I would like to weigh in on the ongoing discussion on the demand by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) that their blueprint for the Indian poor be endorsed in a binding way by Pakatan Rakyat.
But before I come to that, I would like to relate some background on the matter.
Several weeks ago, it was suggested to me by higher-ups in my party that I should go sit in on the meetings then being held between Hindraf officials and representatives of Pakatan who were mainly from PKR.
I was given to understand that the aim of the discussions was to arrive at an electoral understanding between Pakatan and Hindraf in preparation for GE13.
I was reluctant to go to the discussions.
I felt that after I had received my share of derogatory terms in recent years from Hindraf firebrands – being called on occasion a “mandore” and “oodampillai” (Tamil for “running dogs”) – I would not like to sit down and discuss issues with people who think their campaign on the plight of the Indian poor gives them a monopoly on self-righteousness.
I had always understood myself to be a striver for justice for all Malaysians, irrespective of race, with a specific concern for the Indian segment on the grounds that their plight has reached wrenching levels and deserved urgent attention.
I participated in the historic march organised by Hindraf on the streets of Kuala Lumpur on Nov 25, 2007 – the ‘Rosa Parks’ moment in the struggle for the socio-economic advancement of the Indian poor.
I’m of the view that the march catalysed the groundswell of support that enabled the opposition coalition to deny the BN at the March 2008 general election its customary two-thirds majority in Parliament.
To think that Hindraf thereby enjoyed monopoly rights of ownership to that electoral triumph was vain and presumptuous.
Demand for seats
Unfortunately, presumption and self-righteousness were the traits displayed by some Hindraf leaders since that protest march of November 2007.
Especially wounding and unwise were the derogatory terms they hurled at leaders in opposition parties belonging to Pakatan who were also striving to uplift the Indian poor.
These traits and the radical tone of the demands contained in their 18-point manifesto that Hindraf espoused on behalf of Indian Malaysians did not endear a minority rights movement to the more sizeable other sections of the Malaysian poor.
Thus when, in the course of the ongoing discussions between Hindraf and Pakatan, I heard that the movement had made a demand that Pakatan hand several parliamentary and state seats for Hindraf to contest, my initial reluctance to join in was confirmed as sound.
In recent years, while Hindraf contented themselves with self-righteous derogation of others, those who strived for the cause of the Malaysian poor and in particular the Indian destitute, kept busy, and in the areas where they happened to be elected as legislators, they render whatever help they can muster to all and sundry Malaysians in need.
When the cause of the huge numbers of stateless residents – a large proportion of whom are Indians – became urgent in the last year or so, it was politicians from PKR, DAP and PAS who coordinated the drive to press the issue in the public domain.
I’m not saying that Hindraf went AWOL during this period and over this issue but, let’s say, a whining presumption and derogation of others on behalf of the marginalised is a polarising attitude to assume.
Further, when concern over irregularities in the electoral rolls grew in the last two years to become a major issue, Malaysian activists watched as a dignified leader, Ambiga Sreenevasan, emerged to become prominent in articulation of the public pressure that was brought to bear on the Election Commission to make the necessary reforms to our electoral process.
I witnessed the effect of this newfangled leader on the Indian poor and the middle class.
Last October, at a leading hotel in Ipoh, I saw 1,000 Chinese and Indian Malaysians pay RM50 per head to hear Ambiga on the issue of electoral reform at a fundraising dinner.
Scores of Indians were seen milling at the entrance to the sold-out function, wanting to fork out the RM50 to get in but there was no more room.
Last Saturday about 2,000 people, the bulk of them Indians, braved heavy rain to gather at the community hall in Buntong, Ipoh, to hear Ambiga on the issue of clean and fair polls. The hall was packed and many were forced to stand outside.
What is the moral behind this anecdotal evidence?
It is that a leader who espouses a cause in terms that are reasonable and dignified will gather broad-based support.
I know that I would invite a hail of derogatory epithets from Hindraf supporters by saying that dignity and manners matter.
But, to me, it has been evident since last year that Hindraf’s presumption and derogation of others who work for the cause of the Indian poor have rendered them a marginal presence and not the force they were in late 2007 and 2008.
On Nov 5, 2008, at a Deepavali dinner in Wangsa Puteri in the Tebrau parliamentary constituency in Johor, I had some inkling of the waning influence of Hindraf.
Eight thousand diners, overwhelmingly Indian, attended the function organised by the Indian cohort of Johor PKR with Pakatan supremo Anwar Ibrahim in attendance.
On the same night, Hindraf organised a similar function in Kulai. The crowd at this function occupied something like 70 tables out of the 200 that were touted as sold.
I do not desire to press this anecdotal evidence to the detriment of Hindraf. I do so in pursuit of a position that invites collaboration rather than contention.
We are presented with a historic opportunity to change the Malaysian polity from its decades-old mania over race and religion to one about justice, equality of opportunity and dignity for all, especially the poor and the marginalised.
We weaken the equally decades-long quest of the opposition if we whittle aspects of that liberating quest down to the narrow specifics of race requirements rather than steering by a need-based approach to poverty eradication and the uplifting of the marginalised.
We need all parties opposed to the policies and practices of recent decades to join in a collective endeavour for reform. Tunnel vision and myopia will lose us more than it will gain us.