Monday, December 17, 2007

Can We Pause to Look at the Indian Dilemma?

The Malaysian Indian malaise seems to continue unabated. Yet all that we hear from everyone affected is only the impact of the changes taking place, the result of whatever that may appear discriminatory, and the loss, suffering and the pain one feels and sustains as a result of action by authorities who believe in the correctness and legality of their actions. Obviously one can hang on to legalities despite any conflict it might have with what is right. But what is right needs to be established and what is right needs to be reasoned. After all at the end of the day we are all supposed to be reasonable men and women. I am going to attempt a try on reasoning out at least one dilemma faced by the displaced Malaysian Indian.

On the issue of the Indian migration out of the estates and their predicament over the development that is taking place, there is something that is glaringly lacking in viewing this particular problem. Apparently it would seem that if you can't cut it once displaced its your problem.

The question that begs asking is, have the estates that brought in these people and employed them absconded and abandoned them? Have the authorites recused themselves from responsibility for resettling them in new environments they were just not prepared for? How much responsibility should these people shoulder for themselves for the predicaments they find themselves in?

Estates Needed The Assurance of A Community not Employees:

Fact is estates being where they are located, the expanse of their very undulating and unforgiving landscape; the labourious tasks of that unforgiving landscape that limited productivity; the fact that the trees needed to be tapped in the mornings such that the tappers needed to move out well before day break, meant that these workers needed to reside within the estates within easy proximity of the trees. This was further compounded by the fact that when it all began the best means of transport one could hope for would have been a bicycle, otherwise it was all done on foot and the load of the latex weighed on their shoulders.

These estates needed access to labourers who not only had the experience but certainly would stay on for as long. They could not do with the part-time or itinerant labourers. The rubber trees needed to be tapped by experienced hands. Trees surely could not be destroyed by inexperienced hands that kept rotating all the time. Indeed what was needed was a community that would support the labour needs of the estates. Even now, unlike factories which could possibly afford rotation and frequent changes in work force, rubber trees still demand experience hands in order not to prematuely expire the trees. What the estates needed was not just employees. They needed a community to reproduce itself to continue supplying the labour force they will need for as long as they exist.

Was it the generousity of the estates that saw them setting aside land for accomodation that catered to not just a single person, but a family? Was it the generosity of the estates that saw them providing schooling facilities for the children of tappers? Was it the generosity of the estates that saw them provide land for the community to build its temples to worship in? I will not be surprised if the estates even provided the funds necessary to build these temples.

No, it was not their generosity, it was indeed calculated in such a way as to convince the Indian indentured labourer that he had found paradise in this way of life which catered to all his needs and that of his family. It was a way of life that needed to be sustained in order to ensure the estate always had labourers at hand. Otherwise of what use would the trees be if they were not tapped? Of what use would the palm oil trees be if the fruits were not plucked.

No siree, some Human Resource Manager decided a long time ago that if you want to operate a rubber estate you needed a community to support it. The Malay already settled here in Malaya had their community and they had their means to support that community and they certainly need not move to the way of life promised by the estates. Yet the British who were here called them lazy and that label unfairly stuck. It made socio-economic sense to bring the Indian Tamil as indentured labourer.

That was not all. They had for supervisors and in some cases managers, not of their own kind but a little different, in culture, maybe religion, language or slang. Somehow, whereas, the Malayalee or Celonese supervisor or manager would have his children educated in the English school closest to the estate, the Tamil Hindu tappers were somehow convinced that everything for them had to revolve around maintaining their language and culture. Thus you rarely saw a tapper's child educated in any of the English schools, whereas the supervisor or manager living down the road from them had their children's education in English schools. Even in the 1970s the Rubber Research Institute provided a school bus to shuttle children of its supervisors and managers working in their Sungei Buloh/Subang estates to schools in Sentul and Kuala Lumpur. Somehow, not just the British employers, but the Indian, Malayalee and Celonese supervisors and managers were instrumental in ensuring the Tamil Hindu community substantially contributed towards the labour requirements of the estates. Indeed my own grandfather, an educated Tamil from South India, but a Christian, had his son, my father, educated in English...Yes, he was an old MBS KL boy! I wouldn't know if he might have been complicit in damning any Tamil Hindu then that sees his descendends still stuck in that estate in Rembau. I can only hope not.

Indeed it makes me wonder. considering the estates were British owned and run, if these people could find in themselves to support all the Missionary work that got carried out all over the Peninsula that included the establishment of English schools all over the land, how was it that they never considered a little Mission school in all of the estates so that the estate children could have been exposed to English education like my late father had? Would that have not been profitable for the estates as they might find a leak in their labour succession planning?

