“IF you listen to their problems, you’ll run away,” said MIC vice-president Datuk Jaspal Singh as he marched to visit poverty-stricken Indians living in Kampung Rusa about 11km from Sungai Petani town.
Jaspal is going on the ground so that MIC could win back Bukit Selambau, one of the two state seats in the Merbok parliamentary seat. He was on an evening walkabout to check on the needs of the villagers.
There are about 80 wooden houses in a state of despair in the village surrounded by rubber estates. There’s a goat pen in the middle of the village. Goats and chicken roam freely.
“Datuk, look at my roof,” said a 50-something man living in a dilapidated house. It looked as if strong winds had blown off his roof.
“So far I have only managed to raise money to repair five houses. We need to work as a team to pick the five houses. There are so many houses to fix. Everybody will have their turn,” he told the villager.
“Datuk, nobody comes to pick up our garbage,” a 40-something villager complained.
There was no waste collection system – the village stank of garbage thrown indiscriminately.
Adjacent to the village is the Sri Maha Mariamman Muniswarar Devasthanam temple. It is central to the life of the Kampung Raja villagers.
“The temple is an integral part of most Indians living outside city areas. Before they go to work, they go to the temple. When a baby is born, they go to a temple,” said Jaspal.
The temple is also a place where political sentiment is shaped.
It is difficult to read the political sentiment of the hardcore poor Indian community, said Mejar Anuar Abdul Hamid, who is Merbok Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia head.
“They can change very fast. You need a personal approach because they are not accessible via technology as they don’t own smartphones,” he said.
In GE12, the Hindraf (Hindu Rights Action Force) movement influenced many Indian voters in Merbok to vote for the Opposition. This is one of the reasons PKR won the seat. In GE13, many Indian voters swung back to Barisan which won Merbok.
“During that time, five Hindraf leaders, who fought against the demolition of temples, were arrested and jailed. We were angry and we did not want to vote for Barisan,” said Gopu Thangavelu, the Sri Maha Mariamman Muniswarar Devasthanam temple chairman.
“In GE13, there was no Hindraf. We voted for Barisan for the parliament seat but for Bukit Selambau state seat we voted for PKR because we were angry with MIC.”
The 60-year-old Gopu is a stereotypical example of the lower-income Indians in Merbok. He is the third generation of Indians who migrated to Malaya to work in the rubber estate. He studied up until primary six as his parents were poor and he then had to work as a rubber tapper.
Many Indians, according to Jaspal, came this country as estate workers. Back then, they lived in estates with good housing and school.
Over the last few decades, people in rural areas moved to towns and cities to work in sectors such as service and manufacturing. However, many Indians remained in the estates.
“The economic landscape changed. The price of rubber was no longer lucrative and estate owners changed to oil palm which required fewer workers. Rubber estates turned into residential areas,” Jaspal said.
This created a gap in terms of skills, knowledge, mentality and language for the Indians who remained in the estate. And this gap is causing them to be downtrodden.
The lower income Indian community, according to Jaspal, needs someone to take care of them, financially. He said their major problem was their household savings in hand was only between RM200 and RM300 and they have no other savings in the bank.
If they have an emergency in the family, they are not able to cope. For example, if a breadwinner, who is paid RM30 to RM50 in daily wages, falls sick or is involved in an accident, he/she is not able to earn money for the day. Eventually, the family will not have money for food, electricity supply, rent or transport to school.
There are many single mothers among the lower income Indian community, according to Jaspal. It can be the husband abandoned his family or he is mostly away because he is involved in heavy drinking or drugs.
“The single mother becomes the only breadwinner and she earns about RM600 a month. Most of the time she can’t pay for house rent or to send her kids to school,” he said.
The next day, Jaspal visited SJK(T) Tun Sambanthan Sungai Petani. He sees hope for the lower income Indians to get out of poverty through education.
The past six years, he said, the Government has pumped money into Tamil schools. The schools are now different from what it used to be where cardboards were used as partition and the toilet did not work.
“You can see the returns are coming. The passing rate for Tamil schools in Kedah is 70% compared to 40% to 50% previously,” he said.
Inspired by the statistics, Jaspal doesn’t turn away when he faces the endless problems of the hardcore poor Indian community.
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