his last days, "The Autobiography of a Failure." He was banned for almost 25 years from the island, lifted after his friend's wife died in Singapore, he wanted to attend the funeral, and just before he did. As an aside, I was put on restricted entry into Singapore in 1971, and permanently banned in 1991. But as I told an Italian journalist, who put the quote in his book, "I have already done my shopping."
But Singapore cannot escape from Malayalis. The republic has put a statue for a Nair, who came to Singapore in 1819 as cook to Sir Stamford Raffles, the island's 'founder'. The history of modern Singapore is peppered with Malayalis. Some were exiled to Kerala, whence they came, but many are in Singapore, out of politics, but gather whenever a like minded spirit passes away. Today, if the modern Indian plays a prominent role, he is usually not a Malayali. But it has to live with many whom it detained in the past. The PAP had all the seats in Parliament until 1981, when Mr Nair vacated his Anson seat to become president. His successor is Mr J.B. Jayeratnam, a lawyer who is facing bankruptcy by the PAP and is reduced these days to selling his law books to escape bankruptcy.
In Malaysia, those expelled from Singapore did provide the intellectual framework for much of its policies, although some had occasion to regret what they did. The former prime minister, Tun Mahathir Mohamed, in his eighties and had a heart attack around Christmas last year, is the grandson of a Malayali policeman from Travancore who became head of security to the sultan of Kedah. Many others though came here to earn a living, fought for Indian independence, and returned to serve the Indian government on independence. Among those were N. Raghavan, a lawyer who became India's ambassador to Argentina. Dr N.K. Nair practiced medicine in Penang, fought for Indian independence, married a German, and remained in Malaysia. His son died as a UN representtive in Thailand. But they are a minority in Singapore and Malaysia. In Singapore, they are looked down upon officially. In Malaysia, they are look down upon by the Tamils, who represent the Indians in power. They cannot join the Malaysian Indian Congress, unless they forget Malayalam and adopt Tamil. But in either territory, they cannot be ignored. Once in a blue moon, someone like C.V. Devan Nair would arise to make their presence felt.
[This appeared in the inaugural edition this week of Thejas, a Malayalam daily in Calicut, Kerala]