THE little-known Parti Punjabi Malaysia (PPM) got a spot in the newspapers recently when it elected its first woman president, Dr Susheel Kaur, a senior consultant in social impact studies and population geography.
The 24-year-old party has been trying to join the Barisan Nasional (BN) for the last 10 years. PPM represents less than 2.5% of the 130,000-strong Punjabi community in Malaysia. It is among other small parties hoping to become BN component members, such as the Indian Progressive Front and the Malaysian Indian Muslim Congress (Kimma).
PPM’s latest application to join the BN was made on 2 Feb 2010. Will PPM and other parties stand a chance now that the BN is considering direct membership? At the same time, while noncommittal, Susheel is not closed to the idea of the party joining the federal opposition. But she stresses that it’s “wait and see” first.
In a phone interview with The Nut Graph on 7 May 2010, Susheel, who was PPM secretary for 10 years, touches on why a small party of 3,000 members would feel strongly about membership in the BN.
Susheel (in red) announced as new party president with other PPM committee members
(Pic courtesy of Susheel Kaur)
TNG: What direction will you take the party in?
Dr Susheel Kaur: I will have to discuss the party’s direction with my committee members first; it cannot be my decision alone. I also have to wait for the BN to reply to our letter requesting to join the coalition, last written in early February. Time will tell.
The party has been unsuccessful in its repeated attempts to join the BN. Were reasons given?
They did not give any rejection letter as such, but neither did we receive any reply. But from BN insiders, we understand that the MIC is against us joining. The BN is made up of  component parties, and all have to give consent if a new party wants to join. [We understand that the] MIC has been putting [its] foot down because they already represent the Indian [Malaysian] community. No doubt they do, we also have [ethnic] Punjabis [who are MIC members]. Yet in order to have a stronger voice for our community, we want to have our own party.
PPM is a registered political party and it took four years [to register], from 1982 to 1986. We are now also registered with the Election Commission. So why can’t we try to join the BN?
Why is it so important to be a part of the BN?
It is the ruling party. From the beginning, we have wanted to be part of the ruling party rather than the opposition. That’s the way people feel. When you tell people that your political party belongs to the opposition, they look at you differently. Whatever it is, it is still BN that is ruling the government.
Certainly, given some time, the opposition can also do good. You need a strong opposition, but we want to be part of the ruling party to make things easier for our community.
We are for the BN, and we have been pushing hard to join it for so long. We have openly stated our support for the BN. But nothing seems to be working. Maybe we are too small in numbers. That could be a reason.
The first thing now is to strengthen our membership. We admit members of Punjabi origin immaterial of their religion; we will accept Punjabi Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians. Our community is scattered in different parts of the country, so we have to be part of the ruling government if we want to get our political voice heard.
What are the needs of the community that you feel a specific Punjabi political voice is needed?
Like any other citizen, we would like more allocations for seats in local universities for our students who do well. There are many who get good grades but they don’t get university placements.
Secondly, we need assistance in social welfare. We have a lot of poor among us. I have thought of registering them with [the government's] e-Kasih, but it’s not easy because I have to identify the people first before that. The census we have doesn’t give us the spatial spread of the poor.
And it lumps all Indian [Malaysians] together, whether they are Tamil or Ceylonese. Punjabis are lumped together with the Indian [Malaysians], too. The problem is also that some Punjabis, when a census is done, will say they are under the “Indian” [Malaysian] category, while others will consider themselves as “Others”.
So we don’t have proper records of where our people are. The data that is currently used was based on a 1971 census which gave a breakdown of where Punjabi people are because that census recorded different categories like Tamil, Telegu, and so on. But my projections now are no longer valid because it is based on old data.
Why isn’t the party more active in recruiting?
We have not been active, due to various reasons. Maybe now is the time, as we have a younger group of committee members. I hope this fact will help in the recruitment of members.
Our recruitment problems have been that the first thing people asked was, “What can the party do for us?”, or “Can the party give datukship or not?” People have those kinds of motives and are not thinking about serving the community.
So if the party fails to be accepted into the BN, is it at risk of losing members?
I don’t think we will lose members as such, because people of our community are everywhere. If we decide to join the opposition, it will be with the blessing of party members.
Is joining the Pakatan Rakyat a serious option if you are not admitted into the BN?
It will depend on how things move once we get a response from the BN. Maybe one of these days we’ll get a positive response. At the moment we have to wait and see.
Why stay as a race-based party when there is greater awareness now for multiracial politics?
Well, Umno is Malay [Malaysian], the MCA is Chinese [Malaysian], the MIC is Indian [Malaysian]. The DAP is still mainly Chinese [Malaysian], with some prominent Indian [Malaysians]. Certainly a lot of people do ask us why we still want to identify with racial categories. They say we should get rid of that as we are all Malaysians.
Yes, I do believe we are all Malaysians, but we still identify ourselves as Malaysian Indian or Malaysian Chinese. Our political system is race-based, and it’s difficult to break that.
Are there many women leaders in the party?
We now have another woman in our main committee, a former police assistant superintendent, [who] will in future lead the women’s wing. [We have] well-educated women in the Punjabi community who hold good positions, some even better than their husbands. In terms of membership, we still have more men, but we intend to change that.
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