PETALING JAYA: Malaysia has been “running on the spot” for several decades for solutions to poverty in the Indian community, says Klang MP Charles Santiago, who attributes the failure to a race-based approach to tackling the problem.
He said this narrative of each political party helping its own kind had been capitalised time and again by ruling coalitions because they know “race and religion sell”.
“So the people buy it. This is why we need to move out from race and religious ideologies to something much more concrete, something about the people, justice, truth and sustainable development,” he told FMT in an exclusive interview.
“And if the country doesn’t move, we’re going to be running on the same spot for the next 10 years. The other countries have overtaken us, and we are now competing with Cambodia and Myanmar.”
The three-term DAP MP was asked if the Malaysian approach to eradicating poverty of leaving it to the race-based parties to help their respective communities had worked.
Citing the Indian Blueprint to map the community’s poverty that was launched in 2017, and which was announced again by the current government recently, Santiago said this was supposed to be implemented when Najib Razak was helming the government, and later by Pakatan Harapan.
“Nothing happened and we now have a document that is (just) sitting there. The Malaysian Indian story of poverty is part of the Malaysian narrative. I think it’s unwise for us to say there’s a Malay, Indian and Chinese problem, so we should look at it differently. Poverty is poverty, it cuts across races,” he said.
A focused approach is needed
Santiago felt the estimated RM400 million allocated since 2017 to help the community through the Socio-Economic Development of the Indian Community Unit (Sedic) which was later renamed Malaysian Indian Transformation Unit (Mitra) had not reached its intended target.
“I think the tragedy of it is that it was not focused. The money is not targeted at solving problems. Money is always going towards maintaining the political status or status quo of existing political parties and individuals. They are the beneficiaries of the money.
“The money here isn’t being directed at the Indian poor although that was the intention. I must say that the initial document is a decent one that I can support. But it was first done in 2015. Now we’re in 2021, and the country has changed quite dramatically over the years and poverty has become worse.”
Santiago said the danger of giving the responsibility to a political party or a small and powerless agency made it appear that it was not part of a national development agenda, adding that the problem affected lives and therefore had to be part of a national agenda.
“It can’t be a private project or something that’s in the periphery, it should be at the centre. Just like the way you handle poverty among Orang Asli and Malays, you have to tackle the problem of the Indian poor the same way.”
He said political leaders had control of the Mitra fund and had been doling out money to unnecessary groups, such as ones named after Indian actors, when it could have gone towards empowering young single mothers who were struggling to survive.
“This does not make sense to me. There are bigger issues like gangsterism, unemployment, alcoholism and domestic violence which are rampant in the Indian community. These are symptoms of a community suffering.
“So the government’s role is quite important here. Because you can map the Indian poverty, you know exactly where it is. This helps ensure the money goes to the right people,” he said.
Santiago also said the Orang Asli Development Department (Jakoa), which is supposed to help the Orang Asli, was “sleeping happily” and ignoring the plight of many in the community who were struggling, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I expected Jakoa to provide some food as the Orang Asli were struggling to put food on the table. Thank God the people of Klang were very generous when my office started raising funds, so we kept sending some food,” he said.