PETALING JAYA: Taking charge of MIC – a party known for chair-throwing and fist fights in the 1960s and 70s – after a bitter fight for leadership in 1979 and leading it for 31 years was no mean feat.
Not one of the president’s men at the time, S Samy Vellu’s political journey was fraught with obstacles, but his determination, autocratic style and mesmerising oratory skills eventually won party members over.
Even his harshest critics will concede that MIC would have had a much rougher political journey if not for his iron-fisted rule.
Party members who dared to stand up to him were always in for a harrowing experience, with some even describing it as being like children admonished by their fathers.
Past leaders say many would walk away angry and disappointed, only to return meekly later to show support for his larger-than-life character.
In fact, the only leader who ever stood up to his onslaught and dared to repeatedly fight him for the top MIC post was his deputy, the late S Subramaniam. Known for their bitter political differences over almost 30 years, Samy Vellu eventually ended the political career of his nemesis at the party’s 2006 elections.
Unlike some Indian Malaysian leaders who tended to be followers of certain politicians in India, Samy Vellu was a self-styled leader who paid scant regard to what others thought of him because he had total control of the party. He also had the confidence and respect of all BN component party leaders.
Throughout his tenure as president, party members accepted his absolute control of the party without complaint. Many revered him as a demi-god, with some even falling at his feet in gratitude after receiving favours.
His autocratic style brought some semblance of stability to MIC. He enjoyed a close relationship with long-time former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, which ensured that the party was represented in government, although MIC was always seen as being subservient to Umno.
Former Cabinet colleagues remember him as being among those who argued their cases strongly at meetings, while his special friendship enabled him to push through specific programmes for the benefit of the Indian community.
His brash “shoot from the hip” style when talking to reporters made him a newsman’s delight, ensuring news editors front-page material every time reporters covered events he officiated.
Some of Samy Vellu’s hilarious comments still make the rounds today. One of his more memorable quips was made in 2017, in response to a comment that he was being overly critical of G Palanivel, his successor as MIC president.
He said: “When you become the president of MIC, even the cat on the road has the right to criticise you. The people who say this (that he was being being overly critical of Palanivel) are some of his cronies. These are people who I never allowed into my office. You know why? Because you cannot put monkeys in your office.”
His career had its fair share of setbacks as well, including the controversial Maika Holdings Berhad, MIC’s investment arm, which turned unsuccessful several years after its launch.
Despite his many promises, the company’s investors, who included poorer party members who had pawned their jewellery and mortgaged their property to invest, lost out.
Among Samy Vellu’s notable successes, the Asian Institute of Medicine, Science and Technology (AIMST) in Kedah and Tafe College in Negeri Sembilan stand out.
His illustrious political career, however, came to an end after his shock loss in the 2008 general election when he was defeated in his Sungai Siput stronghold by Parti Sosialis Malaysia’s Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj. He was one of several political heavyweights who lost in that election.
It was all the more shocking as he was defending a seat he had held for a record eight consecutive terms since 1974. Finding it difficult to accept the loss, he blamed defeat on sabotage by BN component parties.
According to a 2012 biography of his life, Samy Vellu attributed the loss to the demolition of the Sri Maha Mariamman temple in Padang Jawa, Shah Alam, just three days before Deepavali in 2007, with pleas he made to Selangor state authorities at the time to stop the demolition falling on deaf ears.
According to the book, that incident paved the way for an uprising of the Indian community which saw the massive Hindraf protest in Kuala Lumpur in November 2007. MIC, and to a certain extent, BN, paid the price at the 12th general election held in March 2008, suffering heavy losses.
That 200-page book traces the remarkable life journey of Samy Vellu, who rose through the years from being a rubber tapper’s son who started work as an ice cream seller and, later, a bus conductor, to becoming Malaysia’s longest serving Cabinet minister.
After his defeat, the government appointed him special envoy to South Asia with ministerial status until 2018 when Pakatan Harapan took over.
Samy Vellu was a minister for 29 years from 1983 and held portfolios including in telecommunication and posts, works and public amenities during that time.
He was the MIC’s seventh president from 1979 to 2010, a post he held for a record 31 years.
A debate on whether his contributions actually lifted or jeopardised the Indian community in Malaysia still rages today.
One way or another, S Samy Vellu has left a deep impression on all Malaysians regardless of race.