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Wooing the Indian Malaysian vote

Hindraf vigil on 27 Sept 2008

ON 25 Nov 2007, the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) burst into public consciousness through a mammoth street rally. Few doubt that Hindraf was pivotal in swinging Indian Malaysian votes away from the Barisan Nasional (BN) three months later in the March 2008 general election.

On 2 July 2009, Malaysiakini reported that Hindraf has submitted an application to the Registrar of Societies to found a new party known as Parti Hak Asasi Manusia (Paham).

But apart from Hindraf, the emergence of other Indian Malaysian political parties is a trend that warrants attention. All claim to want to represent and improve the lot of Indian Malaysians. What does this say about the community itself? And what impact do these divisions have on BN and the Pakatan Rakyat (PR)?

A few months before Hindraf, there was the Malaysian Indians United Party (MIUP) started by Datuk KS Nallakaruppan, a former Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) stalwart and close friend of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

This year saw the birth of Hindraf splinter group, the Malaysian Makkal Sakthi Party (MMSP), and the Malaysian Indian Democratic Action Front (Mindraf) founded by former journalist Manuel Lopez.

And in PAS, the party’s supporters club has seen the Indian Malaysian faction, which outnumbers Chinese Malaysian members, demand that the club be split according to racial lines.

Developments in the community’s political scene will shape the battle for Indian Malaysian votes in the 13th general election due in 2013. Already, there are early and subtle signs that the ground is shifting.

Moving quickly

Consider a few things which have happened since 3 April 2009, when Datuk Seri Najib Razak became prime minister.

The Tamil press play up criticisms of the PR by Hindraf leaders, though the organisation is banned. In Penang, Hindraf is butting heads with the DAP-led state government on behalf of Kampung Buah Pala residents whose land is to become the site of a luxury housing project.

People protesting for release of Hindraf leaders
Hindraf protesters

About two weeks after Najib took office, former Hindraf national coordinator RS Thanenthiran met with the premier to talk about the Indian Malaysian community’s grievances. By this time, two Hindraf leaders had already been released from Internal Security Act detention in one of Najib’s first moves as premier. Three other leaders would later be released on 9 May.

Thanenthiran confirms with The Nut Graph that he met Najib, remarking that his predecessor, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, did not once entertain Hindraf’s requests for a meeting or acknowledge their memorandums. A month after the meeting with Najib, Thanenthiran launched MMSP.

On the ground, BN has not wasted time wooing the community, according to reports in the Tamil press.

Take the Cameron Highlands constituency, for example. Its Member of Parliament Datuk SK Devamany says, in a phone interview, that since April, two Tamil schools have received RM500,000 and RM700,000 each. Indian Malaysians have also been promoted to head a primary school there, and the local Drainage and Irrigation Department.

Indian Malaysian sentiment towards the BN government also appears to be on the uptrend although it is still early days in Najib’s administration.

In the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research‘s 2008 fourth quarter poll on Peninsula Malaysia sentiment, 56% of Indian Malaysians surveyed disagreed when asked if Najib would make a good prime minister.

In another poll in May 2009, the first survey since Najib became prime minister, 64% of Indian Malaysians said they were satisfied when asked about his performance as premier.

Divide and conquer?

Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria, the former executive director of MIC’s Yayasan Strategik Sosial, says the emergence of different Indian Malaysian political parties indicates that the community still feels sidelined from the mainstream economy. This discontent gives room to individuals with the means and backing to start new parties.


Another cause is the lack of grassroots leaders who can identify with the rural and plantation communities in a way that western-trained leaders like PKR vice-president R Sivarasa or the DAP’s Charles Santiago cannot. Denison says these leaders are not seen as representatives of the Tamil grassroots, and believes this played a part in allowing Hindraf, and parties like MMSP to rise.

Najib’s tacit acceptance of MMSP by meeting them indicates his seriousness about winning back the non-Malay Malaysian vote. Denison observes that Najib knows BN cannot afford to be over-protective of MIC, which is embroiled in infighting and is no longer able to defend its position as the main representative of Indian Malaysians.

And while things appear quiet with MIUP and Mindraf, Najib only needs to engage the most attractive alternative to the illegal Hindraf.

As such, the speed at which MMSP’s registration was approved in May, three months after its application, gave rise to talk that the fledging party had the BN’s backing and funding.

Thanenthiran denies this and when asked again, said: “It is not important whether we support BN or PR but that we work with the party that is doing things to help the Indian [Malaysian] community.”

He claims that MMSP, which has over 30,000 members now, is self-funding.

The party has been given further legitimacy by BN, even though it is not part of the coalition, through a campaign launched in early June to find stateless Indian Malaysians—- those without birth certificates or MyKads. MMSP is tracking these cases through announcements in the Tamil press and through its grassroots network, and is forwarding the individuals’ details for the National Registration Department’s further action.

Structural change

The political divisions among Indian Malaysians may be beneficial to BN, but problematic for PR which is still learning the ropes of state administration and coalition politics.


Petaling Jaya City councilor A Thiruvenggadam, who is from PKR, feels that PR could be doing more to fill the void by introducing faster changes in certain policies.

He says the PR-led Selangor government still has not dismantled past BN policies on the procurement and awarding of contracts, which, he says, still favour Malay Malaysians. He has also angered his party leaders for going public with claims of political interference in certain council dealings, and knows he is likely to be dropped when the state government announces councilors for the new term in July.

“The Selangor PR government is still adopting all the BN policies of the past to favour one community. We are seeing BN giving aid to Tamil schools and temples but PR is doing nothing to change such policies. Indian [Malaysian] support for PR will reduce if PR doesn’t correct this,” he warns in an interview.

