Wednesday 21 May 2008

Samy Vellu’s nightmare

Dari Kuliah ke Jalan Raya: Kisah Sekumpulan Pelajar UKM by S. Arutchelvan (Jerit and SIRD, 2007, 224 pages)

The political parties and organisations of the Malay Left in those pre-Merdeka days still existed within a communal (racialised) framework. This is because they could not see themselves as anything other than Malay. How, then, to create an independent Malay nation when half of the population was not Malay?

There were a few conflicting ideas about how to resolve this. One would be to classify non-Malays as Malays as well. Founder Onn Jaafar didn’t manage to achieve this within his own non-left party UMNO, and so he was forced out. The new government reached a kind of compromise with regards to the other races; this is where the words ‘social contract’ came in. (More on that next week).

And so we find ourselves, many decades after Independence, still held mainly captive by racial parties. A racial party need not necessarily be a racist party, but the temptation is awfully great, wouldn’t you say?

Racialised local discourse filters down even to campus politics. This is not surprising because campus activism is often a training-ground for national politicians.

S. Aruthchelvan entered Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) as an undergraduate in 1987. Officially, no association was allowed to explicitly represent one race. This was due to a ban by the then-Education Minister Anwar Ibrahim, after tense situations erupted two years before that on the issue of dragon dances. (Remember? Well, that’s a different story).

Although not officially racial, student groups still managed to be ethnic-based by using religious and cultural signifiers. This was the situation that greeted the young Arutchelvan and his friends.

Dari Kuliah ke Jalan Raya
paints an exciting picture of political intrigue. There are power struggles, accusations of financial abuse, bullying and intimidation, switched and strategic allegiances, boycotts, anonymous campaigning by pigeonhole pamphleteering (this was before email and SMS blasts) – everything except indelible ink! It’s a wonder anyone had time for classes.

Arutchelvan’s political trajectory is also instructive. Initially, he allied himself to a clandestine Indian-based organization. This is after the annual Ponggal celebration dinner organised by his seniors were found to be financially dodgy, with RM5,000 unaccounted for. He was also shocked that the caste system was perpetuated on campus, right down to cooking and study groups. This led to the establishment of GABERKAS (Gerakan Banteras Kasta) (the Caste Elimination Movement).

Doing volunteer tutoring at a poor estate brought Arutchelvan and friends into conflict with MIC president Samy Vellu, or rather his honchos. This is because they refused instructions from local MIC leaders to line up and greet the supremo, who was visiting the neighbouring village. The words thrown at the students: “You’ve forgotten who gave you your scholarships!” That line alone tells a lot about old-school, feudalist politics.

Constant exposure to exploited plantation workers made Arutchelvan realise not only the limits of ethnic politics, but also that merely teaching the kids to pass exams won’t do much to improve their lot. The workers themselves needed the political awareness of how they were being screwed over.

Many more twists and turns later (so many secret meetings!) Arutchelvan became the pro-tem secretary general of Parti Sosialis Malaysia. This is the most hard-core left-wing party in Malaysia and uses a class-based (rather than race-based) approach. Tellingly, while our Registrar of Societies has no qualms about approving all manner of racial parties, the PSM has been refused permission for a decade. The case is still pending in court. What gives?

This is an unusually candid memoir. It names people the author accuses of sabotage or perfidy. It also brims with passion. Written to inspire young activists (and written only after Arutchelvan read Che Guevera’s Bolivian diaries!), it is emphatic, rousing and, if I may be permitted to say, badass. The minutae of small-scale political struggle does lend the occasional note of bathos; there is otherwise not much humour.

Postscript since publication: For the first time, PSM won two seats in the last elections. (But since it is not yet a registered party, the candidates ran under the PKR banner). One of PSM’s guys even ‘slew’ Samy Vellu. Is the old style of politics represented by Samy on the way out? One hopes there are now enough smart youths who realise that ethnic leaders don’t give out scholarships out of their own pockets.

(Malay Mail, 21 May 2008)

No comments: