Waking up blind was the last thing Lim Kit Siang had expected.
It happened at a jubilant time, when DAP had just seen its best ever performance in the Sarawak state election on April 16, tripling their presence to 12 seats in the 71-seat state assembly.
Lim, who is DAP advisor, had just spent the evening celebrating the achievement with his party colleagues in Kuching, later retiring to his room where he was reading up on news online till about 2am.
“Then I was up at 6am, and I couldn’t see anything out of my left eye,” he said in an exclusive interview with Malaysiakini.
Known to be fiercely independent, Lim revealed that this was one of the few times he had called up his son, DAP secretary-general and Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, for help.
“I rang him up. He was sleeping, but he knew something was wrong for me to ring him up. He was in a daze, half awake and he quickly ran over (to my hotel room) in his pyjamas,” Lim recalled.
They proceeded to an eye specialist in Kuching, who told them that the elder Lim was suffering from a “very aggressive infection” on his left eye as a result of a recent routine cataract operation.
Lim said the doctor told him that the infection required immediate treatment, and proceeded to administer two jabs to his eyeball to control the swelling while also advising him to cancel all his programmes.
“He said if there was no improvement, I would need an operation and they could not do it there. So I took a flight to Penang the same day,” said Lim.
Fear of going blind
After the two-hour operation under general anaesthetic, he woke up to find he could not see out of his left eye at all.
“Five days, I was in darkness in my good eye. (When it first happened in Kuching) I just got a shock. I didn’t think of anything else but the shock, and what it was going to be like (going blind),” he said.
Lim’s condition has improved in the several months since the surgery last April, with long-range vision in his left eye now better than in his right.
He, however, has to continue to wear dark glasses – which he said was shipped to him from the Malacca by a “concerned supporter” – for several more months to cut out glare that tends to increase pressure on his left eyeball.
Lim also can’t read newspapers and printed documents at present, nor can he make out SMSes sent to his phone.
“For reading (my condition) still needs to stabilise. There is no more infection, but there is still inflammation.
“It may take a few more months, so the dark glasses are for the glare to avoid strain and pressure… it’s not painful but pressure (builds up),” he said.
Nevertheless, he can read from the computer monitor and keep up to speed with current news by surfing online websites.
He said the first print document that he read, with much difficulty, since the eye operation was the Teoh Beng Hock Royal Commission of Inquiry report.
Lim said that he had to force himself to read the 124-page report from cover to cover.
‘Slowed down a lot’
Journalists would attest that Lim is arguably the most prolific writer of press statements in Malaysia’s political arena, with some claiming that he had once sent as many as eight statements in one day.
He laughed when told he was probably the only politician in the country to do that, replying that his age and eye problem has slowed him down considerably.
“You are a human being. You have to sleep, wake up… but I’ve slowed down a lot. Age catches up,” he said reverently.
Lim pointed out that his penchant for issuing statements was purely in exercising his responsibility as an elected representative.
“I mean, in terms of articulating the views of the people, (this) appears to be one important duty. I’m not saying all those who do not issue statements are not good politicians… it depends on what you think.”
Lim also takes comfort in the belief that the public are no longer as willing to accept the many attacks aimed at DAP, particularly on him and party chairperson and long-time comrade Karpal Singh and their sons.
From criticism that DAP is a family party, to whatever accusations plastered across the pages of Umno-owned Malay daily Utusan Malaysia, Lim said he feels that there is no longer the urgency to respond to such claims.
“At one time, I’d be more concerned about such allegations but I think the years have shown (the people) that DAP is not Lim Kit Siang’s or Karpal’s families’.
“It’s for all leaders and supporters and members… it’s bigger than just one person or one family. It has to be so, otherwise we won’t be here today. It’s as simple as that.
“Just like the Utusan attacks, in the old days you feel like you want to react immediately to show how untrue it is, because of the damage it can cause. Now you feel you can afford not to be so concerned,” he said.
The fight continues
Despite claiming to have “slowed down”, the 70-year-old still maintains a schedule – that would burn out people his grandchildren’s age – criss-crossing the country to push the Pakatan Rakyat agenda in his quest for “change”.
He revealed that he felt his career had hit an all-time low when he lost his parliamentary seat in Penang in the 1999 general elections, but even that did not kill off his hopes – that rekindled after the opposition’s surprising feat of denying the BN a two-thirds parliamentary majority in the March 2008 polls.
Lim, however, joked that with age, he probably needs to make more time for exercise in order to maintain the consistently demanding pace that sets for himself, and his opposition colleagues.
“I think I should be exercising lah, but I haven’t had proper exercise for a long time because of my heavy schedule… but I’m not exactly sedentary. I’m walking here and there, walking up and down the country,” he said with a hearty laugh.
The physical demands aside, Lim appeared at a loss to explain what exactly has kept him going all these years, despite being detained twice as a political dissident under the Internal Security Act in 1969 and the 1980s, and being convicted for revealing state secrets related to a dodgy arms deal involving a Swiss company in the 1970s.
Having all these years avoided as much as possible talking about his personal life, Lim simply said he subscribes to the same conviction that got him started in politics in the 1960s at the age of 25.
“It’s the belief that you have to do something good for the country and the people. It may sound cliché, but basically you must believe in it and continue doing it.”
Asked if the scare of possible blindness has got him thinking of retirement, Lim brushed it aside as a mere inconvenience.
“I haven’t come to that yet. I have no time to think of that yet. You have to cope with what you do with your left eye, and see if anything can be done about it,” he said, almost triumphantly.
He hopes that he would be able to ditch his dark glasses by year-end.