MIC on the path to recovery

The Indian community is warming up to the party but there is still more to be done before the next general election.

The MIC will not suffer the calamity of 2008 although we are not certain of how much support we have now in terms of percentage. But we do know that the Indians are now more confident of MIC and they can make a difference. In Penang, Indians can be the deciding factor in nine seats. In many state and parliamentary constituencies throughout the country, their votes would be crucial.


DATUK G. Palanivel marked his first year as MIC president on Dec 6 with a stubble on his face. He was into the second week of his 16-day of mourning for his mother A. Letcimi, 92, who passed away on Nov 23.

But proximately after the last rites, it was back to work for the 62-year-old leader.

In an interview with Sunday Star conducted over his vegetarian lunch, he spoke about the changes that have taken place since he took over from Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu, his colourful but often acerbic predecessor.

Palanivel, a former lecturer, consumer activist and journalist, said he had always worked hard since young.

“I don’t show off or speak loudly but I think I provide a type of leadership that has worked out well so far,” he said.

Asked about the most significant changes under his leadership, he said the turnaround for the party has already begun and the focus now was on working for the people.

As for the MIC’s strength in facing the next general election, Palanivel said he was confident it would not suffer the catastrophic blow of 2008 when he and Samy Vellu were among the casualties.

But he was quick to add that although the Indian community was warming up to the MIC, there was still a lot of work to do to regain its full confidence.

Below are excerpts from the interview.

Q: You have marked your first year as MIC president. How would you describe the ride so far?

A: My first year as head of the party has seen some changes. I can empathically say that the MIC has become a “working” party. The Central Working Committee (CWC) is living up to its name.

On my part, I have become an active listener. I have given power to the members and leaders to speak their minds.

We have also moved forward in effectively mobilising crowds. For the Tamil New Year gathering, we attracted thousands of people, including non-members and people who did not like us in the past.

Our Deepavali open house, held at Batu Caves for the first time instead of the usual PWTC or other halls, attracted a huge crowd. It was the result of “thinking out of the box”. The PM and DPM were touched by the huge numbers and the pleasant atmosphere. The PM’s SMS after the event was: “MIC’s open house is truly for the people” while the DPM’s was: “Congrats! Beginning of a great tradition.”

The national-level Deepavali do at Kota Raja in Klang was even bigger. An estimated 24,000 turned up. All these indicate that the Indian support for the MIC and Barisan Nasional is coming back.

> December also marks your fifth month as a Cabinet minister the MIC’s second after three decades. What are the immediate tangible results for the community and what are the expectations for long-term benefits?

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has entrusted me with a vital responsibility by appointing me as lead minister for the economic transformation of the Indian community under Pemandu. My first and most important task is to work towards the creation of successful Indian entrepreneurs within the next 10 years.

If we have 50,000 entrepreneurs, we would be able to create better employment opportunities, provide better support for the community, Tamil schools, temples and NGOs helping the poor.

We have to bring the community back into the mainstream of economic development. Indians have been left behind in the rut and (they) are nowhere near the other main races.

The party leadership will hold a roadshow to gauge the expectations of the community and also meet people involved in the various business sectors to fine-tune our short, mid and long-term strategies.

For a start, emphasis would be on “Little India” areas in towns and cities all over the country. We want these hubs to be thriving throughout the year and not only during Deepavali.

The leadership is also engaging Indian contractors to get their input for the community’s participation in GLCs and private sector business opportunities.

Work is also being done to help the Indian chambers of commerce to link up effectively with the bumiputra, Chinese and international chambers of commerce.

> What are some of the initiatives being undertaken to address long-standing Indian issues?

There is a Cabinet Committee on Indian Issues chaired by the PM to ensure participation of Indians in government programmes. After I joined the Cabinet, the PM has approved many things which I made specific requests for. Among them are the RM8mil for the Suria Cooperative to provide financial help to small businesses, and RM100mil under Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia for micro-credit loans especially for the urban poor.

An extra RM100mil has also been given for the development of Tamil schools, over the Education Ministry’s approved allocation.

The PM has also approved RM3mil for “Reach and Teach Malaysia” undertaken by the Community Builders Foundation (CBF), of which I am the chairman. Under the programme, backward pupils from Tamil schools are handpicked for skills in reading and writing in English and Bahasa Malaysia and arithmetic.

The CBF is also involved in the kindergarten programme to help children whose parents cannot afford pre-school education. Currently there are 891 children in 34 kindergartens.

> The next general election is looming. How prepared is the MIC in terms of strength on the ground and ability to win back the support it lost to the Opposition in 2008?

The MIC will not suffer the calamity of 2008 although we are not certain of how much support we have now in terms of percentage. But we do know that the Indians are now more confident of MIC and they can make a difference. In Penang, Indians can be the deciding factor in nine seats. In many state and parliamentary constituencies throughout the country, their votes would be crucial.

> If the MIC takes Umno’s cue in only picking winnable candidates, what can we expect to see in the selection?

For the MIC, “winnable candidates” are those who have a good reputation, credibility and integrity. They need not be those who are popular or publicity crazy. They must be those whom the public can accept, especially if they have served the party well.

The next GE will be the polls of the people. Of course, there will be the party bloc of voters but beyond this there will be a clear public swing.

It is up to how the Barisan Nasional can win over the voters. So, rather than just talking about “winnable candidates”, we should be focusing more on efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people.

Hard thinking is needed to achieve this. The Government must come out with fantastic across-the-board initiatives. The first initiative has already been made through the 2012 Budget. The benefits and goodies must go down to the ground.

There must be tangible changes in the civil service, including an equitable mix in the number of staff, new intakes and promotions. There must be opportunities for all races in contracts, employment and scholarships.

At the local government level, all urgent problems must be resolved immediately. Housing is a major issue. There is an outcry for affordable houses and affordable rents. The poor and the middle-income group must have access to houses they can afford. There is no cheap rental anymore in the urban areas.

Health is another issue. There are still people who do not have access to healthcare, especially those who suffer from serious diseases like cancer and kidney problems in the rural areas.

Education is another major concern. Our dropout rate is high. The focus should be on real human capital development, not just on pass or fair or the number of As.

> Throughout the MIC’s history, there have been splits between the No. 1 and No. 2, albeit not as bitter as the one between the longest serving president and the longest serving deputy. Now, there are rumours of a rift between you and Datuk Dr S. Subramaniam. Is this true?

I have no rift with him. I don’t have groups or factions supporting me. I must say that I recommended to Datuk Seri Samy Vellu that Datuk Dr Subramaniam be appointed secretary-general. He wanted to appoint someone else, but I said: “No way.”

There was a recent online news article quoting him about this. But the deputy president has already sent me a text saying that the report was “distorted and misleading”. He also said he was going to clarify it.