Friday, February 15, 2008

Cry of the dispossessed Hindu Malaysians

Hindraf rally: A plea of the dispossessed?
Friday, 15 February 2008

The Hindraf protests are, in effect, a cry of the dispossessed, says Subramaniam Pillay, and this could radically alter the future political landscape. If there is a much larger opposition in the next Parliament, the whole dynamics of human and economic rights will undergo a dramatic change.
In November 2007, two major rallies took place in Kuala Lumpur. The first, held on Saturday, 10 November, was organised by Bersih, a coalition of NGOs and political parties campaigning for a clean-up of the electoral process. The second, held on Sunday, 25 November, was organised by the Hindu Rights Action Front or Hindraf.

On the surface, they appear very different: one was fighting for free and fair elections while the other was highlighting the plight of the Indian community in Malaysia. Participation in the Bersih rally, although multi-ethnic, was largely Malay, while the Hindraf event was almost exclusively made up of Indian participants.

But there are many similarities too. Firstly, the turnout was huge in both cases in spite of the threats and intimidation from the police and government leaders both prior to and during the rallies. Secondly, they were both mainly peaceful till the police intervened with their heavy-handed reaction. Thirdly, in both the gatherings, the police fired tear gas canisters and sprayed water laced with toxic chemicals on some of the participants. Fourthly, in both cases a clear majority of the participants were from the lower income group.

Inequality in Malaysian society

If we analyse deeply, the underlying message is that there are many Malaysian citizens who are unhappy with the present government. Many of the participants are the victims of the economic policies of the Mahathir-Abdullah Badawi regimes.

Since Mahathir took over in 1981, the emphasis has been on economic growth while neglecting the growing inequality among Malaysians of all ethnic backgrounds. His aim of ethnic equality was to create many Malay millionaires to equal the number of non-Malay millionaires. It is a position he articulated eloquently as early as 1970 in his book titled "The Malay Dilemma." He had no time for the peasants and workers.

As many others have observed, under him, the Malaysian economy was driven by an unbridled form of capitalism where the government had ears only for the so-called "captains" of industry and finance. Agriculture was neglected as it was linked to the backward image of peasants and plantation workers.

Unions were curbed with draconian laws favouring employers. Economic policies of the government were thus geared to help the owners of capital. Public monopolies were transferred into the hands of private interests - at below market prices - who were thus able to reap enormous profits because of monopoly rents.

To sustain the profits of the private sector, labour costs had to be kept low. What better way than to allow a large influx of foreign workers at the unskilled and semi-skilled level. That has depressed the wages of Malaysians who are competing with these foreign workers.

Who are these Malaysians? They are mainly from the Bumiputra and the Indian community. This economically disenfranchised group of Malaysians have been betrayed twice by the BN government. Firstly, the poor education system (in rural Tamil and Malay schools) has failed in providing adequate skills for the market place. Secondly, their real income after adjusting for inflation has been suppressed by the BN government policy of freely allowing foreign labour.

This is why income distribution in Malaysia has worsened steadily since Mahathir took power in 1981. Of course, the government quickly produced figures recently in Parliament showing that the average income of Malaysians has increased considerably over this period. Apparently, the average Chinese Malaysian household income in 2004 was RM4,437. The corresponding figures for the Indian and Bumiputra households were RM3,456 and RM 2,711, respectively.

I am sure most Indian and Bumiputra households in Malaysia would be shocked at these figures. If half the Indian households in this country received RM3,456 per month, they would not have joined the Hindraf rally!

Average figures mask the vast distortion in the income distribution within all Malaysian ethnic groups. This is particularly true for the Indian and Malay communities in Malaysia. For the case of Indians, there is a small but significant group of professionals particularly in the legal and medical professions whose extraordinarily high incomes inflates the average income figures. Similarly in the Malay community the small but influential 'Umnoputras' inflate the income figures for the whole community.

