Kasthuri Patto: Living through her father’s lens, while charting her own course

·8-min read
Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, June 12 — Kasthuriraani Patto may not be your average politician, but she is just like everyone else when life throws her a curveball.

For example, finding herself in a parking pickle after being hemmed in by a narrow lot and desperately attempting to exit her vehicle from the passenger side while in formal attire for an interview with this writer recently.

The newlywed hails from a political dynasty. Her late father, P. Patto, was a teacher who left his job to fight injustice, while her mother, Mary Patto, was a DAP trailblazer.

In his political heyday, the senior Patto was detained under the now defunct Internal Security Act (ISA) twice. Once, in 1978, followed by a second time on October 27, 1987, under Ops Lalang, when he was placed in solitary confinement for 60 days.

During this period, he was the state assemblyman for Gopeng. Later, he would become Sungai Pari assemblyman as well as the MP for Menglembu, Ipoh and Bagan, before his death in 1995.

The daughter also rises

When she first entered politics, Kasthuri, now in her second term as the DAP MP for Batu Kawan, was invariably compared to her firebrand, multilingual father by constituents and supporters, who questioned if she could measure up to his legacy.

Kasthuri understands that these doubts arose because she was a political newbie, but the ardent abolitionist, women and children’s rights advocate and human rights defender is determined to fill her father’s shoes one policy at a time.

“I was fortunate to have been exposed to politics from a young age. My father and mother took my sister and I on campaigns, and to protests, rallies and ceramah. We had already seen what political life was about.

“The conversations at home always revolved around politics as well. All sorts of people came over to talk politics with my father and mother. Apart from DAP, we had other coalition members like Semangat 46. We always heard bits and pieces of the conversations.

“I think one of my biggest exposures or understanding of politics was inequality and social justice. We were never a rich family, and I always wondered what it was like to have a house with a swimming pool because we never had that growing up. We were comfortable. We had what we needed. But we did not live a luxurious life.

“Yet, when I followed my father on the campaign trail, I could not understand why some families lived the way they did — in wooden huts with the earth as the floor of their houses, and not cement. Particularly in Sungai Siput,” she said, adding that the experience left a deep impression on her.

This was one of the many incidents that eventually led the microbiology graduate into politics, although she originally aspired to be a teacher like her father.

When a ‘rocket’ T-shirt went to a PE class

Inevitably, her father’s arrest was another life-changing event, as Kasthuri was only eight years old when it happened.

Despite her tender age, she decided to express her anger by donning a DAP party T-shirt for her PE class at school.

“I am often reminded about this by my primary school teacher, even to this day, on Facebook. I wore a DAP T-shirt for PE one day. I think it was to provoke the teacher. I knew what DAP stood for, but it was also when my father was detained under the ISA.

“I think children, who have experienced seeing their mother or father being detained under the ISA, or any oppressive laws where there is detention without trial, do not know what their parent is in for. Which made me ask the wardens many times when I visited my father in Kamunting: Why is my father in? He didn’t steal. He didn’t kill. He didn’t rob. He didn’t cheat. He didn’t fight with anyone. Why is he in?

“It wasn’t like I was wearing the T-shirt because it had a rocket symbol on it. I knew what DAP stood for, and I also knew the government didn’t like the party at that time.

“I felt angry, cheated that the state would take my father away from us for what he stood for. In the movies, the good guys save people, and they get praised for it. Why was my good guy treated that way?” she said.

As a reminder of those dark days, Kasthuri got her father’s detention number as her car registration plate, to signify her drive to continue fighting against oppressive laws and marginalisation.

To her, it is also a sharp reminder of the same fate that befell other DAP leaders, including Lim Kit Siang and the late Karpal Singh.

“I am glad that it did not turn into bitterness for us, as the children of circumstances. I am glad that it turned into a lot of hope, a lot of courage to see my mother going through it. Mrs Karpal going through the ordeal, having just birthed their youngest child, Markarpal Singh Deo,” she added.

Looking back, however, Kasthuri realises that her father’s detention left her traumatised as a child, owing to the 10pm curfew imposed on those who were detained, and then freed.

She said she constantly lived in fear that the state would come for her father again.

“It was very real. Very scary. I started looking at my watch. At that age, you imagine a police truck coming and hauling your dad up again, in handcuffs and all,” she added.

The Ops Lalang security crackdown took place during former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s administration. During the 1987 dragnet, 119 people were detained under the ISA, while four newspapers were also suspended.

Different times, but same goal

To this day, Kasthuri said many still ask for her thoughts on how her father might have done things differently in the current political climate, and she understands why: His gargantuan impact on people.

She admitted that she felt like she was standing in the shadow of her father’s legacy.

“All the time. All the time. But I must mention that my exposure to politics also came because mum was the first secretary of the Women’s wing of DAP when it was formed. I also saw a lot of women coming to the house and working together for campaigns and all, so it was not just dad, but mum too.

“When I was fielded as a candidate for Batu Kawan, as you know, the decision was made very late, and I came in as a new face but carrying my father’s name and my party on both shoulders. I was virtually an unknown,” Kasthuri, who was then Lim’s political secretary, said, adding that she had only emceed DAP events up to that point.

“On the campaign trail, many asked me: Can you speak like your father? My father spoke Cantonese, Mandarin, a fair bit of Hokkien, Tamil, of course, very fluently, and his Bahasa Melayu was very fluent too.”

She added that she laughed it off until the realisation hit: Her father was the only one from the Patto clan who had made it to mainstream politics, setting the bar high, and that the same was expected of her.

Kasthuri said it was a challenge to answer such questions being repeatedly thrown at her, but, in the end, something dawned on her.

“Who can speak like Patto? No one. After that, on my campaign trail, when people asked me, ‘Can you speak like your father?’ I asked them, ‘Who can speak like my father?’ And they would laugh and say, ‘Yes, you are right. Nobody can speak like Patto. Indeed. Can anybody speak like Karpal? No. Can anybody speak like Kit (Lim Kit Siang)? No. Similarly, no one can speak like Patto so I embraced that.

“My father was a hero in his time, in his generation, at that moment, and I consider myself dust under my father’s feet. But it was a different era, and politics was different back then. The dissemination of information was different. The government was very heavy-handed. It was ruled by a leader who didn’t subscribe to the idea of free speech. I think the media went through one of its bleakest periods in the 80s under this leader too.

“I am privileged today, but it is difficult to compare. There are different issues with more information now. I mean, we didn’t even have Google back then!” she added.

She said that while she agreed with the comparison to some extent, she also demurred.

“Of course, his principles were intact till the end, but there are times when you must bend backwards to make things happen in this country. You have to manoeuvre, and you have to find ways to realise your dream,” she added.

Kasthuri pointed out that during her father’s time, the Opposition only worked in one way, which was “to hammer the government, expose and wait for a reaction”.

She added that the situation is different now, as more engagement is required.

For example, she said issues regarding civil service workers, who are unhappy, must be addressed holistically, with the Opposition working with them to address the problems effectively, instead of merely offering up criticisms.

“What I am doing now is living through papa’s lens but adapting to the needs of the current era to address the issues of the day.

“I do ask myself: What would papa have done? I discuss it with my mum too. It is a path that he created. As we walk on it, we discover and branch out to other paths, but always with the same goal for a better Malaysia,” she said.