Thursday, February 28, 2008

Angry Indian voters could dump Malaysian ruling party

Angry Indian voters could dump ruling party in elections
RINCHING, Malaysia, Feb 25, (AP): With a small knife, plantation worker Ramalingam Tirumalai makes raw incisions on the rubber trees every morning to harvest the oozing gooey latex.

Just like the gashes on the trees, Ramalingam says, countless wounds have been inflicted by Malaysia's government on the country's ethnic Indian minority, denying them jobs, education, freedom of religion and most of all dignity.

'We have been independent for 50 years,' the stocky 53-year-old man said of his country, Malaysia. 'But there has been no change in the lives of Indians.'

Seething anger among ethnic Indians is likely to singe the government during parliamentary elections on March 8.
No one doubts that the National Front coalition, which has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957, will return to power. But it is expected to fall short of its 2004 landslide, when it won 91 percent of the seats. Anything less than a two-thirds majority would signal plunging support for Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Voters are upset by rising prices and a surge in urban crime. Ethnic tensions are also at a high, largely because of the increasing influence of Islam in daily life.
'We need a new kind of leadership,' Ramalingam said in an interview near his plantation in Rinching town, about 45 kms (30 miles) from Malaysia's main city, Kuala Lumpur.
The National Front is dominated by the party of the Muslim Malay majority, which make up 60 percent of the country's 27 million people. The Front also has the support of some ethnic Chinese, who are 25 percent of the population, and some Indians, who are eight percent.
Indians have traditionally voted for the Malaysian Indian Congress, their party in the National Front.
But now the Indians will 'definitely vote for the opposition,' said S. Nagarajan of the Education, Welfare and Research Foundation, a nonprofit group that represents impoverished ethnic Indians. 'This time there is raw anger.'
Indian voters could make a difference in 62 of the 222 constituencies, said Denison Jayasooriya, a political analyst who specializes in Indian affairs.
At the time of independence, most Malaysians were poor, regardless of race. An affirmative action program gives Malays preferences in university admission and government jobs, discounted homes and a mandatory 30 percent share of all publicly listed companies.
The program lifted the Malay standard of living. The Chinese, already well established in business, continued to flourish. The Indians, however, remained at the bottom of the barrel.
The government denies discriminating against Indians, citing statistics that show the poverty rate among Malays is higher than for Indians. But analysts say the statistics are skewed because the Malay figure includes indigenous tribes that are extremely poor and not ethnically Malay.
Indians were also infuriated when municipal authorities destroyed several Indian temples last year because they were deemed to have been built illegally.
The disenchantment exploded on Nov 25 when about 20,000 Indians demonstrated in Kuala Lumpur. Several smaller demonstrations have taken place since.
Much of the anger is directed at Samy Vellu, head of the Malaysian Indian Congress party. He is perceived as corrupt and unable to bring about change for Indians.
Campaigning last week, he was booed and pelted with eggs, shoes and sandals.
Samy insists the government has done much to uplift Indians.
'It is not that the Indian community is 50 years backward,' he said. 'Maybe you minus about 40-45 years from the 50. They may be five years backward' compared to the rest of the population.
About 85 percent of the ethnic Indians are descendants of indentured laborers brought by the British to work on rubber plantations in the 19th century. The work, where it remains, pays about 200 ringgit ($60; 40 euros) a month.
Many plantations were turned into golf courses and luxury home communities in the 1980s and 1990s. The workers lost their jobs and the free housing and schooling that was included.
Other plantations were converted to palm oil, which does not require the skills of rubber tapping, and the Indians were replaced with Indonesian immigrants at lower wages.
Most of the former Bukit Jalil rubber estate in Kuala Lumpur was cleared for stadiums and athlete housing for the 1995 Commonwealth Games.
Former workers still live on the last 16-hectare (40-acre) patch, which is slated to become a graveyard. The residents have been classified as squatters and offered two-room rental apartments in a nearby low-cost housing development. Their school and temple will be relocated inside the burial ground, a proposal that has incensed the residents.
'My age is 43 years. I have lived here for 43 years. How can I be a squatter?' said Shanti Vasupillai. 'All I am asking for is our rights.'
'Most probably the elections will be a shock for the government,' she said. 'I can promise you most Indians will vote for opposition this time.'

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