THE Hindraf movement captured the imagination of not only the Indian Malaysian community but all communities in Malaysia in their ability to mobilise mass protests against the Barisan Nasional (BN)-led government. This was reflected by a major swing against the BN and the MIC during the 12th general elections.
At the heart of the matter was the movement’s claim of the socio-economic neglect of the Tamil/Hindu community in Malaysia.
Some of the data provided by the movement’s leaders might be questionable, their methods unorthodox and their analysis offensive to a section of the Malay Malaysian elite within the ruling party. But their core concerns and grievances are real. And this perception of grievances is shared by a majority of Indian Malaysians as reflected in the voting patterns during the 12th general election.
According to critics, discontentment and disillusionment remains at a high level against the BN and the MIC leadership.
Hope in the opposition
A large section of the Indian Malaysian community feels that alternative leaders from opposition political parties such as the DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) can better represent their interest in an alternative multi-racial coalition.
While the MIC and the BN government has announced many special measures for Tamil school rebuilding, micro credit loans, business and skills training for youths since 8 March 2008, these are still viewed as piece meal: too micro to address the root issues, and hence incapable of recapturing the majority of Indian Malaysian appreciation.
However, discontent against opposition leaders at the state and local government levels has also emerged. While political change through representation has come especially in a number of states, it has not been translated fast enough in socio- economic terms. This is because the root grievances of the poorer sections of the Tamil community require social development intervention by the public sector largely controlled by federal agencies.
Banner in Bukit Selambau rejecting all Indian Malaysian candidates from PKR, asides from Hindraf’s RS Thanenthiran
While the voters swung toward parties like the DAP and PKR, they have not been institutionalised within these parties as members. Hindraf and Makkal Sakhti supporters want these parties to take their voter base seriously. For example, they wanted PKR to field its candidate of choice in Bukit Selambau, Kedah for the 7 April by-election. This did not materialise. Further, the choice of the PKR candidate has not been well received by some local Indian Malaysian leaders within PKR and the local community.
It is too early to say if the Indian Malaysian voters in Bukit Selambau will truly swing back to the BN as forecast by some people, as the community’s core grievances remain unresolved.
An opportunity for BN
Kedah MIC Youth chief SK Suresh (third from left) in front of the BN’s operation centre in Bukit Selambau
However, the MIC now has an opportunity in Bukit Selambau to test the waters and humbly win back the confidence of the Indian Malaysian community again.
Furthermore, what has emerged is that the BN through default might make tremendous gains from the confusion caused by some of the Indian Malaysian leaders within the opposition, who have openly defied the opposition leader’s choice of the PKR candidate in Bukit Selambau.
This is why the MIC must view the vacuum created in political representation of the Indian Malaysian community with some urgency. It must move beyond rebranding itself and make fundamental leadership and structural changes which can recapture the confidence of not only the Indian Malaysian community but all Malaysians as a whole.
What is clearly evident in contemporary Indian Malaysian politics is that there are no commanding national political leaders who can mass mobilise the community today.
It is a fragmented community which is divided politically into small splinter groups affiliated with the MIC, Gerakan, People’s Progressive Party or Indian Progressive Front, with many more now under DAP and PKR. However, none are able to command the respect of a majority of the Indian Malaysian community.
From the Hindraf candlelight march, 27 September 2008 (pic by Danny Lim)
With the key Hindraf leaders still detained under the Internal Security Act, the Hindraf/Makkal Sakhti movement will have to re-strategise in order to enhance their political power and influence. If this does not materialise, then the spirit of the movement and its uprising will remain in the heart of a majority of Indian Malaysians but it might not be as dynamic a force as it was in March 2008.
Furthermore, as Bukit Selambau has shown, individual leaders can take advantage of their perceived influence and exploit it for their own good, rather than for the community.
Hence, it is imperative for the Indian Malaysian community to note that sustained political action requires leadership, funding, structure and institutions. The movement for socio-political changes requires long term strategies and actions.
The community must recognise that this is not an individual battle. It requires political partners from other communities in order for it to have a role in government administration.
The Indian community hopes the incoming administration under the new prime minister will bring about a better deal for Indian Malaysians.
Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria is a Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethnic Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and a member of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia. Views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the institutions he is associated with.