The party vice-president showed his political shrewdness by taking on the oppositition face to face on a sensitive matter.
Politics is the art of seizing an opportunity on the prevailing issues to outclass others in the same profession. Not many are good at it. Among the mundane political figures of MIC, one leader recently proved that he has the political shrewdness and ability to overshadow his fellow leaders in MIC and, at the same time, taking on the opposition face to face on a sensitive issue – the Effingham Tamil school land.
That leader is M Saravanan, MIC vice-president, and Federal Territories and Urban Wellbeing Deputy Minister. Key MIC leaders, including party president G Palanivel, avoided direct debate with the opposition leaders on the Effingham Tamil school land issue, which had been widely published.
The land issue was highlighted and persistently pursued by Subang MP R Sivarasa (PKR), who alleged that three acres of land originally allocated to the Effingham Tamil school by the developers had been “hijacked” or “stolen” by MIC for its own purposes during the time of former president S Samy Vellu. Sivarasa produced documents to back his claim and called on the party to return the land on moral grounds.
In retaliation, Palanivel announced that the land legally and rightfully belongs to MIC and that the party will build educational facilities on the land benefiting the Indian community, including a student hostel, similar to the old PPN hostel established by the NUPW (National Union of Plantation Workers), which was demolished several years ago to pave the way for a condominium development.
However, the opposition team under Sivarasa doggedly pursued the issue, asking MIC to return the land. Other key MIC leaders refrained from commenting except Saravanan.
Saravanan steps in…
Saravanan took the bull by the horn. He challenged Sivarasa to a public debate on the issue, saying that since the Selangor state government is controlled by Sivarasa’s own PKR party, it can always take back the land if it had been illegally transferred to MIC.
Saravanan also challenged Sivarasa to sue MIC and reclaim the land if there are improprieties in the transfer of the disputed land.
Sivarasa avoided the public debate but preferred a public discussion to exchange views and documents. He also agreed that the land was legally transferred to MIC but should be returned on moral grounds as it rightfully belonged to the Tamil school.
While the issue received wide publicity in the Tamil press, a group of supporters went on a hunger strike in Brickfields asking MIC to return the land.
In an unprecedented manner, Saravanan went to the scene of the hunger strike and held direct talks with Sivarasa and other opposition leaders present. Finally, as a result of the frank discussions, Sivarasa’s team agreed to drop the word “stolen by MIC” when referring to the land issue and promised that they will persuade the Selangor state government to allocate another piece of land to MIC in the event the party hand over the disputed land to the Tamil school.
On his part, Saravanan promised to bring the matter to the attention of Palanivel and the party’s central working committee (CWC) on the need of the Effingham Tamil school for extra land.
Surprisingly, during all these incidents there were no comments from Palanivel on whether he has authorised Saravanan to carry on these discussions or whether he has consented to the proposals purportedly agreed to by both camps.
Other leaders also refrained from supporting Saravanan, which indicates that what Saravanan did was on his own without the blessings of the top leadership.
Effingham issue: Is it over?
The Effingham issue is far from over. The MIC’s current leadership is in a dilemma. If the MIC hands over the land back to the Tamil school, it will only prove that it did something morally wrong and the blame would then fall squarely on Samy Vellu, who engineered the land transfer with the help of former Selangor executive council member K Sivalingam. It will also be seen as a victory for the opposition against MIC and would be used as a campaign fodder in the forthcoming general election.
MIC’s proposal to build educational facilities on the disputed land is a good idea, but still it will face the wrath of the opposition which will continue to harp on the issue and which will again be highlighted during the national polls.
Whether Saravanan’s actions would be condoned or condemned by the party will only be known when the party holds its next CWC meeting.
A formula that is feasible and pleasing to both camps would be to hand over the land to the Tamil school on a long lease of, say, 50 years, with MIC still retaining ownership of the land. The land could be leased to the Tamil school for a nominal fee of RM1 per annum to be used only for the school facilities.
It must be pointed out here that the land where Sri Thandayuthabani School is located in Jalan Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, belongs to the Nattukottai Chettiar’s trust, which also manages the adjoining temple, but it has given the land to the government on a long lease for a nominal fee of RM1 per annum.
A similar proposal for Effingham would solve the issue once and for all. MIC can consider it as it will benefit the Tamil school, an issue for which the party had been struggling all these years. MIC will also not lose its credibility since it would still be retaining ownership of the land.
There might not be a compromise or conclusion to the Effingham Tamil school land issue in the near future, but one man has seized a political opportunity and has shown that he has the political shrewdness to face the opposition to debate, discuss and solve the problem.
Saravanan may have other setbacks or controversial issues surrounding him, but in the Effingham Tamil school land issue, he has clearly outclassed the other MIC leaders with his performance.
RJ Rajah is an observer and writer on politics and social issues with a keen interest partiuclarly in Malaysian Indian affairs.