By Terence Fernandez | Malay Mail – Fri, Dec 23, 2011

PETALING JAYA: It was sometime in February 2008 that Charles Santiago, who I then knew as a leading voice against water privatisation, called me for a chat.

“Can Edward and I see you for a bit? Need to ask your opinion on something,” he said over the phone.

Journalistic curiosity and common courtesy prompted me to say “yes” immediately.

After all Edward Lee, the then president of the All Petaling Jaya Selangor Residents’ Association Coalition (APPAC) was instrumental in many initiatives that changed the course of how the local authorities dealt with ratepayers.

These include pressuring the State government to gazette Bukit Gasing as a green lung.

As one of the prime movers of the Save Bukit Gasing Committee, he had laboriously taken us up the hill to show us the destruction caused by multi-million ringgit bungalow and condominium projects.

Also, Edward, could always be relied on to give us a scoop or at least a “strong quote” on anything ranging from indiscriminate planning approvals and increase in assessment rates – where he was also an advocate of transparency and good governance.

Always emphasising that ratepayers’ interest — not corporate interest — should come first.

And so we were seated around a table in a container that was the home of the Section 5 Residents’ Association administrative office and recycling collection centre in Jalan Chantek.

Somehow, as election fever was in the air and there was talk of Pakatan Rakyat fielding non-politicians as candidates, I had a gut feeling what this “chat was about”.

“They want us to stand as DAP candidates. Me in Klang and Edward in Bukit Gasing. What do you think?” asked Charles.

My response was simple: “Charles, you’ll lose your deposit. (MCA’s) Ch’ng Toh Eng is a powerhouse. You’ll be slaughtered.”

Edward, however, I predicted would win hands down against Gerakan’s Lim Thuan Seng.

“He’s a community leader and everyone in Section 5 at least will vote for him,” I said, adding that the encroachment by developers on Bukit Gasing and the shenanigans at the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) had turned the people here against the State government.

Turned out I was only right about Edward. He went on to win the Bukit Gasing State seat by 8,812 votes, polling a massive 15,735 votes.

Charles surprised everyone by taking the Klang parliamentary seat with 37,940 votes.

We had a good laugh over it when the three of us met after the elections but they knew what was in store for them.

“Now I have to deliver in a different way,” said Edward. From being a community leader, he was now a politician – but one who genuinely had the people at heart.

He even questioned the DAP leadership when he demanded why the 8-8-8 formula for local council representation was not honoured i.e. eight politicians, eight professionals and eight civil society representatives.

He further earned their wrath following a story I wrote about developers approaching senior DAP officials to get the State government to reverse its no hillslope development policy.

“I was voted in based largely on this premise (no hillside development), and I am very upset that I was not even consulted about this attempt to compromise on this policy,” Edward said when he spoke to me later.

However, it was not all that rosy for Edward too as he was accused of interfering in local council affairs with regards to the billboard affair in Petaling Jaya. Outdoor advertising tycoons were alleged to be lobbying him to help reverse a new policy for erecting structures and tearing down all unlicensed ones.

But Edward explained: “It is our job to hear all sides. But I represent people first not political parties or business interests.”

But even the DAP leadership was cautious in handling Edward, aware that he delivered a crucial seat for them by the strength of his own personality and influence in the 2008 tsunami.

Edward after all was well liked by his fellow-PJ-ites familiar with his voluntary nature, from driving children with disabilities for outings under the Malaysia Care initiative or starting signature drives to save a green lung.

Even as the colon cancer he had been battling since 2009 started taking its toll, Edward was still working.

Juggling chemotherapy and his duties as an assemblyman, husband and father of three.

But working for the community was what he had always been doing since he moved to Section 5 from Kampung Baru in 1969.

He was instrumental in getting all the 52 RAs in Petaling Jaya to come under one umbrella body, APPAC.

With APPAC, the city council was dealing with a united front of ratepayers and found themselves under the microscope, especially with regards to annual budgets and dubious deals.

When we broke the story on billboard licence fees being siphoned to the MBPJ Football Club, Edward was among the first to demand that residents be given the right to look through the books. We pored through documents together where his eye for detail from his business background could spot dubious entries.

With many issues plaguing high-rise properties, Edward helped initiate the setting up of the Condominium, Apartment and High-rise Committee (CAHC) to compel the authorities to grant individual water meters to high-rise residential properties.

This also gave property owners a louder voice in addressing issues such as strata titles and poor services by building managements.

After becoming a Yang Berhormat, Edward’s portfolio grew where he became assistant to executive councillor to state Tourism, Consumer Affairs and Environment Committee chairman Elizabeth Wong. He was a natural choice as he shared a similar passion for the environment as Elizabeth.

Edward was also a member of the Special Select Committee on Competency, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat), lending his trained eye on issues such as the siphoning of funds from the Wives of Selangor Assemblymen and MPs Welfare and Charity Organisation (Balkis).

For someone like Edward, his work was never done. Even during his last days he was campaigning for transparency in water concession agreements, waiting for the outcome of a judicial review application to compel Syabas to open the books. But this was one fight he would not be able to see to the end.

Jotting down his contributions lays bare the void Edward had left, with his passing on Dec 20.

That he died on my 40th birthday brings an added awareness of one’s mortality.

After all, what defines you as a person is once you are gone and in what context your name will be mentioned.

In Edward’s case it will be mentioned with fondness.

Here was someone who really believed that one person could make a difference; and for the best part of his 64 years of life, showed us how.