The future of Hindraf

By Tricia Yeoh The Nut Graph

MORE than one year after Hindraf supporters stormed the streets of Kuala Lumpur, the question remains: has the plight of Indian Malaysians been successfully addressed? Despite Hindraf leaders taking the forefront in anti-ISA (Internal Security Act) vigils, making international headlines, and creating awareness, are Indian Malaysians any closer to achieving their goals than they were before? I suspect not.

To recapitulate events leading to today, the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) was formed as a quick response to the case of M Moorthy. Malaysians will remember Moorthy as the man whose body was snatched from his family because he was claimed to have converted to Islam, hence Muslim burial rites were necessary. This ran contrary to his wife's statement that he was Hindu and could not have converted, as he lay in a coma before he died. The Hindu community was naturally angered.

Following this was a series of temple demolitions throughout 2006 and 2007, again provoking angst from Hindus, who form 75% to 80% of Indian Malaysians. Juxtaposed against a long history of economic marginalisation in plantation estates and relegation to the appalling conditions of urban squatter settlements, these incidents saw disgruntled Indian Malaysians forming a coalition to protest their plight.

This led to the massive Hindraf rally on 25 Nov 2007, which later resulted in five of its leaders being arrested under the ISA, while remaining leader P Waythamoorthy sought political exile abroad. The government accuses them of threatening national security and inciting racism. While it is true that greater caution could have been exercised in their choice of terminology, this does not discount the reality of the larger issues Hindraf stands for.

Real socioeconomic needs

The truth is that there is steady erosion of Indian Malaysian identity due to gross government neglect. The 40,000 or more stateless Indians without identity cards are excluded from participating in society at large. Their children cannot take examinations, get entrance into university, or seek gainful employment.

A special committee under the Home Affairs Ministry was formed to handle registration of stateless Indians in January 2008, but no further news has been reported since. Squatter settlements are continually plagued with alcoholism, poor health facilities, and overcrowding. Teenage school dropouts get involved in underworld activities, such as gangsterism and prostitution.

Layers of marginalisation — economic, religious, racial — compound the sense of worthlessness amongst the lowest segments of the Indian Malaysian community. Youth in particular feel alienated, disengaged and disenfranchised with the system. This essentially leads to an identity crisis carried into adulthood.

The government has not been completely unaware of the situation, but has poor political will in solving problems. Using corporate equity ownership as a measurement for economic well-being, the government's original target was to increase Indian Malaysian equity to 3% of total equity. Instead, this deteriorated steadily — from 1.5% in 2000 to 1.2% in 2004, and 1.1% in 2006.

The new target, as per the mid-term review of the Ninth Malaysia Plan tabled in 2008, is for Indian Malaysian equity to increase to 1.5%. But Indian Malaysian equity had already hit 1.5%, and this was still only halfway to the initial target of 3%. Goodies have also been announced since March 2008, the most recent being RM300 million for Tamil schools.

Judging from past behaviour, however, any disbursement flowing through the MIC — the de facto Indian Malaysian political arm of the government — is doomed to failure. Maika Holdings is a case in point. It raised RM106 million from 66,000 investors who gave up their life savings only to lose it. More than 20 years on, it is fraught with dubious losses and controversy and has only one profitable subsidiary out of 13. Never mind the fact that its chief executive officer is the son of the MIC president.

Who represents Indian Malaysians?

Samy Vellu at Sri Mariamman Temple, 5 March 2008

Indeed, MIC is no longer perceived as representing Indian Malaysians. Even its members are uncomfortable about the prolonged leadership of Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu, the longstanding party president. MIC's poor performance in the 8 Mar 2008 election showed that Indian Malaysians rejected it. The Indian Progressive Front (IPF) is now courted by the Barisan Nasional, possibly because the government acknowledges MIC's poor standing with ordinary Indian Malaysians. Whether the IPF represents the real needs of the people remains to be seen, but linking hands with an Umno-dominant government may do little to win over disgruntled Indian Malaysians.

Hindraf, however, in the minds of its followers, is perceived to champion all things Indian Malaysian — religious, economic, and racial. But more than one year after its famous rally, where does it stand? Those not imprisoned or exiled have a committee to carry out tasks. Prayers are held at temples, forums organised to commemorate the one-year anniversary, support lent from civil society, and even a hunger strike was held protesting the ISA.

Opinions vary as to the future of Hindraf as a body. While some would like for it to take on a greater political role, spokespersons stress it is apolitical. However, a September 2008 Merdeka Center survey showed 85% of Indian Malaysians favour Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as prime minister, compared with 5% for Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

The reality is that the only way for Hindraf to move forward as a credible mass movement is to create buy-in from a larger pool of society. It needs to champion broader issues, and not just those of the Hindu or even Indian Malaysian community.

In order to escape government accusations that it utilises racism for its own gain, Hindraf must begin to argue cases based on principles of civil liberties and human rights. For example, Hindraf should also speak up on unlawful mosque or church closures. It could issue press statements on the plight of stateless East Malaysians who happen to be in the same predicament as unregistered Indian Malaysians.

Supporters at Hindraf rally with banner and poster of Mahatma Gandhi (© lastsham /

Only when Hindraf can gain support from a wide spectrum of Malaysians — Indians, Chinese, and most importantly Malays — will it progress beyond its current reach.

Understandably, this is not an easy task. The natural reaction for a minority group that feels itself unjustly treated is to respond harshly, giving back as good as it gets. It is natural for the oppressed to highlight abuses in relation to their own particular communities. However, the concept of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" is not going to lead us anywhere in Malaysia.

The vision that Hindraf, and every other movement, needs is one that recognises principles of social justice above race or religion. Yes, even civil society movements must not fall into the easy psychological trap laid by politicians of playing the race or religion card. When sold with the idea that Malaysians really are, at the core, human beings of equal dignity and worth — then every problem becomes a Malaysian problem worth paying attention to.

Hindraf continues to play an important role, despite it being banned. It should now articulate its positions in a way that captivates a wider audience, precisely because the issues it represents are real, requiring urgent redress: poverty, poor education, economic marginalisation, and religious rights. And these issues are equally applicable to all Malaysians.

Tricia Yeoh believes that responses to Indian Malaysian poverty and marginalisation may be better received by Malaysians, if they are not cloaked in racial or religious language.