Readings: Future in the streets? November 28, 2007Posted by elizabethwong in Current Affairs, Democracy, Human Rights, Malaysia, Note2Self, Politics, Race Relations.
Tags: Hindraf, Marginalisation, Postcolonial
(This piece first appeared in Malaysiakini.com on 28 Nov 2007, and should provide some reflection for those who still think Sunday’s rally was ethno-religio-centric, an act akin to gorging one’s eyes to remain completely blind to the plight and pulse of the poor and marginalised.)
Future in the streets?
I had taken my grandniece to a mall to get her some materials she required to maintain her scrapbook. As she got into the mall foyer, she saw huge decorative pieces put up there to welcome the Christmas season and the New Year. She said, “So beautiful….” Then she paused for a while and said, “Thatha (Grandfather), why Deepavali not so beautiful…?”
I could not respond. Frankly, I had no immediate answer to the innocent query.
I could not explain the politics or economics of it all to a littlegirl. Nor could I share thoughts about the growing global commercial culture around Christmas. It immediately saddened me to note that this little Malaysian, hardly 8-years-old, had just uttered her first observation of a discriminatory environment she will be growing up in.
To respond, I just mumbled, “Yes…but this is beautiful…”, obviously avoiding the question. For the moment, that was it, and we were immersed in the things she needed to buy. But I was certain that the observation would be registered and archived in her long-term memory.
The meaning of this little episode dawned on me only a day later.
The young are angry
After our purchases, my grandniece and I were returning back home in a taxi. A sober, clear-headed Tamil Malaysian was in the driver’s seat. We talked, and the talk naturally moved to the call to Indians Malaysians ‘to descend’ to Kuala Lumpur on Nov 25 to march to the British High Commission to express their exploitation in this country to the Queen and the British government.
As it moved into that area of conversation, I could visibly see the agitation of the 54-year-old taxi driver. As I was reaching my residence, he told me: “My son told me the other day…’All you (older people) are working and need to take care of the family. You stay at home…We (the younger lot) will go for this rally and march to the British High Commission…If we are arrested or beaten, it is ok’.”
After a short silence, the driver added: “Our young people are really angry. I don’t blame them…”
We got off the taxi after paying the fare. I went over to a convenience store nearby to get a top-up card for my handphone, before walking back home. Some Indian Malaysians had gathered near the shop. As I passed them, I overhead their conversation, a sort of conversation that one has heard in many places: “Why are these people stopping us from going to the British High Commission? Why can’t we exercise a simple democratic right? Who are they to tell us?…We are going there in peace…All of us must go. We have to show them they cannot go on bullying us…” This was Saturday, Nov 24.
A few days before the rally…
The rally on Nov 25 called by Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) was to support a lawsuit by them against Britain, Malaysia’s former colonial power, for bringing Indians to Malaysia as indentured labourers and exploiting them for 150 years.
The suit sought a declaration that the Reid Commission Report 1957 failed to incorporate the rights of the Indian community when Malaya was granted independence. This has resulted in discrimination and marginalisation to this day. The call was also to prevent the growing state-sanctioned demolition of Hindu temples without adequate dialogue with the community or consideration for the community’s religious sentiments.
The information on the rally was spreading like wild fire…through word-of-mouth, electronic and digital means. Even those I knew who would normally not get involved with ‘politics’ or go for a political procession and all that were visibly annoyed with the government, police and MIC for trying to demonise the rally and frighten citizens from participating in it. They felt that even after 50 years of independence, large sections of the community have moved ahead very little. They want avenues to express it.
Do we have a place here?
About a week before this event, my cursory exploration captured conversations that revealed the mood of many Indian/Tamil Malaysians, whose occupation or career interest did not include ‘gansterism’.
The conversations projected one painful underlying emotional reality, a sort of a ‘collective sub-text query': “Do I and the young of my community really have a place in this nation today? Do they really care what happens to us?”
In one conversation of senior citizens, an annoyed elder acquaintance made this comment: “What irresponsible leaders we have…drawing out the keris every now and then. Do they really know the history of the keris and what it really means when you draw it out from its holder? Is (the) blood (of non-Malays) what they really want? Should any responsible leader indulge in such acts? Should they remain as leaders?…You tell me…”
Elsewhere, near a temple, I chanced to hear the following conversation, which came to my attention in many forms: “Breaking a 100-year-old temple is already bad…Breaking it right before Deepavali? What kind of people are these? How could they be so insensitive?” (Another person’s voice: “Have they forgotten that these were the very temples that spiritually sustained a labouring community that gave so much to building this nation?) We are not asking much, are we? Just respect our religious sentiments and religion…What is wrong with this country?” It was extinguishing the Light before a festival that celebrates the Light. What a harsh treatment of the soul of Indian/Tamil and Hindu community!
Of course, during such conversations and reflections, people also felt that the Umno meeting could have been done a day after Deepavali, just to mark at least the barest minimum in religious tolerance and respect. But, that is, of course, too much to ask in this country.
