The new Arumugam Pillai Skills Training Institute in Nibong Tebal took in its first batch of students in January. The fact that there were no Indian students among them, when it had been promised that priority would be given to them, has incurred thedispleasure of the Indian community, writes A. LETCHUMANAN.
THERE was a hue and cry when the South Indian Labour Fund (SILF) was dissolved in Parliament in 1999, but the Indian community was appeased after promises were made that the children of plantation workers would be given priority in a RM16mil skills training institute that would be built on a piece of land belonging to the fund.
But the first intake of 61 students who started an 18-month course on Information Technology on Systems and Network in January did not have any Indian youths in the list.
Ironically, MIC, which had received a lot of flak for supporting the dissolution of the SILF, and other Indian organisations that had opposed the move were not aware that classes had begun or of the composition of the students.
The matter only came to light in February after MIC President Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu announced that the party had appealed to the Human Resources Ministry to allocate places for Malaysian Indian youths in the institute.
The institute is aptly named after philanthropist Arumugam Pillai who had donated the 6.5ha land where it is located to the SILF, which had used it to provide housing for 16 former plantation workers.
When the SILF was dissolved, it also had RM2.5mil in its coffers
During the debate on the SILF (Dissolution) Bill in Parliament on July 13, 1999, the Human Resources Ministry had given its assurance that the proposed skills training centre would give priority to children of south Indian workers.
Its then deputy minister Dr Affifuddin Omar, in winding up the debate on the Bill, had said the government’s aim is to bring South Indians back into the mainstream of national development.
“The (SILF) assets will be used to develop them,” he had said.
The MIC-owned Yayasan Sosial Strategik executive director Dr Denison Jayasooria said the institute is indeed a success story as this was the first Government institute bearing an Indian person’s name.
“But the sad side of it is that there are currently no Indian students there, although officials had publicised it at temples and Tamil schools. However, no national level publicity was undertaken,” said Dr Jayasooria, who urged the community to make a concerted effort to identify potential students.
Dr Jayasooria said the Government spent a lot of time in discussions with leaders of the community before the fund’s dissolution but they failed to introduce a participatory process of working with the community in developing the place, in formulating the courses and in running the institute.
He said the Arumugam Pillai Institute is a national heritage and a symbolic identity for the Indian community and their contributions to national economy.
“It is the toil of plantation workers, and the economy they struggled for is the foundation for the modern, progressive Malaysia,” Dr Jayasooria said.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Professor P. Ramasamy said the government should make a policy for Indians to benefit from courses conducted by the institute.
“The government should not blame the Indians for not taking advantage of the opportunity as they were not aware of it,” he said.
DAP deputy secretary-general M. Kulasegaran, who had opposed the SILF dissolution, said the government had gone back on their word.
“Why was no action taken to inform the Malaysian public of the intake of students for the institute? How many estates did the authorities visit to enlist students,” he asked?
Tamil Foundation executive committee member S. Nagarajan said it was preposterous to claim that Malaysian Indian youths were not forthcoming or interested in applying for places in the institute.
“Poor youths from plantations as far as Kedah have enrolled in private skills training centres in Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya and Kajang. They are financing themselves by working part time as security guards or restaurant helpers or in other jobs and it is highly unlikely that they would not want to take advantage of these opportunities,” he said.
The political leaders and the NGOs are now focused on the next intake of students who will be starting their course in July. So far, 53 Indian students have applied to join the institute.
SILF was to protect rights of labourersRECORDS show that the South Indian Labour Fund (SILF) was born out of gross human rights abuses. The British colonial administration set up an immigration fund in 1908 following widespread abuses of Tamil and Telugu labourers from the 1830s and the consequent difficulties in luring more workers from south India.
The plantation owners and other employers of Indian labour contributed to the fund in order to facilitate recruitment, to provide better shipping and medical facilities and to repatriate the “sucked oranges” after they had outlived their usefulness in the plantations.
The primary aim of the fund was to entice South Indian villagers to migrate to Malaya to develop rubber plantations and to build infrastructure such as roads, railways and communication networks.
The SILF replaced the immigration fund on Sept 1, 1958 to provide for the welfare of retired plantation workers.
In the early 1960s, Arumugam, who bought the fragmented Krian and Sungai Jawi plantations near Nibong Tebal, allocated 6.5ha of Krian Estate land to the SILF to build a home for the elderly, disabled plantation workers and others, including survivors of the Japanese “Death Railway” project.
Over the years, the SILF also financed the education of descendants of south Indian labourers. Scholarships and loans amounting to RM470, 830 were given to 699 poor Indian Malaysian students between 1962 and 1992.
After the dissolution of the SILF, the 16 elderly workers living in the houses in Nibong Tebal and another 43 who were receiving grants from the Fund were placed in the custody of the Social Welfare Department.