Indian grievances

Coming back to the Hindraf rally, although the underlying driving force that drew such a large participation from members of the Indian Malaysian community may be economic in origin, this is not to say the other factors did not play an important role. There are genuine cultural and religious issues in which many Hindu Malaysians have grievances about.

One of the major problems faced by many small Hindu temples and shrines is that they are deemed illegal by local and state governments. In recent times, there has been a sharp increase in the number of Malaysian Hindu temples that have been demolished forcefully by local government authorities particularly in Selangor. Many of these temples are located in former rubber or oil palm estates which have now been sold to housing developers.

The subsequent attempt by the new owners of these rubber and oil palm estates to evict the former estate workers from their homes and temples on the basis that they are now seen as illegal tenants inspite of having toiled for these estates for at least two or three generations is a heartless and cruel thing to do! Again, voices of the rich and powerful can be heard clearly by the authorities while the pleas of the workers and urban settlers fall on deaf ears!

Many NGO activists feel the most recent demolition of a temple in Kampung Jawa, Klang, by the Shah Alam Town Council (MPSA) on the eve of Deepavali was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. The MPSA's lack of sensitivity in the timing and the overpowering use of state force in destroying the temple in a callous and brutal manner really agitated many Hindus as never before. The picture of a policeman throwing a brick into the temple outraged the Indian community. It also showed up the impotence of the MIC leadership when Samy Vellu's plea to delay the demolition was totally ignored by MPSA officials. This had serious implications for the Indian community in that the MPSA underlings showed utter contempt for the most senior Cabinet Minister who could do nothing to stop the sacrilege. He was shown to be as helpless as the rest of the community.

Safeguarding cultural and religious rights

One can argue that this single incident propelled the groundswell of support for the Hindraf movement as it was seen as fighting the authorities to retain and safeguard the cultural and religious rights of Hindu Malaysians. It is also important to highlight the total lack of sensitivity of many BN bureaucrats in rushing to demolish places of worship. As ther noted Malaysian social scientist Farish Noor has written forthrightly elsewhere, these are Malaysian temples where Hindu Malaysians worship. They are as Malaysian as mosques, churches, and Buddhist temples located in Malaysia. These are not Indian temples. Only in India can one find Indian temples. It is this lack of empathy with the 'other' which has led to many avoidable inter-ethnic and inter-religious problems in this country.

A second area of specific Indian concern has been the neglect of the sad state of Tamil schools in Malaysia. The BN government has always been ambivalent about the role of Tamil and Chinese schools here. It has not funded them fully in terms of building and maintenance of the schools. In the case of the Chinese schools, the problem has been partly alleviated by the tremendous financial support given by the Chinese community in Malaysia. The Tamil schools on the other hand have not been able to depend on similar financial support from the Indian community. There are many reasons for this.

In overall terms, the Indian community is not as well off as the Chinese community in this country. To make matters worse, many of the more prosperous members of the Indian community are not of Tamil origin. Unlike Mandarin, which is accepted as a common language among all Chinese, even though they may have their own dialects, the languages of Indian Malaysians are diverse. For example, a successful Gujarati businessman will have little incentive to donate large sums of money to a Tamil school as it does not promote the use of the Gujarati language. Similarly, successful Sikh lawyers and doctors would rather donate to Sikh temples and Punjabi language pre-schools than to Tamil schools where their children will not be enrolling. Even, the more prosperous Tamil professionals are often English-speaking individuals.

Thus, Tamil schools have been left in a limbo over the past 50 years by the unjust policies of the BN government. Even as early as in the 1970s, the Murad report indicated that the Tamil schools had the highest dropout rate in the country. This is one of the main causes for the disproportionately high level of unskilled workers among Indian Malaysians. It is no wonder that Indian Malaysians have more than their fair share when it comes to crime and other social disorders.

Other grievances include the difficulty in obtaining employment in the public sector which has been the major source of employment for Indian Malaysians in the past, police abuse of Indian youth suspected of being members of gangs, and the recent high-profile conversion cases of Moorthy and Subashini.

