PETALING JAYA: Malaysian law student P Uthayakumar was marching through London with hundreds of other young people to protest against Apartheid in South Africa when he became aware of something that gave him pause for thought.
It was 1984 and protests were widespread against the infamous institutionalised racial segregation of the country’s black population by the white minority.
To his surprise, Uthayakumar observed that the vast majority of those marching to end “white man rule” in South Africa were actually white themselves.
“That’s masyarakat madani, civilised society,” he told FMT recently. “It’s a concept PKR president Anwar Ibrahim has spoken about a lot.”
“But here it’s different, people are race-centric, even the Indian elite,” he said, adding that in Malaysia, Indians are very low in the pecking order.
Uthayakumar was one of the key figures in the early days of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) movement, which made international headlines with its rally in Kuala Lumpur in 2007.
For the past 28 years, Uthayakumar has been looking into issues of police brutality and deaths in custody.
The majority of the victims, he said, are Indians and when this is the case, more often than not, there is little uproar.
Citing the recent Batu Arang incident, where three suspected robbers were killed in a police shootout, the lawyer-turned-activist said many politicians, human rights groups and civil societies preferred to keep silent.
“In this country, when the victims are Indians, nobody cares. Where are the champions of Teoh Beng Hock?” he said, referring to the aide of a DAP assemblyman who died in the custody of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) under still disputed circumstances.
Uthayakumar is representing the families of the three men in the Batu Arang case which has stirred controversy due to conflicting versions of what exactly took place.
“When politicians are in the opposition they say one thing, but now they are in government, they sing a different tune.”
He believes that few speak up for Indian victims because they do not form a majority in any parliamentary constituency.
“In Klang, Pandamaran, Port Klang, you see a lot of Indians but they don’t form the majority so they have no voice at the highest political level,” he said.
“There are a lot of Indians in Brickfields but it is broken up into three constituencies.
“This is why Indians continue to be discriminated against over issues of citizenship, jobs, housing and so on from womb to tomb.”
He has written to the Election Commission, now led by people he knows well, regarding the creation of seven Indian-majority parliamentary seats.
He has yet to receive a reply.
Uthayakumar said he doesn’t have much confidence in existing avenues for justice like public inquests which often end in open verdicts.
According to him, even the proposed introduction of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission will mean little if it is not given any prosecution powers.
He believes only a “Malay Abraham Lincoln” can end racism in Malaysia, alluding to the US president who fought for the rights of black Americans.
But for now, he added, no one on the political scene seems to fit that bill.
“The closest person I can think of is former minister Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah. I recall him once asking Malays how they would feel if people demolished their places of worship as Hindu temples were demolished, but he is out of the picture now.”
Despite still having the resolve to take on cases pro bono, Uthayakumar admits to being pessimistic about the future.
“People get excited over issues like jawi and Dr Zakir Naik, but my focus is on real issues which affect Indians.”
“To me there is no Malaysia Baru.”