02 December, 2007

It is Malaysia's problem !

Creating a furore in the Rajya Sabha over Malaysia's handling of a mass rally by ethnic Indians in Kuala Lumpur might augur well for those seeking brownie points among their political constituents. The outrage expressed by Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi and others over Malaysia's "mistreatment" of Tamil ethnic minorities in the country is an attempt to gain political mileage out of what is basically a local governance problem in another country, by citing ethnic similarities. That our parliamentarians and other political leaders are petitioning the prime minister to intervene in what is essentially Malaysia's internal problem reflects the shortcomings of a parochial political class.

Two hundred or more years ago, the forefathers of today's ethnic Tamil population in Malaysia - who rightly see themselves more as Malaysian-Tamils rather than as Indian-Tamils - were taken to that country as indentured labour by the then colonial power, Britain. Since then, similar expatriate Indian-origin communities in Mauritius, Fiji, the Maldives, South Africa and other former British colonies have grown and identified themselves with the countries of their residence. They don't look to India to solve their problems - whether economic, social or political. Even the currently disgruntled Malaysian-Tamil community - that took to the streets protesting against Malaysia's alleged discrimination against them in providing employment opportunities - did not expect India to speak up on their behalf. Then why are Karunanidhi and others getting so exercised about the whole issue?

Malaysia is an independent sovereign country. Would India take kindly to Malaysia's intervention in any internal uprising in any of its states? Most likely India would ask Malaysia to mind its own business, albeit in a more diplomatic manner than has Malaysian minister Nazri Aziz, who has reportedly told Karunanidhi to "lay off".
(The Times of India)

What it means for Samy Vellu

Christie Loh

FLAMBOYANT Malaysian politician S Samy Vellu is like a man used to walking over beds of burning coals.

Through cheating allegations in a telecom stock controversy and embarrassing gaffes in infrastructure projects, this Works Minister has survived 28 years so far to be the country's longest serving ethnic Indian in Cabinet.

But will the latest trial, coming ahead of elections widely tipped to take place next year, end his grip on power?

When some 10,000 Indian Malaysians marched angrily through the heart of Kuala Lumpur last Sunday, braving tear gas and nausea-inducing water cannons, their protest against decades of marginalisation was also seen as a slap in the face for their long-time community leader, Mr Samy Vellu.

As president of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) since 1979, the 71-year-old has been the rare Indian voice in the 14-party governing coalition Barisan Nasional.

But while he has promised repeatedly to improve the lot of the minority race dominated by plantation workers and squatters, some feel the man in the sharp suits and shiny Mercedes Benz has not delivered.

Look at the equity of the nation's two million ethnic Indians, said political analyst P Ramasamy, who is also international secretary of Malaysian opposition Democratic Action Party. They make up 8 per cent of the population, yet their share of the economy is just 1.5 per cent today and little changed from the 1 per cent in the 1970s, no thanks to the policies favouring the indigenous Malays, known as bumiputeras, since 1971.

In contrast, Malays have 19.4 per cent of corporate wealth and the ethnic Chinese, 38.5 per cent. It is the same story when it comes to education, wealth and job prospects, although a few Indians do famously excel in areas such as medicine and law.

Beyond economic stress, Professor Ramasamy said a series of religious incidents have "traumatised" the Hindus: High-profile tussles with Muslims over burial rites for some converts and the insensitive way in which the authorities tore down and relocated hundreds of Hindu and Chinese temples, said to be illegally built, to make way for new buildings.

"Samy Vellu's presence, or non-presence, doesn't make any impact on the Indian community. MIC is just a joke for us," said Prof Ramasamy.

The community's discontent has been seething for years, but it needed an avenue and the "right" timing before spilling onto the streets.

"It is only with the advent of a civil society movement that has concentrated the cause of the ethnic minority that this sort of subterranean sentiment, which has already been building over the years, gets an outlet," Associate Professor Joseph Liow, of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told Weekend Xtra.

The "outlet" is the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), a non-government organisation formed in 2005 and rapidly gaining prominence for voicing the community's frustrations. It moved in while MIC leaders were caught up in internal politics, and mobilised Indians nationwide last weekend — not just the working class, but professionals such as doctors and lawyers, too.

The fact that the Hindraf march went ahead despite Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's appeals to the people not to join in suggests the Prime Minister and Mr Samy Vellu "both have lost control and influence over the more vocal elements of the minority Indian community", said Associate Professor Hussin Mutalib, political scientist at National University of Singapore.

He added: "These are indeed trying times for the leadership of PM Abdullah and Samy Vellu as leader of the MIC."

Still, the MIC boss is determined to hang on. In a Reuters report this week, Mr Samy Vellu said he would hand over the party reins only at "an appropriate time". He also wrote off the protesters as mere "troublemakers" and said: "We are confident of winning the next elections handsomely."

His confidence may not be misplaced.

For one, Mr Samy Vellu has few competitors. Within the party, where he is into his 10th term as president, he has ensured there are no alternative powers, said Assoc Prof Liow.

There is a similar drought externally. MIC is the only Indian-based party, besides the one-week-old independent Malaysian Indian United Party led by businessman K S Nallakaruppan.

The multi-racial People's Progressive Party, half of whose membership is ethnic Indian, could try stepping in to help fellow Barisan ally, MIC. But Assoc Prof Liow feels PPP is preoccupied with internal battles.

"I don't think there is someone who really stands out in the community who is already in politics," he said.

The community's political star has somehow always been Mr Samy Vellu, the poor boy made good. The son of a rubber tapper, he went from doing odd jobs to becoming a certified architect. Similarly, he advanced politically through the MIC ranks over 20 years to become chief of the third largest party in Barisan, where the power-sharing structure landed him a senior ministerial post.

This long-time Member of Parliament for Perak's Sungai Siput constituency has a "strong network on the ground", said Assoc Prof Liow.

Numerous shoddy public works, such as burst water pipes in the Immigration Office and a major mudslide along a part of the North-South Expressway, may have hurt Mr Samy Vellu's name and led to calls for his head, but they have never resulted in his resignation or sacking.

Could the upcoming polls, which must take place by May 2009, seal his fate?

As Mr Abdullah has instructed the MIC to form a special team to study the Indian community's socio-economic woes, Mr Samy Vellu may still be able to recover lost fans.

NUS' Assoc Prof Hussin is less optimistic: "Although Indians constitute a small percentage of the electoral votes, in border-line cases, their frustrations at the Barisan coalition may impair its performance."

If MIC truly does not fare well, it will be "a sign of weakness on the part of Samy Vellu", said Assoc Prof Liow. Following that, challengers are likely to emerge amid "a push from the bottom" to relook the party leadership.

At MIC's 51st annual general meeting a decade ago, Mr Samy Vellu delivered his usual presidential speech about taking Indian Malaysians forward, saying "we will never get to the future if we wait for someone else to blaze the trail".

Ten years on, his fellow men have heeded his call to seize the day. But will he still have their ear or have they walked away for good?

(Today Online)

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