In conversation with the widow of Tun Sambanthan

PETALING JAYA: As one of the country’s founders, VT Sambanthan will always be synonymous with Merdeka, during which he led the Malaysian Indian Congress.

But growing up in Sungai Siput, politics was not part of his plans.

“His real passion was education,” his widow, Umasundari Subramaniam, said in an interview with FMT.

“He always wanted to make education available to children who didn’t have access to a good school then, particularly in the estates.”

Umasundari, who was successful in her own right, serving as chairman and director of the National Land Finance Co-operative Society from 1980 to 1995 and as its president in 1995 and 1996, still lives in their modest home.

Hundreds of books on various topics line a huge bookshelf, a testament to Sambanthan’s love not only of reading, but also of photography and fast cars.

Umasundari recalled that in pre-Merdeka days, life was very difficult for the thousands of Indian labourers brought in by the British to work in the rubber estates in often inhumane conditions.

VT Sambanthan.

“Most were illiterate and they would work the whole day, earning just enough to sustain themselves. When they reached retirement age, they would get a third-class ticket back to India, often returning to nothing.”

The relatively well-born Sambanthan, who grew up among estate workers, convinced them that they could embrace Malaysia as their home rather than return to India.

He enlightened them on the vital role they played in the development of the country and their rightful place in it, along with the Malays and Chinese.

“He said he could never imagine a free Malaysia that wasn’t built on a multicultural society,” said Umasundari.

“He always felt that Indians, along with the other races, had a home in Malaysia. The choice of taking citizenship or not was theirs.”

Umasundari said Sambanthan saw this multicultural society as the key to a successful Malaysia after Merdeka.

Lasting bond with the Tunku

Over the Merdeka planning process he developed a lasting bond with Tunku Abdul Rahman and used it to advocate the equality of all Malaysians.

Their friendship even changed the way Sambanthan dressed, with the Tunku persuading him in London to abandon his dhoti in favour of handmade suits which, despite his initial reluctance, he immediately took to and bought several of.

A big part of his role was bringing Indians out of oppression and giving them dignity, making sure they saw themselves as citizens of a free country rather than just migrant labourers.

Sambanthan could do this because his upbringing meant that although not one of their own, he was able to connect with estate workers and understand the difficulties they faced.

His father, who came to Malaysia from India in 1896, owned several rubber estates and was close to his workers, taking an interest in their welfare and giving them good quality housing, which was not the norm back then.

His mother would also help look after the workers, attending to them when they fell ill.

The family also made contributions to a Chinese school in Sungai Siput and helped out the kampung folk.

So Sambanthan grew up mixing with people from all walks of life and was exposed to a multicultural society from an early age.

His passion for education stemmed not just from his own love of reading and learning, but also from his belief that it was a way out of poverty for the underprivileged.

The graduate of Annamalai University in Tamil Nadu had a strong desire to see the poor enjoy easy access to quality educational opportunities from pre-school all the way to tertiary level.

“That’s one reason why he was later motivated to enter politics, to do more for education for all,” said Umasundari.

‘What would Sambanthan think now?’

She added that Sambanthan felt strongly about racial harmony and the importance of respect for Malaysia’s multicultural heritage.

“Race relations were of the utmost importance to him,” she said. “He would have been distressed by the racial polarisation we are seeing in the country today.”

She said transparency and accountability in government were also very important to Sambanthan and that he never used his position for personal gain.

“While he was in office, he did not allow any renovations of our family home. We were not allowed to replace even one broken tile on the roof because he didn’t want the public to think their money was being misused for his family’s comfort. He would be saddened by the corruption at all levels of government these days.”

She said Sambanthan, a signatory of the Merdeka Agreement, would have been very proud of the people for rising up in this year’s general election to achieve real change.

“The point of Merdeka was self-determination and to empower the rakyat as citizens.”

Sambanthan, who died in 1979, longed for the day of a more united Malaysia as he did not like racial polarisation, according to his wife. And for her, that seems to have happened this year.

“The people were very mature. They took the right steps and used their votes for change. That means they care for their country and our future.”

She smiles. “Yes, he would have been very proud of us.”