Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sad road to Seetha’s suicide

I wrote the article below before news broke of Seetha’s passing. May she rest in peace. My prayers for her.

Words cannot hope to convey the plight of R Seetha (photo) who is in critical condition after her suicide bid.

NONEMine are hopelessly inadequate and I can only offer them in sympathy hearing that Seetha might die. Ingesting paraquat like she did causes liver, lung, heart or kidney failure within several days that can result in death.

In 2006, another young Indian woman M Sanggita took her four children to Sungei Gadut near Seremban to wait for the train to Singapore. The family was not going for a holiday but to their deaths.

Can you imagine such a state of mind where having the train run over you seems better than living? Sanggita, 30, and two of her children were killed that July day lying across the railway tracks.

“There is no use for all of us to live. I pity my kids. They have no future here. Let us be with God,” pleaded Sanggita in her suicide note.

She lamented that she could find no solace. “If given the opportunity, we would all come back as angels to help those in need,” the note ended. Like Sanggita, Seetha lived also in Negri Sembilan and perhaps angels did watch over her four children. Thankfully, they will – we’re hopeful – pull through after sipping the weed killer given by their mother.

Some people have called for Seetha to be charged with attempted murder.

It’s been reported that Seetha promised her children that if they drank the poison, they could meet their youngest uncle again who had been gunned down by police. I don’t think Seetha had it in mind to brutally kill her children – certainly not in the same way that police had done her brother Surendran.

Doubtless, I cannot claim to fathom what was going through her mind that tipped her over the edge. But neither can those condemning her imagine what Seetha has had to endure in her short life thus far. From the story fragments that have come to public knowledge, we can at best speculate.

A closed Tamil society

Seetha’s husband M Manimaran said his wife had told him that she wanted to see the departed Surendran and be with him.

rampathy police report_seetha dad_ 15112009Her father R Rampathy (far left) in his police report had said: “Seetha terlalu sayang kepada Surendran. Dia selalu nangis di hadapan gambar Surendran yang meninggal.”

The picture they paint is one of a woman consumed by inconsolable grief. For most of us, we lose our loved ones to old age or they succumb to natural causes. For the Tamil underclass like Seetha, death can visit a male sibling in a hail of bullets or occurring in the police lock-up. This comes about due to the chronic socio-economic deprivation of the community.

So, no, those comfortable armchair critics of Seetha can’t even begin to comprehend her anguish and the perennial dark cloud hanging when one is mired in poverty. Her father is a security guard; her husband a lorry driver. Both are low status and low pay jobs.

Seetha is a housewife; her mother is a housewife. A feminine shroud encloses homemakers in the still highly patriarchal Tamil society. The women’s limited life experience may not have allowed them to acquire the coping mechanisms that our ’survival of the fittest’ advocates, preaching fortitude, would like to think everyone else should possess.

The defeatist proletariat, denied access to empowering education, does not enjoy the buffer zone that better-off Malaysians have when it comes to confronting adversity and despair. Not just the shock of violent, sudden death but the depression that daily dampens their dispiriting environment.

Worlds apart, chasm between

A poor family earns a combined income of under RM1,092 monthly. This amount is all that a household – usually calculated as a unit comprising five members – has at their disposal to cover all expenditure including housing, utilities, food, schooling expenses and transport.

On the other hand, an affluent young couple may spend more than a thousand ringgit a month on milk powder alone for two young children, what with the price of things skyrocketing nowadays.

I’ve given the example above of two sets of people whose finances are at opposite ends. Wouldn’t their thinking norms be very different too? Seetha’s critics simply have no inkling of the facets of her world.

Do you know how many percent of Indians earn only around a thousand ringgit? The answer is 108,000 households … five years ago (certainly more poor people today). These 540,000 souls make up the bottom 30% of the 1.8 million total Indian population, according to the Social Strategic Foundation report of April 2005.

More data: From the Household Income Survey 2004 by the Economic Planning Unit and Department of Statistics. On the incidence of urban poverty, Bumiputera register 4.1%, Chinese 0.4% and Indian 2.4%.


Now compare with their respective population ratio that same year: Bumiputera was 61%, Chinese 24% and Indian 7% out of 25.6 million Malaysians. Indians who comprised a mere 7% of this country in 2004 showed a disproportionately high poverty rate in stark contrast to Chinese and Malays.

“You are on your own. Don’t hold out your hand because nothing will fall into it.” This quote is attributed to long overstaying MIC president Samy Vellu in the book ‘The Malaysian Indians’ by Muzafar Desmond Tate.

Heck, not only are the poor Indians refused help, even what little they had was taken away from them.

Rendered jobless and homeless

In 1980, plantation workers still accounted for over half of the entire Indian community, wrote Muzafar. What has been happening since then is that the plantations have been fragmented and their workers evicted from the labourer quarters.

The Putrajaya mega-project dislodged estate workers too (Golden Hope plantations among them) and in Mahathirville’s 4,580 hectares, there is no room for the Indians; you don’t see them in this shiny new administrative capital.

estate worker suhakam chairman resignation 080207 workersRubber estates like Golden Hope, Guthrie, Sime Darby and Boustead had been colonial enterprises.

Then, government agencies like Pemodalan Nasional Berhad took over Sime Darby (today merged with Guthrie and Golden Hope) while Lembaga Tabung Angkatan Tentera acquired a controlling equity interest in Boustead. Now owned by government-linked Malays and managed by Malays, these corporations are developing the previously plantation land into lucrative real estate properties and new townships.

Oh well, too bad for the hapless Indians. Its displaced young generation drift to urban settlements and create slums.

As mentioned earlier, about 7% of the Malaysian general population is Indian but in their making up 16.1% of squatters, the ratio is double, not proportional. It’s hardly surprising that the Indian quota for low-cost rented accommodation with KL City Hall is always exhausted.

Meanwhile in Penang, a report submitted to the state government by the Socio-economic and Environmental Research Institute (Seri) in November 1998 revealed deplorable housing conditions.

Five percent of the survey respondents lived in containers while in Sungai Tiram, the majority of respondents lived in shacks which used to provide shelter for animals before. Ten years down the road, Penang kindly gave Indians the Kg Buah Pala saga.

The poverty trap led Surendran to his fateful meeting with destiny and trigger-happy cops. Seetha is the collateral damage. Can’t their circumstances and they too be considered hostage to the Indian condition?

NONEHuman Rights Party pro-tem secretary-general P Uthayakumar has intimated that should she die, he will bring her body to Parliament to drive home the point that police shootings of racially profiled and so-called ’suspects’ must stop.

Uthaya’s threat recalls the self-immolation or suicide by fire, of Buddhist monks to protest the Vietnamese regime in the 1960s.

Perhaps it will take a drastic measure like a frail, pretty corpse brought outside Parliament under the glare of international media attention to finally open Malaysia’s eyes. A deliberately neglected community is at the end of its tether, if only you knew.

hindraf british petition rally 251107Do you remember the unforgettable Hindraf rally images of Indians passively allowing themselves be drenched by chemical-laced water fired by the FRU cannons? How would an ordinary robust individual react in the same circumstances? You’d run.

So how did a swathe of marginalized Malaysians come to such pass that they squat wet in the street like martyrs with nothing else to lose?

Some have slammed Seetha for attempting to take her own life. Can these censorious people please try to plumb the question that plagued one who deserves only our compassion: ‘What’s there to live for?’

HELEN ANG is a Malaysiakini columnist.