PETALING JAYA: A researcher who has written extensively on the plight of Malaysian Indians has described marginalised members of the community as victims of a social and political system that places undue emphasis on racial differences.
Jeyaraj Rajarao, speaking at a book launch last night, said there was a kind of racism even within the Indian community itself, particularly in the early days of immigration.
“The groups of Indians who came into the country were from different castes,” he said. “They were separated right up to the different kinds of temples they could attend and the gods they worshipped.”
He said there has been no improvement in the fortunes of those in the lower castes and he attributed this to the politics of race.
“Umno is racial, MIC is racial and MCA is racial,” he said. “Even today, you have Umno and PAS gathered together to protest against the ratification of the ICERD (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination).”
He criticised those who characterise Hindraf as a chauvinistic organisation while closing their eyes to the existence of race-based political parties.
He said Hindraf deserved credit for highlighting the problems of marginalised Indians and he praised its leader, P Waytha Moorthy, for demonstrating conviction to his cause by quitting his deputy minister’s position when he felt that former prime minister Najib Razak could not keep the promises he made to the Indian community.
Several of Rajarao’s books deal specifically with estate workers, but the book launched last night is not his. It is a reprint of Michael Stenson’s Class, Race and Colonialism in Peninsular Malaysia, a large part of which also concerns estate workers.
Rajarao said the book, first published in 1980, remained relevant to contemporary Malaysia in that it contains lessons to help Malaysians “break free from the race concept” and “move towards promoting unity”.
Another speaker, academic S Nagarajan, said the rubber tappers of colonial days and their descendants became psychologically attached to the estates because they were provided with housing.
He said this caused some trauma when Malaysia started industrialising in the 80s and 90s and rubber plantations were broken up to make way for the development of modern residences and other buildings.
“When the labourers were forced out, housing was a major issue for them,” he said.
Speaking of those who were still employed in estates, he said: “For a long time, they had to make sure that one member of the family was always working in the plantation to ensure that they had their housing secured.”
He spoke of children of rubber tappers who had factory jobs in urban areas returning to work in the estates when their parents had died or retired so that they would not lose their houses.
Among the most dramatic cases of displacement of estate workers were the development of the Putrajaya metropolis and the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).
Nagarajan noted that Putrajaya displaced four large estate communities and KLIA was once home to seven such communities.
He alleged that no one fought for the needs of those who lost their houses in the two places.