The Indian community is in need of a credible team of leaders who can work effectively with other communities and in the best interest of the nation: Dr Denison Jayasooria

Academic writing on Malaysian Indians has focused on the poverty and marginalisation of the community. Very little is written  as the contributions of Malaysian Indians in the field of education, medicine, law, sports, music, drama, trade unions, civil society and politics, says Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria, Principal Research Fellow, Institute of Ethnic Studies in an interview with Dr. M.Mahalingam of GRFDT


1) Could you assess the popularity of HINDRAF in GE 12 and GE13?

The events surrounding Malaysian society and the Indian community were very heated especially in 2006 & 2007 with a number of unresolved issues such as death in custody, issues pertaining to conversion of Hindus to Islam and child custody, snatching of dead bodies of converts to Islam who had not informed their families of their conversion and demolition of Hindu temples.

In addition there were a number of other grievances pertaining to Indian investment through Maika Holding, lack of opportunities in higher education and scholarships, opportunities and promotions in the civil service, urban poverty issues, and lack of access to business loans. There was also intense political fighting within the Indian community. The vernacular Tamil print media played a key role in fuelling these divisions and personality conflicts.

The grass root movement of grievance become well organised and Uthayakumar and his team played a key role in mobilising this discontent and converting it into a political force. The  political parties in opposition greatly benefited through this during the 2008 General elections. HINDRAF was popular and many mainstream politicians were caught off guard on the scale of uprising as a voice for the drown-trodden and voiceless.

Uthayakumar like the Tamil movies was someone who dared to stand up against the mighty arm of the state and political powers. However it was Prof. Ramasamy who over the years, had built up a sound intellectual argument of the UMNO hegemony and protected the MIC leaders and supporters as agents. Uthayakumar popularised this notion and challenged the system though court cases as well as street protests through a strong Indian and Hindu counter action to this dominance.

This uprising for political change was in the context of the rise of the opposition leaders like Anwar Ibrahim together with PKR, PAS and DAP providing a new political discourse for justice and fairness for all. It was essentially a call to be free from UMNO and UMNO supporting political parties.

However with the arrests and the post 2008 general elections note the divisions that emerge within the HINDRAF movement and their split. Some say they had infiltrated, others say HINDRAF did not have the institutional builders to transform the movement from a protest movement into a long term political and social-economic advocacy movement. Yet others say that some leaders were bought over.

What we note is that the movement splitting up with some leaders joining the opposition political parties and into smaller groups like Makkal Sakthi while emerging and throwing allegiance with PM Najib, the large scale mobilization in late 2007 saw the movement making a major impact in the 2008 general elections with major MIC leaders like Datoseri Samyvellu, Datuk Palanivel and Dato Sothinathan losing their parliamentary seats in 2008.

However by the 2013 general election, Waythamoorthy who led the protest from the UK and ran an effective global campaign, pledged support to the Barisan National. Many saw this as betrayal of the original struggle of HINDRAF. However, Waythamoorthy’s team in HINDRAF felt it was time to work with a political power and leadership. After talks with both Opposition and the Barisan National, Waythamoorthy was convinced that BN would be the party to work with and an MOU was signed just days before the 2013 General Elections.

The cards had turned and the overall popularity of HINDRAF was reduced. However discontent was still expressed through civil society and opposition based political parties especially the DAP and PKR remained popular.


2) HINDRAF chairman Waythamoorthy had resigned his deputy ministership from the PrimeMinister’s department. Was it a hasty decision to resign or must he have held on to the position for a little while further?

I must say that I was really surprised that Waythamoorthy lent support to the BN prior to 2013 General elections, the reason being the principles of the HINDRAF struggle and demands as per the 2007 HINDRAF document was based on a human rights framework for equality. Furthermore the nature of HINDRAF analysis and the earlier blame put on UMNO and the Malay community as their oppressors was another reason.

 I was invited to the MOU signing event in 2013 by the PM office and was present at the event. I also received, during the event,a copy of the MOU signed. HINDRAF made a major departure from its original struggle namely to approach the struggle from a human rights perspective. What was agreed upon was to addressing the socio-economic issues, needs and concerns pertaining to education, poverty etc. It was expressed that there is a long term struggle goal but there should be immediate steps for socio-economic solving of community needsespecially for those in poverty. So focus on long term later, short term is what is achievable now.

