A leader worth listening to


We ignore the backbone of civic-mindedness like MIC politician Senator V. Subramaniam, who provides important feedback on the state of the Indian community, at our peril.

Karim Raslan (The Star)

SENATOR V. Subramaniam is a 57-year-old Selangor MIC grassroots politician. He’s a tall, imposing and well-built man with a slightly incongruous head of neatly coiffed hair reminiscent of a Tamil movie star from the 70s.

When you meet him, it’s not difficult to understand why the Seremban-born leader and former insurance claims investigation executive was kicked out of the MIC three times – apparently, a record – by then party president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu.

Dubbed Bharat Maniam by his seniors because there were already too many Subramaniams in the party, he was named instead after his Petaling Jaya Barat division, though the nickname has added resonance because Bharat also means India in Sanskrit.

Subramaniam’s manner is direct and forthright as befits a community leader: “I believe it’s important to speak your mind. That’s why people should be in politics. If you don’t speak your mind it will be a one-way street.

“We cannot hide the truth. The more we hide the more we end up hurting ourselves. We have to be frank.”

When I first met him in January, he was extremely upbeat about Barisan’s chances of winning back Indian voters. He argued – and very persuasively – that a combination of the newly-appointed MIC president Datuk G. Palanivel coupled with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who is firmly committed to improving conditions within the community, would restore Indian support.

Even now, five months later, he still holds to his earlier views: “From the day Samy Vellu stepped down, things have changed and improved.”

So far, so good. However, when I met him again last week at his spartan, if well-organised, first floor division office in Petaling Jaya’s Taman Sri Manja, I noticed a slightly less ebullient manner.

Recent events had rattled the senator. As he explained: “From the start, Bersih 3.0 had very limited traction with the Indian community. Of course, we all want open, fair elections but the Bersih movement didn’t connect with our members.”

Things quickly changed after the actual demonstration as the co-chair Datuk S. Ambiga was targeted personally by various NGOs.

“The beef burger stand and the butt exercises upset many in the community. Datuk Ambiga is a respectable person. In fact, I would argue that these people helped make her a heroine.

“You can go anywhere now and ask people who is an Indian leader and they’ll say Ambiga.”

Understandably, then, the calls for the co-chair of Bersih to be hanged for treason (albeit since retracted) have only deepened the overwhelming sense of dismay, frustration and indeed anger.

Further compounding the senator’s concerns are problems linked to university matriculation.

As he explains: “Najib really understands how important education is for the community. At the Ponggal celebrations in February in Kapar, he announced that there would be 1,500 matriculation places for Indians.

“This was very well received. Now we have to ensure all the places are allocated in a transparent and fair manner.”

Perturbed by the senator’s prognosis (the Indian vote is an integral part of Barisan’s electoral strategy) and determined to get a better measure of the man, I joined him on Sunday at a Selangor state badminton youth tournament in the city.

I observed the Senator – who’s also the president of the state badminton association – as he cajoled, entreated and encouraged the many players, family members, officials and sponsors during the day, culminating in a spontaneous if slightly haphazard awards ceremony in which the tukang cerita played an unexpected role.

Grassroots leaders and activists like Subramaniam are the backbone of Barisan and indeed Malaysian civic-mindedness. They are quiet pillars of decency, dignity and professionalism.

They are also a great way of checking on the success (or failure) of Government initiatives, providing us with all-important feedback. We ignore these people at our peril.

Subramaniam’s less than rosy current assessment of Indian support for the BN is an important wake-up call.