Why the Hindraf approach is misguided

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kumarMany of the economic problems facing Indian Malaysians are also experienced by workers of all races in Malaysia – even the Malays. So the struggle for socio-economic justice must be reoriented to make it more multi-racial, says Aliran member Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, who is tipped to contest against Samy Vellu in the coming general election.

Many friends and contacts have been asking what our stand should be on the Hindraf campaign.
First of all, it is undeniable that Indians Malaysians face racial discrimination.

Such discrimination can be seen in the:
•    difficulty in getting government jobs;
•    lack of special programmes for Indian students from poor backgrounds;
•    poor state of many Tamil Primary Schools;
•    absence of laws to protect the estate community when they are evicted in the name of development; the same goes for the urban pioneers;
•    insensitive handling of Hindu temples which are demolished to make way for “development”;
•    extremely insensitive handling of cases of Indian individuals caught in “inter-faith situations”, for example Moorthy and Subashini;
•    negative profiling of Indian youth by the police and other authorities as “gangsters” and the harsh treatment of these youth when caught by police;

These are just some aspects of the reality of Indian Malaysians. Indians are made to feel that they are second-class citizens. After 50 years of Merdeka, they are beginning to resent it more and more.

Ethnic-based strategy flawed

Ethnic-based mobilisation is relatively easy to do. Malaysian society has been tutored in racial politics by the BN parties (and by some opposition parties) for the past five decades. The vast majority of Malaysians think in ethnic terms.

Ethnic-based mobilisation of Indians, however, will not be able to overcome the racial discrimination that they face.

At this point, Hindraf is asking for the:
•    cessation of the Bumiputra policy;
•    institution of affirmative policies for Indian Malaysian;
•    monetary compensation from the British government for “leaving us in this mess”!

These are emotive issues, and it is obvious that many Indian Malaysians have responded to them. But is it even remotely possible that they can be resolved by ethnic-based mobilisation of the Indians who make up only seven per cent of the population?

We should not forget that, apart from racial discrimination, the majority of Indians face economic discrimination because they are workers in a system that favours businessmen and capitalists. About 70 per cent of Indian Malaysian are workers.

The problems they face as workers include:
•    low wages. In many factories the basic pay is RM18 per day, which works out to RM468 per month;
•    the lack of job security. Outsourcing, the widespread use of contract workers, and the easy availability of migrant workers all weaken the bargaining position of Malaysian labour;
•    labour laws are being tightened and being made more pro-management;
•    low-cost adequate housing is difficult to find.
•    prices of goods are rising faster than wages… Petrol, toll and now flour…
•    basic services – health care, education, roads, water – which used to be heavily subsidised are now becoming increasingly expensive;

Malays awakening

The problems listed above are also experienced by workers of all races in Malaysia – even the Malays, who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the Bumiputra policies. Only about 20 per cent of Malay workers have jobs in government. The remainder have to work in the private sector where they too experience economic discrimination as workers in a capitalist economy. Malay workers are not exempted from the problems of low wages, job insecurity, and the rising costs of basic services.

It appears that that some sections of working class Malays are beginning to question the Bumiputera policy, which has benefited the Umno-putras and their cronies far, far more than the average Malay worker.

Consider the following:
•    the Mat Rempit phenomena. Isn’t this, in part, an expression of the frustration and resentment of ordinary Malay youth who are having difficulties finding and holding jobs because of the low-wage and migrant labour policies of the BN government;
•    more than 50 per cent of the 50,000-strong Bersih demonstration on 10 November 2007 was made of Malay youth who were not from Pas or Keadilan. They turned up because they are fed-up with the government, which is only helping a small section of the Malay elite.
•    Anwar Ibrahim has been openly calling for the ending of the Bumiputera policy, which he claims only helps the rich Umno politicians. He wants a new policy – the Agenda Baru (New Agenda) – that would be based on economic need and not on race. All poor Malaysians should get government help.
•    Pas spearheaded the Protes Coalition, which opposed the hikes in petrol and diesel prices. They are also active in the Coalitions Against Health Care and Water Privatisation. Anwar is an astute politician, and Pas does have close contact with the Malay community. Their articulation of such issues must mean that, in their assessment, ordinary Malays are resentful of government policies that favour the rich.

Playing into “the enemy’s” hand

The political choice facing Malaysian Indians is simple: Do we mobilise ourselves as Indians to fight the Bumiputera policy and ask for affirmative action for Indians? Or do we work towards a working-class coalition that fights for a better deal for all ordinary Malaysians irrespective of race?

In other words, do we use ethnic based mobilisation or class based mobilisation to fight the present state of ethnic discrimination against Indians?

Obviously, thousands of Indians have jumped onto the Hindraf bandwagon of ethnic mobilisation. But the support of large numbers does not necessarily mean that that campaign is in the long-term interest of the Indians in Malaysia. Nor does it mean that it is likely to succeed!

We salute all those who have thrown off their apathy to stand up for their rights despite the threats being made by the BN government in the media. But action for action’s sake is never enough. Action must be guided by the correct analysis, and this is where we differ with Hindraf. Though Hindraf leaders have made sacrifices and have shown courage, we believe that they are inadvertently playing into the hands of the “enemy”.

Why? Who are the major beneficiaries of the Bumiputera policy? Surely people like Najib, Hishamuddin, Khairy and other top Umno leaders must be very uncomfortable with the growing perception among the ordinary Malays that the Bumiputera policy has been abused to make a small group of Malays filthy rich – all in the name of uplifting all Malays. These Umno leaders are also worried about the coming elections for the people are frustrated with price hikes and corruption.

Ethnic mobilisation on the part of Hindraf would provide these Umno politicians with the perfect opportunity to resurrect the “Ketuanan Melayu” (Malay supremacy) issue. They could use Hindraf’s demand for the abolition of the NEP to show how “lebih” the Indians have become and to illustrate the importance of rally around Umno for race and country!

They could also usee some of the gangster groups associated with Umno to provoke a racial incident that would come in very useful for the BN in the election campaign period. Which would bring us back to the tired old BN argument that the people would have to vote for the BN to avoid another May 13!

Re-orienting the struggle

This does not mean that we should sit quietly when Indians are evicted or when houses and temples are torn down. Not at all. We have to stand with people facing eviction and bullying by developers or by the government in many estates and urban pioneer kampungs. But we should never  generalise this into an ethnic issue for all the reasons listed above.

This local struggles must continue whenever any community is faced with bullying by developers or by government. But national-level mobilisation should be undertaken by all Malaysians (from all races) and not by the Indians only.

We hope these brief explanations make sense to you. Do not retire from the struggle. Just reorient it to make it multi-racial and fight for justice for all the ordinary people of Malaysia.

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Jeyakumar Devaraj
Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, a long-time Aliran member and contributor, is the Member of Parliament for Sungai Siput. A respiratory physician who was awarded a gold medal for community service, he is also a secretariat member of the Coalition Against Health Care Privatisation and central committee member of Parti Sosialis Malaysia.

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