In one sense this is a realistic and pragmatic approach but a human rights struggle ensures balanced development including civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights. It must be an integrated and holistic approach and not a piece meal approach  which would not solve long term historical disadvantage issues especially  these of the displaced plantation workers who were part of the urban poor situation.

The difficulty for the HINDRAF movement is working from outside and working from within. Getting into the BN Federal government and be appointed by the PM into the Prime Minister’s department is a major concession given by Prime Minister Najib. This was in the context of massive objections by the MIC leadership.

The ability to work within the civil service system is a different skill compared to advocacy and protest which is an approach of working from outside the system. This transition from being outside of government and target of arrest by the State and then to be appointed as a Deputy Minister with the trappings of government like Police protection, government car, driver, office at the Prime Minister building are major changes for a HINDRAF activist.

Waythamoorthy was morally and politically right in raising questions and objections in public over Police action or inaction by the civil service but his strategy and approach was wrong. He  is now a Federal government official  and a Senator and appointed by the PM within the Federal administration.Therefore the struggles are within and the approach  should be persuasion and networking, monitoring and execution. He had the support of the PM and had a formal appointment. He should have given time to see change and established realistic goals towards this end.

What we heard was that Waythamoorthy resigned. Unfortunately, I don’t think he really had an ally within the corridors of power to assist and support him. I think he should have networked more closely with Dato IdrisJala and Dato Paul Low who like him were not from political parties. He could have adopted a different approach by letting the leadership on HINDRAF be assumed by another who then spoke up from outside government. He, then, as a member of the Najib administration should have met  Ministers, heads of department and government and sought to win their hearts and minds in addressing Indian concerns in order to ensure effective implementation. One has to use the government agencies as one who was in the PM’s department provided open doors to all Federal agencies.

Waythamoorthy had an advantage that others did not have. He had the support of the PM and his inclusive development agenda. He should have stuck to the MOU signed and called for the special commitment if there was a point of having no agreement between HINDRAF and the Federal government. Changes take time and there were so many things pilling up against Waythamoorthy from within and outside.

Personally, I think he should have held on and undertaken bargaining and negotiation.  This requires certain new skills and I think many non HINDRAF professional could have assisted him. But I must say I also admire him for his courage in walking out. This is illustrative that he was not after position or power or wealth but aiming to make a difference. He tried but felt justified to leave. These actions have created a major credibility gap for the movement and for him. Only time will show how he progresses and also the fate of HINDRAF as a movement.

3) Is HINDRAF still relevant to the poor Indians after its debacle with the government?

The issues that HINDRAF raised have not been fully resolved. A major section of the Indian community still feels a sense of psychological isolation as second class citizens. That race and religion should not count is still a major concern for a majority of Indians who feel that as Indians they are not being treated as full citizens. This is especially so for the bottom 40% of the Indian community who can be categorised as urban poor with many unresolved issues.

While the Government and PM Najib have done much since 2008 to address the historical grievances there are still many unresolved issues. Much has been done since 2008 but this is ongoing and we need better monitoring and measuring tools to evaluate success and failures so as to address the gaps.

4) Has the HINDRAF movement fizzled out or still active as fragmented groups?

I am not hearing much as there are too many Indian based political parties and organisations. We are a very divided society and the trust factor is a major issue. As leaders rise and fall, the community is in need of a credible team of leaders who can work effectively with other communities and in the best interest of the nation.

I don’t think like the 2007 and 2008 situation, people will look to HINDRAF for that leadership nor among many leaders in the ruling political parties at the Federal government. A number of Indian MPs in the opposition have been consistent in providing leadership since the 2008 general election Some have been re elected for a second term. They have been very vocal on Indian concerns both in Parliament and Malaysian society.However none among them have emerged as national or community leaders in the way the MIC leadership stood out in society as National Indian leaders. One reason for this among opposition MPs is that they come from multi-racial political parties like DAP and PKR and therefore have not emerged within their parties as Indian leaders.

