Paul Sinnappan was a grassroots man. He was where there is injustice, inequality and abuse. He was there among the plantation workers, Orang Asli, squatters, the poor and marginalised and women. He worked long and hard, fought millions of battles along the way. His strategy was to empower and that he did through credit unions and cooperatives, income-generation programmes, and his writings. He even served at the KL Archdiocese’s National Office for Human Development. Sinnappan passed away on May 24, 2021, at the age of 71. His funeral was held at St Paul the Hermit Church in Bestari Jaya.
Here is a tribute by Arulchelvam, deputy chairperson of Parti Sosialis Malaysia, who had worked losely with the late Sinnappan. This tribute written on May 25 is published here with Arul’s permission. JUNE 12, 2021
When I heard about brother Sinnappan’s death, my memories were focused to a song. Vellakara Aatciyile, Rubber maram thotathile, Kooliyaga vanthavane, Un nelama enna, Un nelama enna, adimai vailkai vaalathe, neeyum sernthu poradu. (What is the fate of the plantation worker, stop living this oppressed life and join in the struggle) This song was introduced by Sinnappan. We used to teach the young plantation children this song. A song converted from the lyric of the great movie Nayakkan.
Like this song, I am sure Sinnappan would have influenced the lives of many people through his service as a teacher, as a trainer, as an activist and through his talks, speeches, plays and writings. He was a full package. A reservoir of knowledge.
My activism is influenced by many people. I had Nasir (Dr Mohd Nasir Hashim, former president of PSM) and Selvam who taught me about confrontational politics. Another big influence was on grassroots work, collective and participatory decision making and the use of art. There were many people who taught me as a student on the kind of society we need to build. Among them were people like Rani, Saras, Dr Kumar, Arumugam and others. And one person who I believe was influential in their lives was Paul Sinnappan. Rani has this to say:
‘Sinappan was like ‘essential reading’ for aspiring community organisers, especially at a time, in the 80s when the social activism landscape was muted and quite barren of social movements and resistance activity, unlike now. Sinappan opened up the world of organising to novices like us then, stressing the importance of leadership – not the leader, and leadership values such as humility, and respect for the people we were organising. He taught us about enabling and empowering oppressed people. He introduced us to blue tac and mahjong paper, and group dynamics and sessions that were fun, yet meant to inspire an alternative to the culture of poverty. We learnt from his humaneness. He spoke of and practised gender equality, and not just in sessions but at home. In his sessions, he smashed myths we had grown up with like caste, giving the historical perspective to it, and showing how the ruling classes used religion and the mass media to perpetuate such beliefs.’
In my interaction with them and him, I started to understand many things. About the progressive element in religion – about liberation theology , I understood the importance of art and culture in building perspectives; gender perspectives as well as working with the migrants and the marginalised. He was always consistent with his analysis on class struggle. I think that is how our paths crossed.
It was because of him and his ideas that we started to organise Makkal Ponggal (People’s Thanksgiving/ Harvest Festival) in Kajang and the surrounding areas. We imported his ideas on cooking the ponggal together with the estate workers and did it as our annual event.
Sinnappan was such a resourceful activist. He was an excellent and brilliant trainer. He could do a session without boring you with facts and convincing arguments. He could sing, give examples and relate many stories and much of this was based on his own experiences. He travelled a lot and he used to share his experiences. He had always something to share.
He was also a very pleasant person. Always calm and composed. Never declining time for a discussion and always full of interesting stories. I know him as a great advocate for Credit Unions, Cooperatives and we worked together on the plight of the plantation workers. It was reported that his community-based credit co-operatives helped 64,000 families, assisting people on issues such as housing, health and education. That is a mega contribution.
He also started an organisation called People Service Organisation (PSO) who did tremendous grassroots work among the plantation workers in Kuala Selangor running kindergartens, fighting for better working conditions and better wages for plantation workers. PSO was part of the Plantation Workers Support Committee (JSML) where together we took on many struggles such as the monthly wage struggle, the demand to include plantations in the government’s rural development program, and housing for plantation workers. He created a pool of activists such as Jalal, Rayappan, Susie, late Krishnan, Rajasekaran, Arumugam, Francis and many others who we are still working with.
My early recollection of him was when he was doing a session using old newspapers. Asking us to express ourselves. There was a small boy with him then and that boy was drawing a palm oil tree. He told us that the boy was his youngest son. That boy is the Arul Prakash we know, an activist with Komas and BERSIH.
Arul Prakash wrote in his FB. “ He’s my inspiration to work for the poor, marginalised and fight oppression. I believe he touched and inspired many others too. APPA rest in peace. I will continue your fight”
Yes, Sinnappan did touch and inspire many, and had a role in the formation of many activists. Our deepest condolences to his wife Pappathi, twin brother Rayappan and family members. PSM has lost a good comrade, a community organiser and a great resource person.
RIP Peace Comrade.
We at Journey With Us – Asia offer our condolences to the family and friends of the late Paul Sinnappan.