Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Why is Malaysia simmering? -- M.S. Shah Jahan

This article traces the history of rubber plantation and the Indian workers who toiled to create them. Subsequent events laid the foundations of prosperity for Malaysian economy.

Why is Malaysia simmering? -- By M.S.Shah Jahan

December 15th, 2007


By M.S.Shah Jahan

"Don't tell us - look at Ceylon, look at Burma", thundered the ferocious orator, the youth leader of the Malaysian Indian Congress, in the Municipal Hall opposite Padang playground of the Kuala Lumpur Cricket Club and by the side of the Mosque type scenic General Post Office building, in the early 1970s.

'If there is any tree on which money could be said to grow then this is it-rubber.' This was the sentiment in Malacca way back in 1897. Mr. Ridley, the curator of the Singapore Botanical gardens had been trying for years to interest British planters in giving rubber a try. The imperial authorities in London had spent a fortune in arranging to have seed stocks stolen from Brazil. As Mr. Ridley himself first admitted that it might take as many as ten years for rubber plantation to become productive, Malaya's European planters backed away.

But Tan Chay Yan, the son of a well known Chinese family of Malacca was undeterred and converted his pepper garden into a rubber plantation and succeeded in milking rubber in three short years. Now everybody started following his lead and the B.F. Goodrich Company of Ohio, USA, sent representatives all the way to encourage planters of Malaya to plant this new crop. This was the material of the coming age; the next generation of machines could not be made to work without this absorber of friction. The newest motor cars had dozens of rubber parts, the markets were potentially bottomless, the profits beyond imagination. In simple words, money was milked from the rubber tree.

No body ever knew that the assassination of the Grand Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo would spark World War I in 1914, that rubber would be a vital strategic material in this conflict; that in Germany the discarding of articles made of rubber would become an offence punishable by law; that submarines would be sent overseas to smuggle rubber; that the commodity would come to be valued more than ever before, increasing their wealth beyond their most extravagant dreams.

Labourers were brought from Madras Presidency with so many false promises and persuasions to work in coffee and rubber plantations and also to lay railway lines. Many perished from diseases while clearing jungles for this. That is why it was said, every rubber tree in Malaya was paid for by an Indian life, and every railway track was a cemetery. Though India's ties with Malaya go back to the pre-Christian days, major migration of Indians to that country started in the early 19th century. The planters were not in the least bothered about the welfare of their labourers. The workers shacks " tiny hovels, were made of roofs with branches and leaves and the floors were covered with dirt, the squalor was unimaginable.

'You dog of a coolie, keep your black face up and look at me when I am talking to you', verbal abuse in Tamil and English from the white manager was a daily event. Their life revolved around the manager, master, contractors, and tappers in the rubber estates. It was nothing better than ' Uncle Tom's Cabin' before the American civil war, a virtual slavery. Lankan readers need no explanation as it was much similar to the line houses in our tea estates today where neither the scene nor the life of those have improved to our knowledge, except the bellies of union or political leaders.

The sacrifice of Indian Tamils was well recognized, not only when Tun V.T.Sambanthan, as the leader of the Malaysian Indian Congress became a signatory to Merdeka [Independence] Agreement on Aug 31, 1957, but also when the Father of Malaysia and the first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, went to Madras as his first official visit out of Malaysia and said âÅ" "My wish is to land in Madras first as the Prime Minister of Malaysia for all the good things people of this state did to us".

Over a century, though descendants of the tappers, who constitute 90% of the Malaysia's 2 million persons of Indian origin that comprises 8% of the total population of 24 million, have under gone a vast change, they feel they have experienced only abysmal economic growth on several parameters compared to other communities. Trade was previously dominated by the Chinese acquiring wealth while the Malays were confined to their Kampong [Village] doing traditional professions like breeding poultry farm, fishing etc. with less inclination for that which have economic value. After independence, especially following the 1969 Malay Chinese riots, the picture changed as the government were hell bent to promote the Bumiputra's in commerce offering extraordinary concessions which pushed some Malays to dizzy heights and created cronies like Ananda Krishnan at the expense of the Chinese while the Indian Tamils were left far behind.

Malaysian Indian Congress, the ethnic-based party that represents the Indian minority in the ruling coalition, with a membership of 650,000 out of 850,000 eligible voters and having 4,000 branches are today widely looked upon as ineffective if not corrupt. Due to their colonial legacy, Indians are generally seen as providers of cheap labour in plantations and construction sites; their political and social mobility has been thwarted. The conversion of rubber plantations to housing estates and golf courses also has displaced plantation workers who have drifted to urban centres. As a result, urban Indian ghettos have emerged and crime has escalated.

