Monday, January 07, 2008

Stop, look, listen...please!

Last Sunday, Rev Wong gave an encouraging report that churches are responding to this article by KJ John to find ways to help liberate the marginalised frm their cycle of poverty. I'm eager to see what will come out of it as the church listens to the prompting of the Spirit...

"We have an unfortunate habit of focusing on the messenger and not the message. As a result, we seek to kill the messenger and then we believe that the problem is solved. Is it really?

Whether it was armed rebellion led by militant communists between 1948 and 1960, or the cry of so-called ‘reformasi’, we have made it a habit of killing the messengers and forgetting the message.

For as long as there is real poverty and real hunger and anger, the threat of rebellion will be equally real.

Is not the core issue facing the poorer Tamil Indians (the large majority of the Indian Malaysian community) who mobilised under the Hindraf label, one of relative inequity? Let us not be too quick to dismiss this with simplistic labels and media propaganda. Maybe it is worth pausing long enough to understand the issues facing poorer Indians.

Take the situation of poor and marginalised Indians. Their issues predate even the communist struggle. The rubber plantation industry was a classic anti-communist strategy deployed by the British General and Field Commander Gerald Templer and the British private industry was co-opted to win hearts and minds of the people. Is not such a continuing war of hearts and minds still relevant today?

Is not poverty and marginalisation the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow? If the plantations were sources of national wealth creation yesterday and if that wealth was good enough to drive and develop the country then, is something wrong when the same companies are today the biggest public-listed ones, and yet we have no political will to help the original workers and their families?

What then is the meaning of the oft-sung song of corporate social responsibility or the pride of having claimed these plantations through the London Stock Exchange? We cannot afford to forget the history of the rubber plantation industry and its workers, whose families are now second or third generation Malaysians.

Alarming data

I cite facts and figures specifically from the CPPS/Asli Report entitled ‘The Case of Low-Income Malaysian Indians’, which is the only recent formal report available to me. The original was submitted to the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) for the 9th Malaysia Plan as part of the CPPS submission. My only contribution is in how I have linked it to the Hindraf problem, and then requested a progress report on the prescribed solutions, made as far back as 1991.

Based on the report, why are some classes of low-income Indian Malaysians especially from the rubber plantation sector still considered second-class citizens? I find three reasons.

It is estimated, for instance, that about 20,000 Indian women do not have Malaysian citizenship even though newer entrants from Indonesia and the Philippines have secured similar privileges through marriage and other backdoor methods.

Unlike the resettlement of bumiputras via the Felda, Risda, Felcra land schemes, there were no resettlement programmes specifically for the Indians who made up 67 percent of all Malayans of Indian origin in 1966 and who were involved in the rubber plantation industry.

In 2000, these same people made up 80 percent of Indian Malaysians in the urban areas. Their unplanned and disorganised rural-urban migration made them fall through the cracks. No society can afford such a large group of marginalised citizens. Between 1980 and 2000, it was anticipated that about 300,000 workers were displaced directly as a result of the break-up of the plantations.

In terms of house ownership, it was estimated that more than 30 percent of the lower- income Indians do not own homes, when the national average for both Chinese and Malay non-ownership is 17.6 and 25.2 percent respectively.

Other social indicators are even more shocking. There were 21.1 suicides per 100,000 Indians compared to 8.6 and 2.6 for Chinese and Malays respectively. Of the 703 suspected criminals arrested and detained at the Simpang Renggam rehabilitation centre in 2005, 54 percent were Indians. When you factor that against the fact that Indians in total only make up 7.5 percent of the population, such a high representation becomes an even more serious issue!

The CPPS study concludes this section of the analysis with these words: “Studies in developed countries have shown a link between crime and inequality and indicated that groups and gangs involved in illegal activities are more likely to form where chances of achieving success legally are small. In many countries it has been found that crime rate climbed steeply in an environment of greater affluence combined with growing inequality and a winner/loser culture.”

Problems addressed?

Have we created a win-lose culture? Are these facts alarming? Is this not maybe the problem that we need to re-examine with new and unstained glasses? Is this what maybe the Hindraf leaders are calling “ethnic cleansing”? Again, let us not be confused by the technical and legal aspects of the terms they use. It is simply their equally interpretive language to attract the world’s attention. If they did get our attention, they have succeeded in their agenda.

To be sure this is not ethnic cleansing by accepted definition, but could we pause to hear what they are really saying? If in fact many temples were destroyed in a short period of time - especially if they were built more than 50 years ago - then it is absolutely unacceptable for anyone to destroy them without at least a court order. Their legality of existence can be a contentious issue based on the principle of operation of law. It is only when emotions run wild that disregard for rule of law and the abuse of the law prevails on all sides.

As early as in 1991, the NECC Report recognised the practical conditions of the poorer Indian Malaysian. It defined the core problems and proposed the following solutions:

• Estate workers must be given a fixed monthly wage.

• Kindergartens need to be opened in plantations.

• All partially-aided Tamil schools should be converted to fully-aided ones.

• Training programmes are required for workers and youth in plantations to improve their earning capacity.

• Indians should be enabled to set up a commercial bank, a finance institution and an insurance company.

• A trust fund should be created for Indians to obtain credit facilities to invest in the share market.

• A special scholarship fund is required for Indian students to attain tertiary education abroad.

• Affirmative action measures, similar to those used to assist the bumiputra community, are needed for the Indian community.

My question to the government and particularly the EPU is: how have these issues been addressed explicitly with a perspective of improving the lot of these poorer Indians? It is now three Malaysia Plans after these recommendations were made under the uniting battle-cries of ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ and ‘Vision 2020'.

If someone can describe the programmes and policies that address these concerns, then I think the issues raised by Hindraf are not valid. But if we now have to scamper to find sources or are unable to come up with answers, then it is obvious why such a large group of people shed their psychology of fear and marched into Kuala Lumpur.

Their cause must be big enough for them to indicate that enough is enough. We only need eyes to see and ears to hear! My prayer is that everyone will put on their thinking-cap. God Bless Malaysia."

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