Further he asserted, “I am not bothered by the noise made by these people who have no vision for the Indian community. None of their activities are going to divert our attention. I will see that the Indian community benefits from the fund, the children get the necessary skills, education and better employment” (The Star, Aug 12, 1999).
Before the South Indian Labour Fund (Dissolution) Bill was passed in Parliament on July 13, 1999, the Human Resources Ministry gave an assurance in the House that children of south Indian workers would be given priority in a skills training centre to be built on the SILF land in Nibong Tebal.
When winding up the debate on the Bill, then Deputy Human Resources Minister Dr Affifuddin Omar said “the government’s aim is to bring south Indians back into the mainstream of national development. The (SILF) assets will be used to develop them. More educational and training opportunities will be provided for them and this will encourage and enable them to participate more effectively in the development.”
Then came a bomb after the Arumugam Pillai Industrial Training Institute built on the SILF land began operating in January this year. There were no Indian Malaysian youths in the institute’s first intake. Samy Vellu announced after the MIC’s central committee meeting on Feb 25, 2005 that he has appealed to the Human Resources Ministry to allocate places for Indian Malaysian youths in the institute. The MIC appears to have forgotten its role in the destruction of the SILF and the promises the party made to the community in 1999.
Obscuring the events
Against this background, it is exasperating to see the attempt by Yayasan Strategik Social (YSS), the MIC’s propaganda wing, to obscure the events that led to the construction of the institute and to blame Indian Malaysian youths supposedly for failing to take advantage of available opportunities at the centre.
The government’s move to dissolve the SILF in 1999 attracted national attention after many Indian Malaysian-based NGOs protested strongly against the decision. Interested groups staged demonstrations outside Parliament and fistfights broke out between MIC activists and descendants of plantation workers in several places in July 1999. There were also heated exchanges between Samy Vellu and NGO representatives at the Parliament lobby and memorandums were submitted to the relevant ministries and government leaders against the proposed dissolution.
These strong emotions and protests are rooted in the history of the fund, which symbolised the toil and sufferings of their forefathers. The British colonial administration set up the Indian Immigration Fund in 1908 following widespread abuses of Tamil and Telugu labour from the 1830s and the consequent difficulties in luring more workers from south Indian villages to develop the rubber plantations in Malaysia.
The plantation owners and other employers of Indian labour contributed to the fund in order to facilitate recruitment, to provide better shipping and medical facilities and to repatriate the “sucked oranges” after they have outlived their usefulness in the plantations. The primary aim of the fund was to entice south Indian villagers to migrate to Malaysia to develop the rubber plantations and to build infrastructure such as roads, railways and communication networks.
However, the continued exploitation and abuses of south Indian workers, depressed wages and poor living conditions irked the nationalist movement in India which forced the colonial Indian government to ban all forms of assisted labour migration to Malaysia in 1938. The fund was subsequently used for the welfare and repatriation of the aged and destitute workers who did not have any kin to care for them in Malaysia.
The immigration fund was no longer relevant in the post-independence era. The SILF replaced the immigration fund on Sept 1, 1958 to provide for the welfare of retired plantation workers. In the early 1960s, NTS Arumugam Pillai, who bought the fragmented Krian and Sungai Jawi plantations near Nibong Tebal, allocated six hectares of Krian Estate to the SILF to build a home for the elderly, disabled plantation workers and others, including survivors of the Japanese “Death Railway” project. Over the years, the SILF also financed the education of descendants of south Indian labourers. Scholarships and loans amounting to RM470,830 were give to 699 poor Indian Malaysian students between 1962 and 1992.
The SILF beneficiaries – that is the Indian Malaysian descendants of south Indian labourers – were taken by surprise and obviously angered when the government unilaterally decided to abolish the fund and transfer its assets to state coffers in 1999. There were also speculations that the MIC would eventually take over the RM5 million in assets, which included RM2.36 million in cash and 6.07 hectares.
The NGOs and other interested groups were alarmed and rallied against the move. Surprisingly the loudest protests came from traditional allies of the MIC – the Malaysian Tamil Youth Bell Club, Malaysia Hindu Sangam, Malaysian Hindu Youth Council and the Malaysian Dravida Association. These groups were disappointed that they were not consulted and felt it was unfair to take away something that was of historical significance and has great symbolic value to a neglected community.
They insisted the government should come up with a good alternative before abolishing the fund. At the very least, the assets could be used to build a monument to remember the thousands of young south Indian workers who died of malaria, malnourishment, exhaustion, snakebite and accidents in the early years of Malaysia’s development. Indentured Tamil and Telugu labourers were first brought to work in sugar plantations in Province Wellesley (Seberang Perai) in 1833, the state where the Nibong Tebal old folk’s home was located.
The National Union of Plantation Workers proposed that a South Indian Plantation Workers Education and Development Trust Fund be set up to replace the SILF. In expressing shock over the government move, then Malaysian Trade Union Congress president Zainal Rampak suggested that the SILF be renamed Malaysian Labour Fund Board and the assets be used to finance the education of plantation workers’ children.