Having said that, the Opposition Indian MPs are extremely popular in the country. There is therefore a current gap for community leaders who can work with various government agencies in resolving community concerns

5) Could you comment on the recent Malaysian National development Plan? What does it have forIndians?

The Federal government is now formulating the Eleventh Malaysia Plan (2016 -2020) and has been calling for public input. The post 2013 government agenda is clear and it emphasis Inclusive Development for all. A major step by the PM Najib is the establishment of special teams at his office which directly coordinates Indian concerns.

Currently there are three teams. The first headed by Prof NS Rajendran (a professor of education ) who is undertaking a review of the vernacular schools and charting out an action plan. The second is addressing issues pertaining to documentation of Indians (citizenship and birth certificates). This team is headed by a former human rights commissioner Dato Siva Subrmanium. This is a major complaint on securing the documentation needed to provide security for Malaysian Indians who do not have the documentation. The third is on access to business training and micro loans. This team is headed by Dr AT Raja ( a medical person turn business man) who heads this program using existing micro finance institutions set up by the federal government.

Prior to PM Najib there were no Indian focused implementation units and therefore these projects coming directly under the Prime Minister gave them a national focus. However, solving many of these concerns is time consuming. Since 2008, the Federal Government has set up institutional mechanisms for this. There are gaps and weaknesses but nonetheless there is some serious focus to ensure effective implementation


6) Is there any change of perceptions by all racial civil society groups as well as by the government to view Indian problems  as  not the ‘community problem’ alone and which are actually ‘nationalproblem’?


As I mentioned earlier in the earlier period before GE 2008 Indian concerns were seen as community concern. In the post 2008 period, the Federal government established a Cabinet Committee on Indian concerns chaired by Dato Seri Najib when he was the Deputy Prime Minister and when he became Prime Minister he continued to chair it. This is really an inter ministerial committee and the Secretary to the Government and other senior civil servants from Ministries are a part of this.

The federal government also established similar provision for the natives of Sabah and Sarawak who also had similar grievances like the Malaysian Indians

While these are good, more work needs to be done to enhance these. There is a constant challenge from Indian based political parties within the government to portray themselves as community champions. This approach does greater injustice. Therefore, adopting a rights and needs based approach as justice and fairness for all will yield better results.

7) What are the functions of Cabinet committee on Indian Affairs headed by the Prime Minister Najib? What are the achievements so far?

Cabinet committees chaired by the PM or DPM is an inter-ministerial meeting. Indian community concerns cannot be resolved by one ministry as there are overlapping concerns such as education, health, welfare, housing, employment and business development. Ensuring, there is access and inclusive agenda is imperative. At the Cabinet committee, there can be stock taking, noting the gaps and addressing the concerns in order to ensure effective solutions.

As indicated earlier in matters pertaining to Tamil school education, documentation, micro loans, skills training for underachieving youths much progress has been made. Better coordination as well as publicity and engagement with the general public is essential. This might be lacking.


8) You served as the Secretary for the Special Implementation Taskforce on the Indian Community (SITF) in the Prime Minister’s Department (August 2010 - April 2011). What were the strategies andapproaches that you suggested, and that were implemented for resolving the plight of theIndians? Why did you resign?

I was part of the team that wrote the Tenth Malaysia Plan proposals. The policy inputs done since 1999 to 2010 are well documented in one of my books.

One of our major criticisms of the Ninth Plan was the weak monitoring and implementation. Therefore one major recommendation was to establish SITF. I was asked if I would take up the new position at the PM Department for this. I was in the University and therefore requested for leave to play this new role and I was granted it.

I initially thought the work would be more policy research and monitoring but within the first 10 months or so found it to be too much of operational work. I therefore requested permission from the PM to return to the University and assist SITF only in policy research and monitoring implementation through impact assessment. However since leaving I have not been formally asked to do this, while I have been undertaking other research projects for the Federal government.

SITF role is essential but since my resignation no new person has been appointed to coordinate it while there are specific heads in the three units. Therefore the policy, monitoring and planning roles are weakened and it has now ended up as an operational task.

Some of the political leaders within SITF do not value policy research and seem comfortable with operational and short term reports which in the long run might not comprehensively address the Indian community grievances.

