Friday, March 7, 2008

India has a stake in the few, poor and scatterd Malaysian Indians

- India has a stake in ethnic peace and stability in Malaysia
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

Kumutha Rahman
New Delhi can rest assured that today's Pilihan Raya Umum (general election, 2008) in Malaysia will not affect the strengthening of military and strategic ties since Abdullah Badawi's ruling Barisan Nasional will return to office, though perhaps with a smaller majority. But the two million Indians (7.1 per cent of the population) whose controversial leader, S. Samy Vellu, of the impossibly black hair is also celebrating his 72nd birthday today draw little comfort from a process that leaves them out in the cold so far as education, jobs and effective political representation are concerned.
India's concern is not only because of its diaspora. Selling cruise missiles, training Malaysians to fly fighter jets, giving scholarships and road-building contracts to Malaysia and building railways there and burgeoning trade give India a stake in the kingdom's stability. That demands ethnic peace. The problem is not religious. Malaysia is not a Shariah-driven theocracy. Not yet. But it is an ethnocentric society in which Indians are too few, too poor and too scattered not to be marginalized. They constitute more than 20 per cent of the voters in only 10 parliamentary and 34 state constituencies and must, therefore, come to an accommodation with Malay-Muslims to prosper. There are two alternatives to Vellu, who has been president of the Malaysian Indian Congress since 1975. Indians can emulate either the devoutly Hindu, 29-year-old Kumutha Rahman, who has thrown her lot in with the Islamists, or the defiant Hindraf (Hindu Rights Action Force), whose leaders are languishing in jail without charges or trial.
It's a feverish time for them, mobilizing makkal shakti, people power, through SMS, DVD and e-mail. Indian anguish is not the only blot on the fabric of Malaysian life. There are more weighty reasons like crime and corruption for wondering if today's outcome will accurately reflect voter sentiment (even among Malays) or just skilful management. The timing of elections was clearly designed to exclude the charismatic former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who is banned from contesting until next month. The latest surprise announcement, dispensing with indelible ink, invites speculation about what the Barisan's dominant constituent, the United Malay National Organization, might be up to. Postal votes from the military and the police will play a large part in its success. Constituencies are mapped out almost for Barisan's convenience. The Chinese-majority Seputeh constituency had 46,500 voters in 2004, when the Malay-majority seat of Putrajaya had only 4,654. Thus, one Malay vote is the equivalent of about 10 Chinese votes.
The Chinese who comprise 23.7 per cent of Malaysia's 27 million population are also perturbed by the drift from secularism, which alone can unite a multi-racial state in contented peace. The election announcement during the Chinese new year celebrations was seen as an insult. UMNO's 2005 general assembly — when the party's youth chief brandished a traditional Malay dagger (keris), threatening to bathe it in Chinese blood — awakened memories of the horrendous 1969 race riots. But the Chinese have weightage of numbers (they are in a majority in 26 constituencies), wealth (several millionaires), and political power (Penang state has a Chinese chief minister). They also have China and Singapore (especially Lee Kuan Yew) behind them. Indians are helpless in contrast.
They voted solidly for Barisan, hoping for justice in return. But as works minister and the MIC's sole representative in the government, Vellu was seen more and more as a token Indian leader, rather like apartheid South Africa's Bantustan chiefs. He trounced his opponent in 2004 by 10,349 votes, but has recently been jeered at, harangued and insulted by Indian crowds. He has had to flee meetings where he has been heckled. His official car has been blocked from entering Indian enclaves in Penang and Kuala Lumpur and rowdy protesters have shoved his bodyguards around. Some MIC candidates feared his appearance would undermine their position but were embarrassed to ask their president to keep away. On police advice, the MIC cancelled many events. Mounting resentment against Vellu reportedly prompted Badawi at one time to consider dumping him. It is believed this is his last election though there has been no formal announcement.
Does Kumutha Rahman suggest an alternative? Her name should really be Raman, but a clerical error inserted the 'h', which could be dangerous in a country where body-snatching for the faith is a pastime with Muslim clerics. Reporters say she rattles off the names of Hindu temples she visits regularly; eats only vegetarian meals three times a week; and that nary a drop of alcohol passed her lips while she studied for a law degree at Northumbria University in England. She is active in the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia Supporters Club and her brother, president of an organization with 2,500 Indian youth members, organizes joint activities with the PAS. But since the PAS constitution does not permit non-Muslim members, she is technically contesting on the affiliated Parti Keadilan Rakyat ticket for the Tiram assembly seat in Johor state. It is no coincidence that 14 per cent of Tiram's voters are Indian; by fielding her, the avowedly Islamic PAS hopes to mop up that vote as well as substantiate its claim to have abandoned the original goal of a Muslim theocracy. Supping with Islamists is, for Kumutha, an acknowledgement that an Indian can achieve something only by cooperating with the mainstream. "The Hindu religion made me aware of my limits," she says.
Hinduism also has a role in the third — Hindraf — alternative. The courts' recent refusal to release the five leaders held under Malaysia's Internal Security Act means more prayers for their welfare in temples. Inevitably, prayers lead to political speeches, bestowing on temples, for the first time in Malaysian history, a function that churches discharged in medieval Europe and mosques do most conspicuously now. Temple prayer meetings are still safe from police raids.
Malaysia's deputy prime minister, Najib Razak, suggests the MIC can meet the challenge by "rebranding itself as a political party". That demands a new and dedicated leadership but as Mahathir Mohamad (the former prime minister) says, Vellu will not allow any other Indian to come up. Hindraf can probably rebrand itself more easily if it softens its defiance, gives up a rejectionist posture, capitalizes on the goodwill it has won and harnesses the Tamil youth power now at its disposal. After all, its target of 20 parliamentary seats indicates a yearning for participative legitimacy. The nature of the Malaysian state rules out meaningful minority politics save with the majority's consent. Malaysia is not India (or Britain), where the minority can call the tune in many social matters, and where law and tradition provide a level playing field and an impartial umpire. Malaysian Indians can ensure the sanctity of their places of worship and their social and economic opportunities only with Malay-Muslim patronage. Sadly, there is no alternative to the Kumutha Rahman way, no matter how it is disguised.
India might remind protesters who carry Mahatma Gandhi's pictures that apart from compromising with the British, he was ready to make massive concessions to the Muslim League. The task would be easier if Badawi is also convinced that the only way of defusing anger and restoring the Barisan-Indian compact is by co-opting Hindraf into mainstream politics. Releasing the incarcerated leaders is a necessary first step. Malay-Muslim hotheads, who reportedly prevented a new election manifesto promising an equitable share of the economy to minority groups and who reacted hysterically last year to Manmohan Singh's innocuous comment, will object. But Badawi must know that if it's surrender all the way, there will be little difference between UMNO and PAS or, for that matter, between Malaysia and Iran. He calls Barisan a racially "inclusive" organization. Proving it, irrespective of the result of today's voting, would benefit Malaysia in the long term, at home and abroad.

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