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Deepavali reflections

EVERY year, as Deepavali approaches, I always remember my good friend, the great P Patto.

For those five years when we were both serving Members of Parliament, the late Patto was my roommate at the DAP headquarters in Petaling Jaya. We slept in those fold-up canvas camp beds that must be obsolete now. (His snoring, when he slept, was quite phenomenal.)

A Hindraf supporter raises a candle during an
anti-ISA rally in Kuala Lumpur, 27 Sept 2008
Many nights, we would discuss politics well into the small hours of the morning over many bottles of beer. It was partly through him that I was exposed to the problems Indian Malaysians face.

This year, as Deepavali approaches, I am also thinking of the five Hindraf leaders who are languishing under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in the Malaysian gulag at Kamunting, together with Raja Petra Kamarudin. How they must miss their family and friends! There will be no meaningful reform for Malaysian national life until the ISA — together with all unjust laws like it — is cast to the dustbin of history.

The political marginalisation and socio-economic backwardness of Indian Malaysians is real. The banning of Hindraf under the Societies Act 1966 by the Home Ministry will not make the problem go away.

A friend, a fellow writer and supporter of reform, telephoned to caution me about supporting Hindraf. He said it could become the conduit of the kind of radical Hindu fundamentalism that festers in certain parts of India today. I may or may not agree with his worries. But it is a point best left to the Hindraf leaders to reply.

Alternative narrative

(© Asif Akbar/
Personally, I much prefer the eloquent narrative given by Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj of Parti Sosialis Malaysia. In his article etitled The Indian Poor: Even More Difficult Times Ahead, included in the recently published book Out of the Tempurung: Critical Essays on Malaysian Society, the good doctor argues against mere affirmative action for poor Indian Malaysians as a solution:

“Affirmative action programmers targeting specific ethnic groups invariably end up enriching the better-off and the better-connected [who are often closely linked] within the community.”

More strikingly, Dr Jeyakumar argues that the root cause of Indian Malaysian poverty is far more complex than just government neglect of the Indian Malaysian poor.

“The truth of the matter is, the vast majority of Indians came to Malaysia in the early decades of the 20th century as labourers for the plantations, the railways, public works departments and municipal boards. As late as 1966, as shown by the Centre for Public Policy Studies paper, 67.8% of Indians were still employed in the plantations, and another 24.2% were still placed at the lowest rungs of government agencies.

“The majority of the children of this combined 92% of the Indian community belong to a working class that possesses no land of their own to work on, and do not have any capital to set up their own business. Thus, they need to work for an employer.”

Dr Jeyakumar reports that the monthly salary of factory workers in the Ipoh region is RM400. The wages for Indian Malaysian workers in the plantations is marginally lower. These depressed wages are caused by the importation of millions of documented and undocumented foreign workers on Malaysian soil by employers and employment agencies.

Government planners and corporate leaders in Malaysia will reply that low wages are essential for the country to attract foreign investors. It is to allow Malaysian products to stay competitive in the international market. Based on this reasoning, they are against the idea of implementing a minimum wage policy in Malaysia.

I find Dr Jeyakumar’s argument convincing, persuasive and attractive. The big problem Indian Malaysians face is not one of ethnicity, but one of class. The “Indian” problem is a Malaysian problem affecting salaried workers of all ethnic groups.

Alternative solutions

They are caught in the quagmire of worldwide injustices, sinking in the current system of economic globalisation. Easy to fix or not, the problem ought to concern the Pakatan Rakyat if they want to be the alternative government. It should be their priority to find a long-term and comprehensive solution to alleviate the sufferings of millions of workers in the country.

Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, celebrates the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil. Good and evil are the symbols with which we make sense of our enigmatic human existence. They are universal moral concepts that pervade all religions on earth.

(© Tatta Krishna Somya/Dreamstime)

We know that the line between good and evil is not always clear cut. Indeed, it seems to be a large grey area. But there is one curious thing, though: we may argue until the cows come home about what good is, but we can more or less reach a consensus regarding evil. We know that murder is evil, as are poverty, hunger, disease, ignorance, racial hatred, bigotry, political oppression, economic exploitation and the like.