Treading on the emotional realities of the community, one can sense so much disappointment, anger and feeling of betrayal: “….50-years-old and where are we (Indian/ Tamil community)? We have helped build this country…with sweat, pain and our lives…But our young today have no certainty or ownership of a future here…We have been collectively exploited and betrayed…”
Instead of paying attention to these realities covering hurt emotions, desperation, concerned observations of the community’s future and critical queries on our national behaviour, the government attempted to somehow stop the call for a symbolic march to the British High Commission. The MIC was also at it. There were roadblocks in relation to the march. The police also issued a stern warning, to frighten people from exercising their rights.
This irritated a lot of people and all those who think that people have and must exercise their democratic rights. Interestingly though the police roadblocks helped spread the knowledge about the rally to non-Indians/Tamils, who were affected by the traffic jams created by the roadblocks. Some of them cursed but they came to know about the rally.
My attempts to get into the city became difficult. The LRT did not stop at KLCC or Ampang Park stations. So I took the monorail as many others did. The LRT and monorail cash collections for the day should certainly please the government. It must have been three-or four-fold more than the usual, and that from Indian Malaysians. So would have been the collections by the mobile phone companies. In a sense, the rally was good business! I joined the crowd at the Bukit Nanas monorail station. As I walked into Jalan Ampang, the gathering there simply overwhelmed me.
It was perhaps the single largest crowd of Indian/Tamil Malaysians that I have seen gathered for a political issue. One estimate puts it at 10,000 and another at 30,000. This is in addition to the several thousands more who were turned away or who had gathered at other locations. Al Jazeera reports it, as “The rally was the largest by a single ethnic group in more than a decade.”
It was a gathering in open defiance of all warnings and discouragement to peacefully assert the community’s democratic right. Even though eyewitness accounts and publicly available pictorial evidence suggest trickery and attack on those who had gathered for the rally in certain areas and the ensuing skirmishes blown out of proportion, the rally carried a message of peace. It was in a way meant to touch all democracy-loving Malaysians and show a tremendous political possibility. Gandhi’s picture was among the main placard that was carried.
The most revealing sight was the presence of young people. As a Bar Council member estimated, about 75 percent of those present were young people, perhaps between 18 and 35 years. Even the “yuppy” sorts were there, as much as working class members, professionals and people from plantations and rural areas. While the overt aim was to march to the British High Commission, the symbolic message was loud and clear: The community wants the nation and the global society to know that they, the citizens of this country, have been unjustly treated and systematically marginalised. And the presence of so many young people simply indicated that the problem of marginalisation has become an inter-generational issue.
While issues of leadership of this call to march to the British High Commission maybe a debate among the non-MIC Indian/Tamil leadership and while the post-rally career of this gathering maybe uncertain or manipulated by all kinds of progressive or reactionary forces, the spirit and implications of the presence of huge crowds of Indian/Tamils in key centres of corporate Malaysia on this day is something anyone interested in democracy in this country should pay attention to.
Ideologies and political rationalisation aside (as some groups have tried to do) and not condoning the skirmishes resulting from an unprecedented spontaneity, it was certainly a rally that was both an achievement and success in terms of the spirit of community and democracy. Unlike what it is made up to be, History will record this as a positive feature in Malaysia’s growth as a democratic nation just as the Bersih rally earlier.
It is advisable for the government and MIC to sit up to understand how to make sense of all these. That would be more fruitful than going after the organisers or its staunch supporters, and to take a stance of demonisation and revenge. Calling the rally as “haram” or as “liar” (as some sections of the journalist fraternity have done) does not help us to move forward. You can go on threatening, hurting and imprisoning people but it would be impossible to imprison a community’s feeling and perception that has bloomed into an inter-generational reality.
While the knee-jerk reaction of security would be the normal response, or a retaliatory show of force, many of us hope the government and MIC would seek a genuine political solution for the status of the community. And, certainly addressing the issues of the Indian/Tamil community would directly mean addressing the problems of many other marginalised Malaysian communities.
While we can only hope that the government’s response would be mature, we can begin to understand the deeply felt injustice among the Indian/Tamil Malaysian community members. It is growing and it has reached the young, who are beginning to realise that their future here would mean to continue to live in a world of discrimination, many of which are perceived to be state-sponsored. Unfortunately for the nation, they are beginning to address their concerns in the streets.
And as I reflect on this, I also see the career of the innocent question my little grandniece asked about the ethnically and religiously discriminatory decoration and promotional practices of our malls. Our young sense discrimination and marginalisation in the air…already. That is certainly not good.
Dr M Nadarajah is a sociologist by training. He is the secretary of the Asian Communication Network (ACN) based in St John’s University, Bangkok. He also belongs to the Asian Public Intellectuals (API) Community, a community of filmmakers, theatre people, song writers, poets, activists and academics working in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Japan for a better Asia. He works on cultural and sustainability issues.