AS the social contract in Malaysia has evolved, and the MIC played an increasingly servile role in the Barisan Nasional formula, it may be difficult for people to understand that the late Tun V.T. Sambanthan did not see himself as a leader of Indians, but a national leader for all Malaysians.
This distinction was very clear and important to him, says Toh Puan Uma Sambanthan.
“I remember in the run-up to Merdeka, the movement had been growing. In 1947 India became independent and Malayan-based Indians were part of the agitation.
“My husband was in Chennai (India), waiting for WWII to end so he could return. He wrote to a close friend when Malaya was on the threshold of becoming free, ‘I cannot think of freedom for Malaya except on the premise of multiracial harmony’. He was in his 20s then and that belief was strongly embedded in him until he died (aged 60 in 1979).
“That is how we had all been brought up. There is no other home, other country that we have. There are no politics, just a feeling of being happy in the country that has given us all this.”
Sambanthan held various ministerial portfolios: Labour (1955–57), Health (1957–59), Works, Posts and Telecommunications (1959–71) and National Unity (1972–74) and was even Acting Prime Minister for a day in August 1973 when Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak was at a conference in Canada and Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr Ismail died.
“All his portfolios were national, he was very people-oriented in all his ministries,” says Uma.
“Under Health he started a rural healthcare programme, upgraded maternity facilities. In Works, Posts and Telecommunications, he was touring up and down to do the roads and bridges.
“For him, everything he did was for the people. And the people were all the races. So when people call him an Indian political leader, they forget he was a national leader. It was during his tenure that iconic projects were delivered, the Parliament house being an example.
“Over time he gained a lot of experience and he used to tell me the British did not give us a legacy of proper governance. They ordered and we followed. But he said the first Cabinet has to establish new people-orientated policies, and that we have a responsibility to all.”
Having been in India from 1936-1946, Uma feels he had an understanding of British colonial administration in principle, though there were variations in different colonies.
“He felt that Malaysians should focus on their duty in whatever sector of society they worked.
“The government was not always sensitive to what were considered ‘Indian’ problems. A glaring example is the fragmentation of rubber estates in the late 1950s and early 1960s. With fragmentation, Indian plantation workers – who didn’t know anything except tapping rubber – were disenfranchised.
“He set up a cooperative society in 1960, the National Land Finance cooperative society, and workers could become members by buying one share of $100 in 10 affordable equal monthly instalments of $10, and then collectively they could buy the estates they worked in.
“The Government did not help by setting up a Felda type scheme for the Indians. There were no laws in place to protect plantation workers. And the problems were immediate.
“But through the Cooperative, estates were purchased, educational opportunities that had not previously been available were given, and eventually dividends could be paid on share capital. My husband’s idea was that the solutions eventually are in our own hands.
Uma goes on to explain that from the 1980s, many estates were developed and plantation workers were re-housed in very basic alternative accommodation, almost slums, and given no rehabilitation in terms of skills re-training. And estate temples were not respected.
“Why developers were not given stringent conditions on how the workers should be treated as part of the development conditions is a question which cannot be satisfactorily answered,” she says.
“Many of today’s problems faced by the Indian community, especially the B40 (lower income) sector, stem from this. My husband would have been mortified that so many years after independence, Malaysian Indians were not treated with the dignity befitting citizens. He would have expected that, in time, the Malaysian identity would guide planning and policies.”
As for MIC today, or for that matter Umno and MCA too, “by now we should be talking about national parties and not race-based ones”, Uma says.
“Also, they have lost touch. You can see from the last election. MIC has to re-think its role. They need to think of welfare and education work, look at what the community needs to catch up with other races, to be part of the larger community of Malaysians, and think in terms of contributions to the national agenda.
“But, really, I think race-based parties should no longer be relevant. The bond between Tunku, Tun Tan Siew Sin and my husband was so strong, sometimes it seemed as if Alliance was a party and not a coalition.
“The time has come for a fundamental change in the way Malaysians think and relate to one another. Race dynamics as a basis for identification and national planning and opportunities should no longer be the model.”
Even though she resides in Petaling Jaya, she goes back every now and then to Sungai Siput, Perak, where her husband served as MP for nearly 20 years. A voracious reader, he always placed a lot of emphasis on education, even building a big Tamil school in the area, she says.
“My husband, in every way, wanted to build up confidence and creativity within plantation workers. And he always talked about how poverty was the illness that made them feel like they could not do anything.”
Setting up the cooperative that allowed plantation workers to become members gave them a sense of empowerment.
“That’s what he wanted to instil in people, that it was within their destiny to become good citizens.”
To this day, she is offended when her husband’s name is misused in politics, as was recently the case when a quote about Indian immigration to Malaya was misrepresented.
“I was quite shocked, because we never knew the word ‘pendatang’ (immigrant). It’s a word he never used and it’s not how he saw the Indian community in Malaysia.
“I am now approaching 90, and it’s my heartfelt hope and prayer that that would be Tun’s (Sambanthan’s) wish as well. That our country should provide sterling opportunities for all its citizens and we should consider ourselves Malaysians, and racism should be completely eradicated because racist thinking can destroy our country’s freedom and harmony.”