At 78, former MIC president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu is as active and outspoken as ever. Since leaving the Cabinet in 2008, Samy Vellu has taken on a new role as the Government's special envoy (infrastructure) to India and South Asia, wooing new projects for the country. He talks to Sunday Star about life after MIC, his aspirations and disappointments, letting his son fight his own battles in politics and even shares a secret about his trademark hairstyle.
What keeps you busy these days?
I travel to many countries and get jobs for Malaysia. We have about RM3bil worth of projects in Bangladesh, to be undertaken by Malaysian contractors. These projects are to build houses and roads, including a 7km river bridge. Then I will look into building power stations. There are also many things we can do in India.
In the past, as Works Minister I secured RM25bil worth of road programmes for Malaysian contractors. Most of the modern roads you see in India today are built by them. Initially, there were not many experienced Indian contractors who could do the job. But when we went there, we got the locals to join us, and they learnt. I must say that the standard of a Malaysian contractor doing the road is entirely different from anyone else. We have reached the European standard of road building.
You left MIC in 2010 after 31 years at the helm, but you are seen to wield a heavy influence on the party. Is that true?
When do you get very influential? When you’re close to people. You love the people, you work for them, you slog and don’t mind the hours. I have, for almost 29 years, never cared for my family. It’s not going home at 5pm or having dinner at 7.30pm. It’s 24 hours’ work. If there is an accident anywhere, the minister will be there. That was the style that (Tun) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) taught me.
What do you think of the present MIC leadership?
I brought a man from nowhere. I built him; I gave him courage. I made him a deputy because at that time, we were fighting with Subramaniam (former deputy MIC president Datuk S. Subramaniam). Now, I realise there was no reason for the fight. I wanted to be with him but he was fighting me all the time. So I thought I had to put a stop to it. I brought Palanivel (Datuk Seri G. Palanivel) and presented him to the whole country wherever I went. Why did people select Palanivel – because he has Samy Vellu’s face, not for anything else! I did all the work and promoted him. He became president. From the day he took over as president, I have nothing to do with MIC. He doesn’t talk to me much or call me.
You don’t call him?
I can’t call him because I’m an ordinary man. How can I call such a big man? The only time they call me is for the conference. I go and sit there like a fool, and come back. What I’ve done for the MIC, only the ordinary member knows. When I took over the MIC, there were only 650 branches. When I handed over to Palanivel, there were 3,600 branches with 560,000 members. I gave courage to every MIC leader. I made them stand tall and proud to work for the nation but it’s all forgotten. Nobody remembers that. I never open my mouth and say anything because he is the president. I can’t interfere. I won’t say that he’s not doing the right thing – that’s not my business anymore.
Are you grooming your son Datuk Seri S. Vel Paari, who is now MIC’s strategic director, to eventually lead the party?
My son is on his own. If I had been a greedy fellow, I could have somehow pushed my son right to the top when I was president. He can be my son, but he has to fight his own battles. In politics, people who don’t know how to fight their own battles, sink. My son doesn’t consult me. I don’t tell him anything. He’s over 40 years old, what is there for me to tell him?
How far do you think the Indian community’s socio-economic status has improved in the last 30 years?
When I took over the party, it was a very difficult period. With the Government’s support, we tried to do so many things for the upliftment of Indians. I thought educating the Indian community was an important thing; they cannot be coolies anymore.
I am a coolie, my father was a coolie, my grandmother was a coolie. My whole family are coolies. I also worked in the estate but I picked up evening classes, I worked as an office boy, a bus conductor, a cook. There is no work I haven’t done in life. But, every evening, I would study English and that language brought me far.
We (MIC) put up TAFE College. I felt very happy that all races are in it. They have trained around 47,000 people and it’s still going on. Then I thought there must be a chance for these people to go to university. We collaborated with the British to set up the Asian Institute of Medicine, Science and Technology (AIMST).
I’m still working on the upliftment of education and other things. I established Yayasan Pemulihan Sosial, which helps the poor people with finances.
Now I can die peacefully.
In your heyday, you were quite a fighter and your foes even established the now-defunct Gerakan Anti-Samy Vellu to oust you from the presidency.
The lion in me will never slow down. It will only go down one day when I die.
Do you miss your previous portfolio?
Previously, I had lots of responsibilities, particularly when I was minister. I cannot simply sleep when it’s midnight. If I lie down for an hour, there’ll be a call about an accident on the highway at a certain place. So I have to get up and run to the place to see what is the damage that has been caused. Those were things I loved to do back then. I love to face challenges because challenges build a man. If you don’t meet the challenge, it’s not going to build you. It gives you courage, strength, and makes you someone who can implement things.
You worked hard to rise to the top. Do you see that tenacity among our youths these days?
The thinking of the Indian youths has been diverted for quite some time now to undesirable things, which brings our Indian name down. The only way we can tackle this is to give them the education and understanding when they’re young. If they feel they can earn a decent living with education, why should they do other things? There are a lot of causes for this diversion. In the beginning, Malaysian Indians were all estate workers, including me. We all came to town looking for opportunities; some got it, some didn’t. I did many jobs but those gave me good experiences. But, there were boys and girls who remained in the estates and rural areas. They were attached to their parents and when the time came, they moved out. However, they got drawn in by people who wanted them to do certain jobs. This is how our boys were pulled to do other things but now, I think they’re realising the mistake. Things are changing.
Have you ever received any death threats?
Not even once, because my approach is different. If I see a boy who is a very dangerous gangster, I will go and hold his shoulder, and ask him questions like, ‘Did you have your makan, where do you stay, what do you ... do you have no work?’ I let him go and then the second time, when I approach him, I’ll ask him if he wants some education and that I can help. There are a lot of boys that we train to give them a new lease of life.
What has been your life’s greatest achievement?
Giving education to 45,000-odd Indian, Chinese and a small number of Bumiputra children, as technicians. And to students who study overseas, we have given loans worth RM150mil through the MIED ... it’s more fulfilling than politics.
What are your priorities?
It’s always been education. Education moves human beings very high and far. Without that, we will go back to the 1800s.
What is the motto you live by?
Being selfless. Be kind to others; go all-out to help persons who cannot help themselves. And I’m still doing it through Yayasan Pemulihan Sosial.
What is the one thing you can’t live without?
People! I must always be around people. If you put me alone somewhere, I might die earlier.
How do you unwind?
Those days, in the evenings, I used to exercise at the Raintree Club by swimming and going to the gym. Then I built a swimming pool in my house so now, I swim for an hour every day. I’ve also been writing Tamil poetry for the last nine years. So far, I’ve written over 1,000 poems, which are published in Tamil Nesan every Sunday.
And a really personal question: What’s with the trendy hairdo?
(Laughs) I had baldness so I went to Australia. There is a specialist there who takes away the unproductive scalp and pulls the productive ones together. I went to see Dr Mahathir and told him I wanted five days’ leave every two months. He asked me why and I told him. He agreed. So I went to Australia seven times. Every time, they remove half an inch of the unproductive scalp, pull the productive ones over and stitch them till it joins. After that, there’s no problem,
So, this is your real hair?
Yes! A lot of people don’t believe me. I go for a haircut once every three weeks.