Hindraf falling into BN/Umno trap

At this juncture, it is important to examine the impact of the Hindraf rally on Malaysian politics. Traditionally, Indian Malaysians have been the most loyal and strongest supporters of the BN coalition. In return, the MIC, the Indian partner in the coalition, has been given 'winnable' seats. Even in the recent Ijok by-election, it was the Indian votes which swung the seat in the BN's favour. Will Indian votes be split now between the BN and the opposition parties? It may - if the groundswell of anger translates into votes. Will this affect the victory margin of the BN in the coming general election? Perhaps in a few tightly contested seats where the Indian vote is more than 15 per cent of the constituents. There are not many such seats.

Ironically, the biggest winners from Hindraf's actions could be the BN and Umno in particular. Once again, UMNO is now trying to mobilise the Malay Malaysian vote by playing its claimed role as the 'Protector' of the Malay community. The argument is that Malays must unite against this 'Indian threat' and that threat can only be handled if Umno is strong; thus, a vote for Pas or Keadilan will be a wasted vote. It is a powerful emotional appeal. Such a crude and base appeal has become easier to make given the folly of the Hindraf leaders in claiming that Indian Malaysians are facing a "mini-ethnic cleansing".

This was not the only unfortunate allegation that they have made in their memorandum. They have used terms like Malay-Muslim terrorists to describe some of the heavy-handed actions of the police force. If it is a case of a Malay-Muslim police force out to ethnically cleanse Indians, it will be difficult for Malaysians to understand the equally harsh and brutal treatment meted out to their Muslim brethren who are Pas supporters as in the case of the recent Batu Burok incident?

In my mind, it is not proper for the Hindraf leaders to go to India to ask for support. We Malaysians of Indian origin are Malaysians and not "pendatang" anymore. If there is a genuine oppression of our human rights then it is more proper to appeal for help from international human rights organisations after exhausting all efforts at home rather than running to India. Not surprisingly, the Indian government took a dim view of this appeal.

There are enough genuine grievances for the Indian community in Malaysia to voice out without the need to exaggerate. But we must acknowledge that it is to their credit that Hindraf through its actions has brought many of these issues to the forefront of political discourse in the country. Without this effort, the Indian community's grievances would not have become a burning issue needing urgent attention.

Nevertheless, exaggerated and extreme claims tend to help the BN and Umno government to mobilise. Perhaps this may be the reason why the BN government had suddenly increased the pressure by charging 31 participants of the Hindraf rally for attempted murder. It was an unjust and ridiculous action by the government. This could be a deliberate attempt to provoke the extreme elements in the Indian community to react rashly so that it can be used to mobilise Malay voters for Umno.

Work together to change BN government

It is important for Malaysians not to fall into this familiar trap of divide and rule. At the same time, it is important not to forget the innocent victims of unjust action by the BN who also include the two who have been recently charged with attempted murder in the Batu Burok incident.

It is even more crucial now for various ethnic groups to work together to change the BN government policies, which on the whole favours the better off in our country while throwing a few crumbs to the poor. To do this, we need to increase the democratic space in this period of increasing oppression. One effective way of doing this is to work for a reduced majority for the BN in the coming election.

If there is a much larger opposition in the next Parliament, the whole dynamics of human and economic rights will undergo a dramatic change: the civil service, the police force and other organs of administration will become administratively more neutral; the voice of the dispossessed will be heard more clearly and civil society will be stronger. At this moment, we need forces of unity and not of division.
Note: Since the above was written, five key Hindraf leaders were detained under the cruel, unjust and inhumane Internal Security Act. It looked like an act of desperation. Meanwhile, the Attorney General charged two PAS supporters for attempted murder of a policeman in the Batu Burok incident. Some days later, after realising the depth of anti-BN sentiment among many Indian Malaysians, the government dropped the attempted murder charges against the 31 participants of the Hindraf rally.
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