Friday, July 3, 2009

Wooing the Indian Malaysian vote

By Deborah Loh

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 protestors (© The Nut Graph)

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
(pic courtesy of
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.

"The truth it, 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.