Calling for the spirit of the SILF to be respected, the Group of Concerned Citizens’ network of independent NGOs underscored the importance of controlling and managing the assets in the interest of Indian Malaysians who have suffered socio-economic neglect and marginalisation for more than a century. It pointed out that the community would inevitably lose out if the assets go to state coffers in spite of assurances given by the prime minister and other national government leaders to the contrary. The bureaucrats who conduct publicity campaigns and interviews to recruit and promote students or others in government institutions come from only one ethnic group. Naturally, there were fears that some ethnically biased civil servants may insist in doing things their way and ignore the government assurances.
The NGOs affiliated to the Plantation Workers Support Committee proposed that the SILF be replaced with a new fund to be managed jointly by the government and Indian Malaysian-based community organisations. Considering that thousands of resident workers were being displaced from the rubber plantations over the past two decades, these NGOs suggested that the fund could be used to resettle their families and finance the education of their children.
Samy Vellu and then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad dismissed these concerns, fears and suggestions as “rubbish” and being politically motivated. The assets were considered to be "insufficient" to implement any of the recommendations and they contended that “opposition stooges” stirred the protests to discredit the MIC.
However, as an afterthought due to the persistent protests from the NGOs and a tough general election looming in 1999, the government announced that the SILF assets would be used to build a skills training centre for the benefit of plantation workers’ children. Hence, the Human Resources Ministry made the pledge in Parliament on July 13, 1999.
Though the NGOs could not prevent an important part of Indian Malaysian history and heritage from being wiped out, they were consoled by the promises that the spirit of the SILF would live on. The community felt reassured by government leaders’ statements in Parliament and the media that the SILF assets would continue to benefit its youths. It was presumed that the institute would admit a substantial number of Indian Malaysian youths when it started functioning.
Then came the disturbing news in February 2005 that there was no Indian Malaysian youth in the institute’s first intake and of Samy Vellu requesting the ministry for places.
The MIC has not addressed some vital questions. The institute was created from the toils of yesteryear’s plantation workers for the benefit of their offspring. There were so much publicity and public promises, including in Parliament, that the institute would give priority to poor Indian Malaysian youths. Why were the promises not honoured? The community-based organisations warned all along that this would be the outcome. Why did Samy Vellu choose to belittle their protests and concerns? The SILF assets belonged to a marginalised and neglected community. RM5 million is an enormous amount for a people whose monthly wage is only RM350 and who lack basic living facilities. About 70 of their Tamil primary schools are dilapidated and in need of repairs. What was the need to force the community to surrender its valuable assets and then make it beg from a government that has been insisting Indian Malaysians should not expect state assistance?
Non-Malay Malaysians have often resisted government take over of community institutions for very obvious reasons. They do not trust a government that privileges one ethnic community in its policies and practice, though not in principles. Usually when this happens, the government's "good intention" is defeated. What really happens is that an ethnic minority community not only loses control of an institution but also opportunities it provided. It is a loss that is critical for its future and is only seen as betrayal by the government. This is precisely why Tamil Malaysians are holding on dearly to their Tamil schools and are lukewarm to the government’s Vision School concept in spite of the various pressures.
Nevertheless, YSS executive director Dr Denison Jayasooria considers the dissolution of the SILF a “success story” because the new government-financed “institute is bearing the name of an Indian personality”. Such suggestions are a kin to applying chilly powder on a wound. Jayasooria does not appear to understand the sentiments and hurt of many in the community. Even though the assets were considered “insignificant”, many Indian Malaysians saw the SILF as a monument to the toil of the south Indian workers.
The benefits were earned through hard work and not granted as charity. A fact pointed out by H.A. Campbell, a plantation owner, when he supported the proposal to set up the SILF in 1958. According to the Hansard of May 1, 1958, he was recorded as saying, “We employers fully realise the contribution that has been made towards this great rubber industry by the south Indian labourers.” After wiping out this monument, Indian Malaysians are now told to be grateful that the new institution, which does not benefit them, has an Indian name.
It is preposterous to claim that Indian Malaysian youths are not forthcoming or interested in applying for places in the new institute. Poor youths from plantations as far as Kedah have enrolled in private skills training centres in Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya and Kajang. They are financing themselves by working part time as security guards, restaurant helpers or whatever job that fits their timetable. It is highly unlikely that these youths would not want to take advantage of opportunities available in a government-subsidised institute near their homes.
All is not completely lost. The MIC can still make amends by ensuring that the government honours its pledges when the SILF was dissolved. The government must also ensure that Indian Malaysians are represented in the management and administration of the institute. This is the only way to guarantee that sufficient numbers of Indian Malaysian youths are enrolled every year. Otherwise, one will continue to hear the justification that Indian Malaysians are not interested in applying for places. However, considering the MIC’s record, the outcome is not very promising.
The chain of events is yet another replay of the plight of a politically marginalised community, which is unable to protect even small things that matter a lot to its collective memory. It is the same old story of betrayal. Unscrupulous political leaders continue to mislead and worsen their situation and clueless think-tank entrepreneurs deceive and callously blame them for their predicament.