By V. Suryanarayan
On July 30, 2011, in the annual session of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak made the surprising announcement that the Barisan Nasional will soon appoint MIC President Dato G. Palanivel as another Cabinet Minister, thus fulfilling one of the long pending demands of the Indian community. During the stewardship of Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister, the MIC had two cabinet posts, which were occupied by Sambanthan and Manickavasagam. During the stewardship of Tun Abdul Razak, the Party’s representation in the Cabinet was reduced to one, but he allotted MIC additional positions of Ministers of State and Parliamentary Secretaries. There were two reasons for that decision. The Malay pre-eminence in the political life of Malaysia was getting further entrenched and, what is more, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the MIC were prepared to play second fiddle to Malay leadership. More relevant, the MIC Presidents – Manickavasagam and Sami Velu – were not very keen to have another cabinet colleague, lest he pose a challenge to their political supremacy.
While Najib Razak’s announcement was greeted with thunderous applause by MIC delegates, the overall reaction among Malaysian Indians was not very favourable. The first was question of political morality involved in appointing Palanivel as a cabinet minister. He lost the 2008 parliamentary elections. Is it proper to rehabilitate a defeated candidate through back door tactics? Second the timing of the announcement was inappropriate. The elections to Malaysian Parliament are due in 2013, very often the elections get pre – poned depending upon the political assessment of the Prime Minister. With the Malay votes evenly split among UMNO, Partai Islam and Pakatan Rakyat, the Indian and Chinese votes play a crucial role in tilting the political balance. The Indians, during early years of independence, have voted for the candidates of the ruling alliance. Therefore, it is argued, with certain amount of justification, that the gesture was timed to attract the Indian voters back to MIC and ruling Barisan Nasional. There is also a contrary feeling that if the Malaysian Government is genuinely committed to the welfare of the Indian community, instead of announcing another cabinet post for the MIC, the Prime Minister should have spelt out in detail what his government proposes to do to tackle the manifold problems facing the Indian community. While Malaysia has made substantial economic progress during recent years, the fruits of development have not percolated to the poorer sections of the Indian community. They remain impoverished and politically marginalized.
The Indians in Malaysia are the descendants of those who went to Malaya in the 19th and 20th centuries to provide the much needed labour for the development of rubber plantations. It was due to their sweat and toil that the plantation economy was developed and the export of rubber, as is well known, was one of the pillars in which the prosperity of the country was based. The plantation workers throughout the world, during the colonial era, was victimized and exploited; however, there was a rhythm in their lives, from birth to death, they depended upon the plantation management. They were like creepers around a tree. One significant fall out of Malaysia’s economic transformation is the disintegration of the plantations. During recent years, the plantations have been converted into housing estates, industrial parks, golf courses and luxury homes. And the poor Indian workers, without adequate compensation, migrated to urban areas and became urban squatters.
The changing nature of the plantations and the role of the Indians in the plantation economy are well described by Prof. Ravindra Jain, former Professor in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. In early 1960’s Prof. Jain made an in depth study of the rubber plantation in Pal Melayu. Prof. Jain revisited the estate again in 1998-99 and his conclusions graphically portray the progressive deterioration of the Indian community. First, change in the cropping pattern. In 1962-63, 95 per cent of the cultivated area was devoted to rubber, whereas in 1998-99, it was 13 per cent rubber and 87 per cent palm oil. Whereas in 1962, there were 541 labourers, it came down to 161, a reduction of 70 per cent. The ethnic composition of the workers had also undergone changes. Whereas in the earlier period, the work force was exclusively Indian, in 1999, 50 per cent was Indian, 41 per cent Indonesian and 8 per cent Bangladeshi. As mentioned earlier, thrown out of jobs in the plantations the Indians started migrating to urban areas.
The conditions of the urban squatters, to say the least, are deplorable. It should be a matter of serious concern to all Malaysians, especially, to Indian leadership. Lacking in education and deprived of proper employment, many young Indians are taking to crimes. Few years ago, the popular journal, Aliran, provided statistical details, which made alarming reading. 40 per cent of serious crimes in Malaysia are committed by Indians; there are 38 Indian based gangs with 1,500 active members; during last few years there had been a hundred per cent increase in the number of Indian gangsters; Indians recorded the highest number of those detained under Emergency Regulations and banished to Simpang Rengamm prison. In the field of social woes, 14 per cent of the squatters are Indians; they have the highest suicide rates; 41 per cent of the vagrants and beggars are Indians; 20 per cent of the child abusers are Indians and also 14 per cent of the juvenile delinquents. Few years ago, Samy Velu, then President of the Malaysian Indian Congress, deplored the plight of thousands of estate workers “living in squalor in slums, in dozens of long houses and squatter settlements all over Selangor”.
While the Indian middle classes are faring well in professional jobs – teaching, law, medicine etc – the poorer sections are getting impoverished and marginalized. Compounding the situation, many of them do not have citizenship papers and identity cards; several are drop outs from schools and do menial jobs. What is more, destruction of Hindu places of worship has become a common phenomenon, which galvanized the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) to step into the scene. The spontaneous protests and demonstrations organized by the HINDRAF hit newspaper headlines few years ago. Equally relevant, the educated Indians are also rallying behind BERSIH, which is protesting against many undemocratic practices of the Malaysian Government like the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA). In the 1998 parliamentary elections, there was a political tsunami, the Indians voted overwhelmingly against the ruling alliance, important leaders of the MIC, including Samy Velu and Palanivel, were defeated. The Prime Minister’s announcement of another cabinet position for the MIC and the MIC President’s assurance that the Party will be able to mobilize Indian votes for the ruling alliance have to be viewed in this perspective.
To what extent has the MIC been able to protect and foster the interests of the Indian community? Ask this question to any Malaysian Indian, invariably the answer will be in the negative. Factional struggle and disunity had been the greatest bane of Indian community in Malaysia. Fight for power, politicking and mud slinging have characterized intra-party affairs. The rivalry between Devaser and Sambanthan, Sambanthan and Manickavasagam, Manickavasagam and Samy Velu, and during the long spell of Samy Velu, among Samy Velu, Subramaniam and Pandithan does credit neither to the MIC nor to the Indian community. Disenchanted with the policies and programmes of the MIC, the younger generation is joining opposition parties like the Democratic Action Party, Gerakan, Peoples Progressive Party and the Pakatan Rakyat. It must be pointed out that there are more Indian members of Parliament from opposition parties than from the MIC.
The Samy Velu era was the wasted years of the MIC. It was tragic because when he became President, after the demise of Manickavasagam, he had tremendous good will both among the Indian community and the Malaysian national leadership. Many self-help projects initiated by the MIC for the upliftment of the community, during this period, turned out to be colossal failures.
The Malaysian Indian community is at the cross roads today. A disenchanted and frustrated Indian community can turn out to be serious ailment for Malaysia. It should be pointed out that one reason for the rapid improvement of the status of the Malays, the indigenous community in Malaysia in the post-independence era, had been the vigorous implementation of affirmative action in favour of Malays followed by successive central and state governments. The Indian community in Malaysia is the most disadvantaged community in Malaysia today. It requires sympathetic attention of the Malaysian Government. Those who are below poverty line should be brought under the purview of affirmative action, in the field of education, award of scholarships and recruitment to government jobs. The words of Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, comes to my mind, “if a mother has four children, and one among them is handicapped, the handicapped child, should be given greater care and attention”. Perfect equality in societies, where there are handicapped, will only perpetuate inequality.
(Dr. V. Suryanarayan, former Senior Professor and Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras is currently Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. His e mail address: [email protected])