Arthur Chung, first president of the republic, died on June 23, aged 90.
Arthur Chung made world history when he was elected by the National Assembly to be Presi-dent of Guyana making him the first ethnic Chinese (Hakka) president of a non-Asian state. He also made regional history by becoming president of the first republic in the Commonwealth Caribbean.
Other eminent citizens had been considered for the prestigious position. The list of nominees proposed by contemporary commentators included Chancellor of the Judiciary, Sir Edward Luckhoo; Speaker of the National Assembly, Mr Rahman Gajraj; General Mana-ger of the Guyana Development Corporation, Mr Gavin Kennard; and Ombudsman, Mr Gordon Gillette. The eventual winner was a surprise.
Unassuming, unpretentious and without the cachet of the celebrities, High Court Judge Mr Arthur Chung emerged as the nominee of the People’s National Congress. This was announced by then Prime Minister Forbes Burnham at a special sitting of the National Assembly on Monday, February 23, 1970. The People’s Progressive Party had nominated prominent party member Ashton Chase. Arthur Chung was eventually elected on March 17, 1970 and was re-elected for a second term in 1976 – admittedly in both instances by a Parliament whose composition reflected the fraudulent elections of 1968 and 1973. He demitted office on October 6, 1980, making him, up to the present time, the republic’s longest-serving president.
Still being driven in the colonial governor-general’s Austin Princess limousine from his home in the judge’s quarters in High Street, Kingston, he arrived at Parliament Buildings for his inauguration to a roar of applause from the curious but delighted citizenry. In words that remain relevant thirty-eight years afterwards, the first president declared “Our survival as a nation will depend on how well we work together.” He called on citizens to stop quarrelling among themselves and to get on with the task of developing the resources of the country to everyone’s advantage. The same night, he and his wife moved into the official residence, formerly Government House which by then was renamed Guyana House.
A constitutional head of state, Arthur Chung was anything but ceremonial. Although he could act only on ‘advice,’ his authority, derived from that of the post-independence Governor-General, was impressive. It was he who had legal authority, in certain circumstances, to appoint and remove the prime minister, and cabinet ministers. He had to be kept “fully informed concerning the general conduct of the government by the Prime Minister.” As Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, he appointed the chief of staff and commissioned all military officers and, as Chancellor of the Orders, appointed deserving citizens to this country’s national honours.
Exercising authority and influence rather than power, Arthur Chung understood his role as a civil servant and held his office with quiet dignity. He was to be the friendly face of Guyana’s future foreign policy of forging strategic relations in the Caribbean and economic relations with socialist countries.
Abroad, he made his first official visit as head of state to the United Kingdom in July 1971 where he was the Queen’s luncheon guest at Buckingham Palace, had tea with the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street, attended a performance of Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House and a supper party at the Savoy hosted by the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Inevitably, his well-informed hosts indulged their guest’s well-known enthusiasm for horse-racing when the Duke of Norfolk accompanied him to Ascot and, again the following week, when the Earl and Countess of Marsh took him to the Goodwood Race Course. But this visit was backed by real cultural diplomacy when the President presented a collection of authentic Amerindian artifacts to the Commonwealth Institute for display there.
Official visits in the region to Antigua, Grenada and Jamaica followed. In the East, he visited the Republic of India; the People’s Republic of China, meeting President Hua Guofeng; the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, where he met President Kim Il Sung and to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, where he met President Joseph Tito.
At home, he seemed to be the epitome of the ordinary citizen. He often visited hinterland communities nourishing a special fondness for Matthew’s Ridge where he was wont to spend New Year’s Eve with his family, and Annai in the Rupununi. He once caused something of a stir in the Venezuelan camp on occupied Ankoko Island when it was learnt that he was visiting Guyana Defence Force troops at Eteringbang across the Cuyuni River.
Arthur Chung was born on January 10, 1918 at Windsor Forest, about 8 km from Vreed-en-Hoop on the West Coast Demerara, into a family of eight – three boys and five girls. His father Joseph Chung, an immigrant from China, worked as a foreman on Martha Fung-Kee-Fung’s extensive rice property at Windsor Forest; his mother Lucy was an immigrant from Trinidad. Windsor Forest is a historic place. Together with Pouderoyen and La Jalousie, all former sugar plantations on the West Demerara, they were the destinations of the first Chinese indentured immigrants who arrived aboard the SS Glentanner on 12 January 1853. The village is also the site of a monument erected in 2003 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Chinese immigration.
Arthur Chung was baptised and worshipped at St Jude’s Anglican Church at Blanken-burg and attended the Windsor Forest and Blankenburg primary schools on the West Coast and the Modern High School in Georgetown, graduating with the Junior and Senior Cambridge certificates in 1938.
His working life began as an apprentice surveyor at the Lands and Mines Department. He qualified as a sworn land surveyor in 1940 after which he joined the staff of the Public Works Department where he stayed for six months before being recalled to the Lands and Mines Department to work as an Assistant Hydrographic surveyor with the Demerara River Navigation Development Project which, at the time, was involved in dredging the Demerara River. It was while living and working aboard the waterborne vessel that he was able to accumulate enough savings to travel to Britain to study.
Arthur Chung left British Guiana in May 1945 to read law at the Middle Temple, Inns of Court, London. He qualified as a barrister (attorney-at-law) in 1947, remaining in London to work as an assistant legal examiner with the British Civil Service and, later, at the chambers of British lawyer, Maurice Shear. He was called to the English bar and returned home in October 1948 when he was admitted to the local bar and entered private practice.
He spent the next decade on the bench, moving gradually from the position of acting magistrate in March 1953, to senior magistrate, registrar of the Supreme Court and puisne judge in the Supreme Court, a position in which he was confirmed in May 1963. After he left the bench, he used to speak with warm nostalgia of his days on the circuit saying: “I really enjoyed this period of my job as I was able to see the whole of Guyana because, in those days, a magistrate had to cover many areas in one judicial district.” His last case was the murder trial of persons accused of involvement in the Rupununi Rebellion in January 1969.
Arthur Chung served through the decade of the grand experiment to transform society and the economy. Innovations ranged from changing conventions on dress to the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy and the initiation of diplomatic relations with communist states. He adapted with admirable ease. Indeed, the Chung presidency made a start in redefining the national identity and represented what ordinary people thought republicanism and socialism meant. It had the effect of imparting the impression that the high office of head of state stood above partisan politics yet moved with the times.
As legatee of the colonial gubernatorial tradition, and as a pioneer of an unfamiliar presidential convention, he abided by the constitutional prescriptions of his office, soberly avoiding the political controversies of the 1970s. He exuded a sense of dignity and impartiality to the highest office in the land and set a certain social tone as patron of the Guyana Legion, Guyana Red Cross Society, Guyana Lawn Tennis Association, and other civic organisations. He was respected and, in the era of the executive presidency, missed. He was awarded the state’s highest honour, the Order of Excellence, in 1980.