Those who knew the Sungai Siput of the 1970s and 1980s, and even the 1990s, as I do, and who go to the town in Perak now will notice the physical transformation that has taken place.
The vastly improved infrastructure and facilities in town are due to its former MP, S Samy Vellu, who served the constituency for eight terms from September 1974 to March 2008. I’m sure being the minister of works from 1983 to 1989 and again from 1995 to 2008 helped.
The last time I went to Sungai Siput, I heard people say they missed Samy Vellu and that maintenance was not as good as during the MIC leader’s time.
I suspect they’ll miss him even more, now that the former MIC president is no more. Samy Vellu, the longest serving Cabinet minister, died on Sept 15.
A former aide to Samy Vellu told me if government department heads in his constituency needed funding or extra staff, he would take it up with his relevant Cabinet colleagues. He would even buy comfortable office furniture for top officials in the district using his own money.
The astute politician was friendly with his constituents and local officials, regardless of race, religion or status. If he happened to stop at a shop for a drink or a bite, often he’d pay for everyone eating there before leaving.
And just as in Sungai Siput, Malaysia owes much of its infrastructure development to Samy Vellu. The highways and wide and better road networks, including the Penang Bridge, were implemented during his time as works minister, as were the highway tolls.
Although Dr Mahathir Mohamad, as prime minister, is credited with much of the country’s physical development, he could not have done it without the likes of Samy Vellu. Of course, there were unproven allegations and insinuations that Samy Vellu served a useful purpose to Umno because the works ministry handled millions, if not billions of ringgit.
People may fault him for not doing enough for the Indian community, but no one can say he did not do enough for his constituents.
Many feel his biggest failure was Maika Holdings Bhd which he initiated in 1982 as an investment vehicle for the Indian community with the objective of pooling the community‘s savings for doing big business.
I would often cover Samy Vellu in Penang and Kedah, and everywhere he went to speak about Maika, crowds of Indians – mostly poor, estate workers – would rush to sign up, many pawning their jewellery. They were both charmed and motivated by Samy Vellu’s oratorical skills and the belief that they had to participate in the community’s upliftment in their own little way.
Maika managed to raise RM106 million. Everyone was surprised and the community was upbeat. Probably the most astonishing factor was that 70% of its 66,000 plus shareholders were low-income earners.
However, by 2000, Maika’s assets had deteriorated to between RM30-40 million. What happened? The money was invested in unprofitable businesses. Mismanagement plus poor investment acumen plus a lack of government support buried Maika Holdings.
In later years, Samy Vellu and Maika became subjects of corruption allegations. Although investigated, he was never charged.
One major “scandal” involved an allotment of 10 million shares in Syarikat Telekom Malaysia Bhd. Malaysians learned, after 1992, that Maika had only acquired one million of the 10 million allotted.
As allegations spread, the finance ministry revealed that Maika had stated it could take up only one million shares, and that the remaining nine million shares were allocated to three companies proposed by Maika. This was challenged by a few Maika officials who said the company had been willing to take up all 10 million shares.
It was not unusual for a fracas to occur at Maika Holdings annual general meetings over the state of the company, and the Telecom shares.
The failure of Maika Holdings dashed the hopes of Malaysian Indians, with many seeing it as a betrayal of the community. In 2013, a group called G Team Resources & Holding Sdn Bhd took over Maika and paid off shareholders. It was less than the amount they had paid for the shares in the early years of enthusiasm about Maika.
This was one of Samy Vellu’s biggest failings and it was largely due to placing mostly loyalists in positions in Maika; he did the same with MIC’s ventures into the business of education.
Knowing that education was the only way to lift the community, Samy Vellu established the Maju Institute of Education (MIED) which was to be the education arm of the party. There was considerable success in this, especially with the establishment of the TAFE College in Seremban – a modern technical college in collaboration with the government of Western Australia – and later the Asian Institute of Medicine, Science and Technology or AIMST in Kedah.
Despite criticism about the way AIMST was run, and that Samy Vellu was holding it as if it belonged to him, the fact remains that it is the only Indian-owned university and that it provides Indians an extra avenue to further their tertiary and professional studies.
And, under him, the MIC did manage to build or repair a large number of Tamil schools. The funds often came from the MIC, the public and government grants. But critics have always said the MIC and Samy Vellu should have done more for Tamil schools.
I had earlier said many felt the failure of Maika Holdings was his biggest failure but there was another equally disastrous flop: Samy Vellu failed to read, or misread, the mood of the Indian community in the mid-2000s. The government, too, failed to understand the feelings of the Indians and even if it did, chose to ignore it.
Indians, who felt they had lost so much over the years despite their sterling contribution to the growth and development of the nation, were frustrated over a host of issues, including a lack of educational and job opportunities, poverty, custodial deaths of young Indians, being dislocated from estates and the demolition of temples.
The swelling of discontent gave birth to the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, a group of about 30 NGOs. Despite their representations to the government, temples continued to be demolished and issues raised were apparently ignored by the government and the MIC.
The pain and frustration boiled over on Nov 25, 2007 in the Hindraf rally that shook the nation. The government, despite using its agencies to suppress the protest, failed. It was shocked, not just by the thousands of Indians who gathered despite all the barriers placed in their path but also their tenacity of purpose.
The MIC scrambled, but by then it was too late. Overnight, at least temporarily, Hindraf had supplanted Samy Vellu and the MIC as the voice of the Indian community. The fallout from that event led to the defeat of Samy Vellu in Sungai Siput in the 2008 general election. It was also among the main reasons for Barisan Nasional’s loss of its two-thirds majority since 1969.
Suddenly, Samy Vellu was no longer MP and minister. From being the most powerful Indian in Malaysia, he was reduced to almost a bystander. Some Indians, including from his party, began baying for blood.
In a blog posting in June 2008, Samy Vellu’s ex-boss and buddy Mahathir said: “In sympathising with Hindraf, Samy exposes his deep racist sentiments. He insisted that he was the only leader of the Indians. He refused to allow other Indian political parties to join the Barisan Nasional. His arrogance was unbearable. The defeat of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) is entirely because of him.”
But many others didn’t think so, and blamed government policy for it. Samy Vellu himself said Indians didn’t vote for BN in the 2008 general election because they were fed-up with BN and not with him.
“We cannot forget one important point… the Indian community was wounded for many years. No approaches (were made) by (the) government to see what was the problem. Now they (the government) are very interested to see something is done. If we had done it five, 10 or 15 years ago, what is happening today would not have happened,” he had said.
Despite the cries for him to go, Samy Vellu was voted in as president of MIC for a record 11th consecutive term in 2009, attesting to his hold on the party membership. However, in 2010, after serving as party president for 31 years, Samy Vellu bowed to pressure and quit, although his term was until 2012.
At the 2009 MIC annual general assembly, he said: “I am not a man who wants to be popular among the people. But I want to be loved by them for my services and contributions.”
Now that he’s no more, will he be loved for his services and contributions or criticised for his failures? Both, I guess.
Next: Glimpses of S Samy Vellu
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.