Devamany's picture
Devamany (Courtesy
BN, being in federal power, has the resources to court the community. But structural change is also underway, promises Devamany, who is Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department and whose portfolio includes policies on Indian Malaysian community issues for the Economic Planning Unit.

“The government is aware that piecemeal handouts to Tamil schools and temples are insufficient,” he tells The Nut Graph.

Changes in education, civil service recruitment, poverty eradication, housing, and wages, among other areas, must take place with the results documented to give visibility to the government’s efforts.

Devamany, who sits on the cabinet’s sub-committee on Indian Malaysian affairs, says this must be done because people still believe “the government doesn’t help non-Malays”.

Personality vs community

Denison notes that the history of Indian Malaysian political parties has been fraught with splits and the formation of new parties. MIC has faced competition for Indian Malaysian membership even from parties in the BN fold or those friendly to BN, such as the People’s Progressive Party, Gerakan, the Indian Progressive Front, and the Malaysian Indian Muslim Congress (Kimma).

“It can be taken as a sign that the Indian [Malaysian] community is most active politically. They are in every party, whether pro-BN or pro-PR. Their common problem, however, is that these parties tend to be personality-based which explains the splits and emergence of new parties,” he notes.

Denison believes that Indian Malaysian parties have to change from being personality-driven to community based.

Pullquote by Denison

“The truth is, Indian political activism in Malaysia has not thrived unless there are other races to help it,” he says, noting that just as MIC cannot go it alone without the rest of the BN coalition, PKR too, needs a multiracial platform to survive.

“I don’t think Indian [Malaysian] unity is necessarily the way forward,” he says.

But who eventually wins over the Indian Malaysian vote in the coming elections is still left to be seen. Favicon

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6 Responses to “Wooing the Indian Malaysian vote”

  1. no favour says:

    [How should] we feel knowing our houses are going to be demolished and the party [leaders] that promise us the sky when they need our vote just don’t want to meet us and talk to us? Please put yourself in [our] shoes and see if you will keep your mouth shut if this happens to you and your family.

  2. vera says:

    The problem is it’s all emotion, very little rational thinking. Individuals behave like actors in Bollywood movies. They all think they are heroes. Not surprisingly, opportunism thrives in this environment. There is also a trend towards Indian racism.

  3. myop101 says:

    no favour,

    This is odd. didn’t that party you are complaining about send two deputy chief ministers to attend to the needs of the villagers? On top of that, didn’t they halt the demolition works?

    Yes, the state didn’t acquire the land. But should they? Should they actually reward those people who in the first place stole the lands from you by buying it at a highly inflated price?

    Yes, you did elect the state govt but you and I know how powerless state governments are compared to the federal government who holds the purse of the nation where all policies are very much controlled centrally.

    If you feel cheated, ask yourself how secure do you think your lands will be once the state govt changes hands again to go back to those who took it from you in the first place?

  4. Gopal Raj Kumar says:

    To divide Indians along caste, political, socio-economic or religious lines is not difficult. They are divided even on causes that do not exist. It is a phenomenon unique to the Indians of Malaysia and Singapore alone. There are few other examples if any of this anywhere else in the Indian diaspora.

    True it must be said that the galvanising of Indian [Malaysian] gripes against the government of Badawi in 2007 was pivotal in swinging seats away from the BN.

    Although lacking the larger numbers of the Chinese [Malaysians] and Malay [Malaysians] in many seats, Indian [Malaysians] had sufficient numbers to hold the balance of power where the fight was close. And that included a very large number of traditional BN seats. By playing the Indian [Malaysian] card they had more voting power than their fellow citizens of the other two larger racial groups in the community. All they had to do was to vote one way or the other to allow the swing to take its effect on a seat and they did so.

    What we are now witnessing is a classic divide and rule strategy adopted by BN who learn and adapt a lot faster and in smarter ways than we care to credit them for.

    BN has set a cat amongst the pigeons by creating division in a static and symbolism-driven Hindraf, an otherwise potent force of the personality cult.

    The patience of Indian [Malaysians] who stood shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Uthayakumar and Waythamoorty has begun to wane with open challenge to their authority.

    They themselves are now finding that the individual egos of the so called leadership are beginning to take a life of their own outside Hindraf [while] still claiming to be Hindraf. The Penang agitation is but one example of the point. Five Indian [Malaysians] give you a party and five separate leaders as well. Hindraf is the best example of the point.

    However it is still early days yet and the jury appears to be out as to who will eventually be able to garner the biggest following from the spoils of Samy Vellu’s destruction along with the credibility of the MIC. Or has he been destroyed at all?

    [Indian Malaysians] are at the cross roads of their political life in Malaysia and they have too many targets in their political cross hairs. No one is yet focusing on any clear objectives in regards their political future. Too much bickering is unlikely to produce any fruitful outcomes. The months ahead will be interesting.

    Is Samy Vellu waiting and watching in the wings for the self destruction and divided small parties to take the wind out of Hindraf’s sails before he re-emerges?

    This is politics. Rooster today, feather duster tomorrow.

  5. Singh is king says:

    The worst enemy of the Indian [Malaysian] community is their own self and especially their own leaders. A lot of them voice for the community but actually they just want a high position for themselves in the government and they are obsessed with everyone worshiping them.

    If they are truly wanting their community to improve they should not fight from political ground but instead from the social aspect such fighting alcoholism and starting free tuition classes for the Indian [Malaysian] community.

    I respect those Indian leaders who do not draw support from their own community, Karpal Singh is one.

  6. kanna says:

    We should be rational in our thinking and words. The problem faced by Kg Buah Pala is sad but there is cause for it to happen. Let’s look at the reasons for its being and take into consideration the players in this fiasco. The politicians, the press, the developers and the residents of this place. Let’s rationally seek a solution and not try to become overnight heroes. And for God’s sake stop challenging the leaders who are trying to seek a solution.

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