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 2008Many 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.
(© Asif Akbar/sxc.hu) 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.”
Jeyakumar 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.
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.