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The passing of a legendary heroine
Jun 28, 2017
Source: The Star
 
 
 

KUALA LUMPUR: Most people knew Tan Siow Eng as the wife of Tan Kai Hee, the well-known key founder of Hai-O Enterprise Berhad.

But not many were aware that Siow Eng, who died last Friday at age 82, had a legendary past and was also Hai-O’s important policy maker until the memorial service for her two days ago.

Indeed, she was one of the most vocal woman politicians of the leftist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and had continued to be a leader in Hai-O after she and her husband started a herbal trade with China by setting up Hai-O in the 1970s along with other former political detainees.

Siow Eng, as she was called by all who know her well, was the woman behind and beside Tan Kai Hee. Her entire life was as eventful and colourful as her husband’s.

Both had fought alongside for their socialist ideology. While Kai Hee, a former secretary-general of the now-defunct Labour Party, paid the price by sitting behind bars for eight years from 1965 to 1973 under the Internal Security Act, Siow Eng was outside leading the women’s wing of the party, fighting for “a fair and just society and women’s rights”.

Eventually, she was locked behind bars too. Not just once, but twice, though the total duration was shorter than that of her husband’s.

“She had promised to live with me until 100, but now she is gone. Her passing is a great blow to me. Life will not be the same anymore.

“She was a heroine in the 1960s and 1970s, and a legendary figure. She was a huge pillar of force behind Hai-O. She helped me to manage Hai-O and was a key policy decision maker behind the scenes,” a sad Kai Hee told The Star after the memorial service on Monday night.

Indeed, Chinese ambassador to Malaysia Dr Huang Huikang, in paying his respects to her on Saturday, described the two Tans in Hai-O as having contributed greatly to Malaysia-China bilateral trade. They had successfully promoted Chinese herbal wine to the local market and made Hai-O a household name.

Before her death, one of the best decisions Siow Eng made for Hai-O was to persuade her husband to pass the baton to his son. In early 2016, Tan Keng Kang was appointed Hai-O’s managing director, while Kai Hee moved up to become chairman.

I remember the private conversation with Siow Eng after I interviewed Kai Hee and son early last year at Hai-O’s headquarters in Klang.

She whispered to me: “This stubborn man (Kai Hee) thinks he can live forever. I reminded him he is nearly 80 and his health is declining. He must let go, and allow the younger generation to participate in decision-making.”

Although she used “this stubborn man” to describe Kai Hee, her tone and gesture was filled with affection and concern for her man.

As she had recovered in the first five hospital admissions in the past year, few in the family thought she would succumb to illness after the sixth admission.

“I had often thought my grandmother was the strongest person in the world. She often looked so lively and energetic and vibrant, that I naturally thought she would live till the end of the world,” said 13-year-old Sharon Ellie Tan, who was her grandmother’s blue-eyed girl, at the memorial service.

China-born Siow Eng, the president of Phoenix (an association of former members of Labour Party) before her death, followed her parents to Klang when she was young.

Although armed with only six years of formal education, this could not deter the brave shoe factory unionist from joining frontline politics. She became the first woman leader of the Labour Party in 1964 and later a key leader of the party.

Siow Eng was described as an “iron lady with a soft spot for old comrades”.

“Although her life changed from socialism to capitalism, her idealism never changed. In addition, she never stopped showing care and love for old comrades, the people and the country. She lived life to the fullest and should be a role model for us. We will remember her good deeds forever,” said Foo Chang Hoo, a representative from Phoenix, at Monday night’s service.

Siow Eng and Kai Hee have been donating money generously to organisations, as well as Chinese schools, guilds and charities. Such donations have become an annual affair for Hai-O’s anniversary celebrations and their birthday parties.

Prior to her death, she had willed RM860,000 for donations to 35 organisations. This was announced at the funeral service, attended by more than 1,000 people.

Among political leaders who had paid their last respects to her were MCA president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai and PKR president Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. Community leaders who came included Hua Zong president Tan Sri Pheng Yin Huah and president of Associated Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia Datuk Ter Leong Yap.