While PM Najib is providing the institutional infrastructure and resources there seems to be a lack of coordination and focus of the Indian politicians within the Federal government. They seem focused on short term gains especially utilising the resources to enhance their popularity and political positions.

Lots of financial resources have been handed over to voluntary organisations (religious, business and social) for the upliftment of the community. There is no comprehensive analysis of this and its impact upon the community. A professional audit, both financial and social impact, is urgently needed to turn these good efforts into political votes in the next general elections.


9) What is the general representation of Indians in all the Malaysian political parties at present? It has been debated that more Indians are backing opposition parties? Do you agree with this statement?

In the 13th Malaysian Parliament , there are 13 elected MPs out of 222 which is 5.8 % of  the 13, four or 30% are from the ruling Federal government from MIC and 9 or 70% from the opposition PKR (4) and DAP (5)

The Indians in BN especially have failed poorly in 2008 and 2013 as compared to the 2004 general elections where the BN won 10 out of the 12 seats won by Indians. The opposition only had 2 seats. Therefore there has been a major shift especially the opposition from 16% to 70% representation in the Parliament.

Yet both in terms of voters and seats, there has been a major shift in urban voter voting pattern among all the ethnic communities. Another factor is that a majority of the opposition Indian MPs are from civil society or have been part of advocacy or protest movements.


10) Could you compare and contrast Mr. Samyvellu and Mr. Palanivel as MIC chiefs? What are the challenges of MIC at present?

Political style and leadership approaches are different. Dato Seri SamyVellu is a dynamic personality speaker especially Tamil and controversial personality. He does not hold back his feelings both praises or anger. Datuk Palani is very different. He especially does not like the public stage and is  not a dynamic speaker. He rarely displays any emotion in public.

However, both are strong personalities but their styles differ. While Datuk Palani might seem a weak leader, he has one advantage over Dato Seri Samy namely that he does not have any major financial accusations or Anti-corruption agency investigations.  Also he is rarely attacked by the opposition.

While there seem to be many controversies on Dato Seri Samyvellu’s time, it is now being remembered that he was dynamic. He engaged with various groups, he organised institutions (like MIED, University, YSS) and programs. The party seemed active and got high media coverage.

Dato Palani was hardly seen in the media, nor the party featured nor the party hosting events which are well highlighted including policy research and recommendations to government. Although he is a media person he has kept away from controversy and   as a champion of the community. Some say he works better in negotiation style rather than open confrontation.

11) What is your take on racial slur ‘kafir-pendatangs’ by Isma recently? Why it recurs now and then inMalaysia?

This is wrong and a wrong understanding of Malaysian history. This nation was built on the toil of all the communities. While a majority of Malaysian Chinese and Indians came during the time of the British and worked on the colonial economy, after independence, the nation was built on the rich resources of both rubber and tin. It was only later that it diversified.Also the Federal constitution and independence struggle was a joint effort of all the communities.

Right wing politics based on political insecurity is not just a feature here but in many parts of the world. It is one position and within democratic societies they too have a place but within limits. Unfortunately when their leaders raise racial or religious right wing sentiments there seems to be very little action by authorities.

There are sufficient Penal code provisions for hate speeches or actions. The authorities must act in the best interest of the nation and community harmony. Indian political leaders must play a major role to defuse these tensions, build bridges and seek conflict resolution

It is said that this style of politics is being supported by certain sections of the ruling elite to discredit the opposition. It is politicising the issues and these developments are dangerous in the long run. Truth and justice must prevail. Federal authorities must respond in fairness and not show favouritism or double standards in the execution of the law. 

12) Is racial divide growing or declining under Najib’s rule? Are there any policy measures to improve ethnic or race relations?

At the level of everyday relationships there is peace and harmony. However the political discourse especially by politicians is racially and religiously charged. This is a contraction to the 1 Malaysia slogan of the PM who calls for greater appreciation of diversity and mutual respect. However some groups have been interpreting both ethnicity and religion from a very right wing position inconsistent with the Federal Constitution. The Federal political leaders seem to remain silent, especially the PM and this is causing insecurity among the general population.