Besides, Bumiputhra politics disadvantage Indians in education and work opportunities. Local university seats and scholarships are awarded under a racial quota system, and even after getting a degree, many say that discrimination is commonplace. Indian doctors, for instance, complain that they are often excluded from lists of approved doctors whom civil servants or company employees can patronize. Demolition of roadside temples and enforcing strict Islamic code on Hindus like where a Hindu dead body was buried under Muslim rights saying the person had secretly embraced Islam saddened them.

"Our community is backward, our schools are dilapidated. We are the last in the line for jobs, scholarships, health benefits," says opposition lawmaker Kulasegaran Murugesan. "For over a decade we have been appealing to the government for help to alleviate our poverty but all our appeals had fallen on deaf ears," says Uthayakumar Ponnusamy, Hindraf's legal adviser. "The British brought us here, exploited us for 150 years and left us to the mercy of a Malay Muslim government. They should compensate us now." Yes, the British brought tea pluckers to Ceylon, rubber tappers to Malaya and paddy farmers to Burma, almost from the same caste and same district. Interestingly, a steamer that was transporting these labourers from Calcutta to Rangoon and Penang was named Nuwara Eliya.

Though their living is identical, their lifestyle is different according to political situation in those respective countries. The smiling ones are from Burma though they still live a primitive life of the 19th century, chewing betel and travelling in bullock carts in the rural under a military dictatorial rule, sans starvation being farmers. The mother tongue is lost and even in religious festivals announcements are made in Burmese but devotional songs played are in Tamil. No much racism experienced living with natives while their Sri Lankan brethren are timid and feel unwanted by the natives, and in Malaysia they feel like poor relatives in a wedding.

That was why former youth leader, present president of MIC, and Works Minister Yang Berhormat Menteri Datuk Seri Samy Velu said "Don't tell us-look at Ceylon, look at Burma". Samy Velu born to rubber tappers Sangalimuthu and Anggamah in an estate in Johor, had an extremely tough life from his childhood to boyhood, described in his own words "Those were years when I ate only one meal a day. I felt things could not get any worse." His fluency in Tamil gave him a job as a newscaster at Radio Television Malaysia from 1963 to 1974; as a result he became a household name and gained popularity to become a member of parliament in 1974.

In quick succession, he grabbed the presidency of MIC in 1979 at the age of 43 and he is the longest president of MIC and the second longest cabinet minister. Unfortunately his tenure has been lacklustre compared to Sampanthan and Manickawasagam's who were wealthy and highly educated. Further Sami Velu is accused of amassing ill-gotten wealth and his critics call him "Semi Value" and " Mr.Tollgate" [like Mr.10%] because many projects handled by his ministries were found to be faulty and he was alleged to have a cut on tollgates introduced on highways. His second wife Indrani bought over the oldest newspaper 'Thamilnesan'. Even mighty Dr. Mahathir in an interview last May stated that he could not remove tainted leaders like Samy Velu as he was powerless. The Barisan National [National Alliance] would have suffered a serious internal backlash if he had sacked Samy Velu, he said. "You ask MIC what they would do if I removed Samy Velu."

Is there is no racial discrimination in Malaysia? I was waiting at my turn to get a taxi in the portico of Penninsula Hotel of KL. But Malay and Chinese drivers preferred to pick customers of their own colour or white men expecting big tips. Then came an Indian his name was the masculine of Chandrika whom I contracted till I departed and my conversation with him made him to think I was familiar with Malaysia. "Did Mr. Sami Velu come to see you, Sir?" "No". "Did you call him, Sir?" "No". "Good". And he poured out his woes.

Sarala Sukumaran, 40, a Malaysian Indian entrepreneur who runs an IT firm, says" I know many Indian families who want to get out of Malaysia. There are two main reasons behind the backwardness of Indians. One is that we are a minority here, and two the politicians who represent us do not promote our cause." Sukumaran is a third generation Malaysian Indian. Her grandparents came to Malaysia in the 1930s to work in the plantations in Penang. "I feel that we are not aggressive enough as a community in terms of unleashing our entrepreneurial potential. That's why our evolution has been very slow. Comparatively, look at the Tamils from Sri Lanka," she said. "They have a more close-knit community feeling, they help uplift each other and they are certainly doing much better than the Indians." But for people like Ramakrishnan, who worried that rising food and fuel prices are eating into his meagre income, the choice will be easy. "We will vote for the Opposition this time to send a clear message to the Malay government to treat us with respect, to share with us," he said. "We fight for the future of our children; we don't want them to suffer like us." This is the sentiment in SL too simmering of any community can't be contained unless attended to, and this is an era to boot corrupt politicians and arrogant regimes out.

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