Reconnecting with the people

By Baradan Kuppusamy (The Star)

By visiting the grandest Hindu shrine in Malaysia, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has won over the hearts of many Indians who had previously complained that they had been sidelined for too long.

PRIME Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s visit to Batu Caves, the focal point of Hinduism in Malaysia, is a strategic move that would go a long way to assure Indians that the new administration cares for their welfare.

All three Tamil newspapers front-paged the event and gave extensive pictorial coverage in the inside pages, prominently publishing a photo of Najib wearing a white garland with red strips that reached his toes.

The gesture by Najib, coming as it does after years of alienation, the rise of Hindraf and the March 8, 2008 voter backlash, is a strategic move and a clear signal that this Prime Minister is different and willing to walk the talk.

No Prime Minister had paid an official visit to Batu Caves since the time of Tun Hussein Onn in 1979.

For some reason Batu Caves had become a preserve for Hindus, the MIC and foreign tourists with MIC president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu dominating the stage during every Thaipusam for the past three decades.

When Najib visited Batu Caves on Sunday the veteran MIC leader and his entourage were missing. They were attending an MIC meeting in Perak and Najib had a productive time with Indian businessmen, worshippers, school children and temple officials.

He did not come empty-handed either. He offered millions in additional aid for Indian entrepreneurs, new temples and Tamil schools – aid that is highly welcome to the community which had long complained that they were sidelined.

When his father Tun Abdul Razak visited Batu Caves about four decades ago he was also making a strategic gesture – mending fences in the aftermath of the May 13, 1969 race riots that saw the people alienated and hostile, Parliament suspended and the country ruled by a National Operations Council.

Then not only was Razak visiting Batu Caves, but he also regularly visited churches, mosques, wet markets and New Villages to meet the people and interact directly.

These moves were to renew the links between the people and the government that had frayed in the aftermath of the riots.

Razak wanted to reconnect with the people and eventually succeeded, releasing ISA detainees, restoring Parliament, meeting Chairman Mao and returning to win massively in the 1974 general election.

The nation today, while not as shaken as it was in 1970, is still at a crossroads since the political tsunami of the 2008 general election and the rise of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition.

The political changes and the creation of Pakatan offers an alternative to the Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled the country since independence in 1957.

A two-coalition system that many Malaysians had hoped and prayed for had arrived but has yet to evolve and take root.

The political landscape remains unclear, shaky and gripped by political grandstanding, squabbles and mudslinging, giving rise to the common question as to where all these politicking is leading to.

It is in this flux where Najib sees his work cut out for him – to give firm leadership and real direction to a nation at odds with itself and gripped by an economic downturn.

He is taking a leaf out of his father’s book – hit the road, be unconventional and open up minds and offer a new vision of society to overcome the gloom.

In that light his visit to Batu Caves is both warm and fresh and captures the imagination of the Indian community. He has caught their attention.

Leadership in the Indian community is currently being contested with traditional players fighting for their very lives and new players claiming to speak up for the community giving rise to a cacophony of discordant voices.

By visiting Batu Caves, the focal point of Hindu religious life, Najib has offered a steadying hand in a shaky situation.