If Deepavali is another celebration of good over evil, then indeed its spirit should be embraced by all Malaysians.

To all readers, I wish you Happy Deepavali!

Sim Kwang Yang was DAP MP for Bandar Kuching in Sarawak from 1982 to 1995.

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2 Responses to “Deepavali reflections”

  1. Dennis Madden says:

    “Government planners and corporate leaders in Malaysia will reply that low wages are essential for the country to attract foreign investors. It is to allow Malaysian products to stay competitive in the international market. Based on this reasoning, they are against the idea of implementing a minimum wage policy in Malaysia.”

    This is the glib, ill-considered statement one would expect from government ‘planners’ and corporate leaders. On one hand the corporate leaders are solely interested in the bottom line: their profit.

    On the other hand, the government is working on a different agenda: the agenda that keeps too many Malaysians at close-to poverty levels while shipping vast amounts of money overseas to feed the families of immigrant workers.

    When you are poor you have no time free to worry about the niceties of democracy.

    Do they really think that cheap labour is the only thing that attracts foreign investment? If they do then they are still living in the dark ages. This is the same level of thinking that has failed to realise that education is the long term answer to Malaysia’s future. The future when the oil finally runs out.

    This policy has been welcomed with open arms by their buddies the corporate leaders. It means they don’t have to innovate, upgrade plants, or introduce new techniques because cheap labour is the simple answer to everything. The result is they become more and more outdated and less efficient and less competitive. Why do you think Japan and Korea have outpaced Malaysia as manufacturing countries?

    Now back to the government’s hidden agenda on democracy. At every turn they have done their best to suppress the freedoms of the people of Malaysia. Sensitive issues are enshrined in the constitution and workers at all levels have been deprived of their fair share of Malaysia’s wealth. The government has undermined the judiciary and the education system to the extent that both institutions are empty shells of their former selves. And they have now embarked on the use of force and odious legislation to suppress the people through fear and oppression.

    … and then there is religion.

  2. David S Ling says:

    Armchair commentators and coffee-shop stool analysts tell us Hindraf agitators are racist, and narrow in their outlook. We should look beyond these standard views, and government propaganda, and stare the issues raised by Hindraf protestors squarely in the eye.

    Most Indians in Malaysia remain poor and are exploited pitilessly. Their cynical employers treat them, in factories and estates today, much the same as the British (the prototype, first-generation colonialists) did, a century ago. Hindraf’s protests have been a bellow of rage, a cry of pain, a plea for help: the result of decades of repression and frustration.

    In East Malaysia, Kadazan, Dusun, Murut, Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu migrants to the big towns endure a similar fate. Rural communities lose their land, day by day, to timber companies and oil palm plantations throughout Sabah and Sarawak; many proud sons of the soil have ended up in low-wage, part-time work in construction sites and bars throughout Malaysia.

    Unlike Hindraf, the voices of despair of East Malaysian minorities have not been raised in protest – partly because they are smaller ethnic groups, and partly because their middle classes have not demonstrated the defiance of Hindraf’s lawyer-leaders. Educated East Malaysian professionals are content to acquire a little wealth and toady up to the morally bankrupt state governments of Sabah and Sarawak.

    Voices calling for relief for these poor communities are needed, to jolt us out of our obsession with our monotonous, jingoistic “Social Contract” national narrative. We need to look at all Malaysians, instead of the tedious spectacle of yet another sword-waving ethnic champion, clamouring to drag other warriors behind his chariot, around the walls of the city.

    Nelson Mandela’s voice spoke out for black Africans subjugated by apartheid, but over the years, his defiance has touched and inspired not only black South Africans, but also the victims of degradation everywhere.

    We can only hope the leaders of Hindraf (and perhaps one day, the natives of East Malaysia) will speak out to echo Mandela’s voice – to call attention to the suffering of their own ethnic group, while reaching out to others.

    There’s a Deepavali prayer that goes something like: “Let there be light where there is darkness, truth where there is untruth, and let there be nectar where there is death.”

    I would add: Let there be voices, for the voiceless.

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