One positive step forward was the establishment of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) on Nov 25, 2014 with the mandate to prepare the National Unity Blueprint. I am a member of the joint secretariat as our Institute of Ethnic Studies has been tasked to write the draft document with input from the 30 NUCC members and through public consultations. The NUCC is exploring and studying different legislations and mechanisms to enhance national unity, social cohesion and reconciliation.

13) The Hindu-Buddhist historical site Bujang valley was destroyed by the property developer recently. Why the Malaysian government has not taken steps to protect such priceless, historicalmonuments that were left out idle? There has been communalization of history text books by thegovernment. Could you give your comment?


There has not been much highlight on this historical site, while some Indian groups have been reminding Malaysian society about their concerns on destruction. Very often in decision making commercial interest and profits might be a greater temptation rather than preservation of historical and natural resources. The public outcry on this has come to the attention of authorities.

Selective historical writings or promotion of certain historical interpretations are a concern especially in history text books. Government has appointed panels to review this and there Indian community leaders must be vigilant in ensuring accurate historical writings are promoted. 

Greater awareness is needed and stronger public advocacy of preservation of our historical and cultural legacy. A number of research based voluntary organisations have emerged. In this context the promotion of history and cultural studies as the post graduate levels are essential.


14) What was the key role of Puan Sri JanakyAthiNahappan, who passed away very recently in Malaysian freedom struggle and in MIC?

Unfortunately I have never met her or her husband but heard a lot about them from by parents. She was outstanding in her time as the early role in the INA and the early founding of the MIC. My dad the late Daniel Jayaratnam of Banting was also in the INA and a founding member of the MIC.

I have followed the work of her husband Dato AthiNahappan, who was a Minister in the Cabinet. He is always remembered by the Royal Commission that he chaired on local government.

They were dedicated workers for the party, community and nation. I am sure they will be disappointed the way the current leaders are managing the party as well as the nation as it might not be based on the vision they had as founding members of the MIC and part of the independence struggle for Malaysia.


15) The champion of migrant worker Irene Fernandes who passed away in the recent past, was harassed by the Malaysian government for revealing the human rights abuses against migrant workers in Malaysia. Despite harassment and intimidation, she led the campaign bravely in defense of migrant workers. Has Malaysian state acknowledged her legacy or not?

Both the recent death of Ireme Fernandes and Karpal Singh are a major loss to Malaysian society. Both are Malaysians of Indian origin but they championed for all communities from a human rights basis.

Irene has fought for the rights of migrant workers and other marginalised communities including women and sex workers in Malaysian society. She is fearless in her work and paid the price for  standing up  for truth and justice.

The life of KarpalSingh is well documented in the Karpal Singh: Tiger of Jelutong, a 325-page biography of Karpal Singh, Chairman of the Democratic Action Party, written by New Zealand journalist Tim Donoghue, and published by Singapore's Marshall and Cavendish

Unfortunately as both personalities are linked to the opposition, the current ruling elites have not recognised their contributions to Malaysian society but both these personalities have won the hearts and minds of the ordinary Malaysians as reflected during their funerals and memorial services.

16) According to you, what are the contributions of Indians to Modern Malaysia?

Most academic writing on Malaysian Indians has focused on the poverty and marginalisation of the community. The studies and popular discourse have been on the working class and plantation sector and now more pertaining to urban poor in high rise flats. Very little is written  as the contributions of Malaysian Indians in the field of education, medicine, law, sports, music, drama, trade unions, civil society and politics.

We have had giants in these fields but very little is documented and the popular discourse in on the bottom 40% or crime related issues. It is a kind of stereotyping of the community and this does great damage to the image and identify of the community

Malaysian Indians played a major role in building the educational system especially the schools, with sizable number being English language school in the post-independence to the early 1970s. This also includes institutions of higher education especially in medicine and law. In these two fields, Indians continue to play a major role


Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria is the Principal Research Fellow, Institute of Ethnic Studies, UKIM, Malaysia. Published in the Star on May 13, 2013 on page 34

* The views expressed here are of Dr. Denison Jayasooria's. 

Interview Date:   Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Person Name:   Dr Denison Jayasooria

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