As much as it might appear to be some grand design or conspiracy to ensure permenance of a sustained labour force, I certainly do not suggest that as much as I suspect some conscious effort that might have gone into this. But this is what and how it has all come about. This is what and how it happened that today we have amongst Malaysian Indians one group that appears not to have advanced along with the rest of the Malayisan Indians. The solution to a need required by the estates was found in creating and sustaining a community in a certain fashion. If that community had only continued uninterrupted, it may have continued a lot longer into the future without anyone batting an eye.

It is not only development that has found much of this community displaced. The access today to immigrant labour that remains immigrant and is expandable as well as they can be made to leave at any time means the cost benefits of sustaining a community no longer can be justified by the estates. We thus see the displacement taking place not only out of estates in the periphery of the main cities and town centres around the Peninsula, but we see this happening even in estates far removed from the closest towns.

The estate community provided its needed and required security and comforts sought by any community that committed itself to dwelling within its chosen setting. The community sought and found approval in its way of life, its education and its faith from within that setting not only from among itself but also those they saw to be the enlightened ones. Thus they were caught in a trap never to be given the opportunity to learn about what it took to live outside that setting. Obviously we all know of those who escaped this condition through education or just mere audacity. But the majoirty just got sucked into it. But we have to acknowledge that this community was one borne out of the need by estates for such a community. It was not one of its own making.

Will Those Responsible Stand Up!

So how does all this help in resolving the conflict between them and the authorities today who see everything about this community as being illegal, squaters, and disruptive? Fact is, a number of the temples that have been destroyed or targeted to be destroyed was part of the benefits provided to sustain this community in order they provide the labour needed by the estates. They delivered their end of the bargain. The estates failed on their end. They sold their estates to developers or, worse, they changed the use of the land from agricultural to development and conveniently absolved themselves from responsibility and blame for the displacement of these people. Obviously on their books they only have reponsibilities to the present generation of labourers without having to consider that generations past had the promise of Eutopia until the end of times that kept them out of sight of priorities for their off-springs. To the present labourers confronted by these changes there would not seem much in terms of obligations of the kind promised and envisaged by their employers. Displacing them without comensurate compensation was easily worked out. No sooner, they quickly found themselves homeless, and what was worse even their only hope, their temples demolished.

Sure, the temples were not on land owned by the worshipers. Sure the temples did not comply with local Authority legailites that now tagged them as illegal structures. But had not the community earned the right to that land after , say, 50 years occupying it? After all it was a benefit in kind to the community to seduce them to stay on in there to provide the needed labour. And what about Local Authority talking about illegal structures and what not? Where were they and their laws when these structures were built? These laws and authorities did not even exist. It certainly would require some amount of audacity in trying to be righteous now in their actions. It would almost seem that these communities, like the Orang Asli in the forests, might have earned for themsleves the right to claim their abodes and the land that the community had lived as ancestral.

Really it is for these Tamil Hindus who find themselves lost in this modern society to recognise what the injustice is that was done to them. This is what needs to be spoken about and debated about. Not what it is that is happening to them now. Sure we can all see it. But looking at it from just that perspective and nothing else, their claims to their homes and temples will not stand for anything against the claims of the land owners and the authorites.

They had a fine thing going for a while and the fun's over. The certainty of the way of life promised their great grand parents, their grand parents, their parents and even them was all a lie. The Tamil Schools their children went to, but not their supervisor's children, was just so that they could not venture beyond the boundaries of the estates. Unfortunately, in the last 30 years or so even the MIC became instrumental in ensuring that these people continued to provide the labour needed by the estates. For that the Tamil schools had to thrive.

Move On, I Say

Like any other man who is confronted by failure or a deceit, rather than mulling about it, he moves on, it is time these Indians moved on. What is lost is gone. And good riddance I would say to. But hereon the Malaysian Indian should look at the Indian diaspora for inspiration and direction. That diaspora will tell you that if they are ahead economically in the territories they have found themselves in, it is only because they are all not politically represented, unlike Indians in Malaysia. My hope is that Malaysian Indians can stand up and tell the powers that be, they can rule, just leave us alone. Formenting frustration over their present condition and the treatement visited upon them is of no use as long as the law allows it and it is not intervened by fresh thoughts and ideas that might just pray upon the authrities that there just now may be a face saving way out of this dilemma.

The Coummunal Rip-Off

On another note, I would like to also add a reminder from earlier writings of mine. The estate worker has been screwed by the estate owners right from the start. They convinced the tappers that it was right that they not be paid salaries if it rained or they could not go to work. When you are Indian you always hear of tales of workers going out to work even though they were too ill to for their daily wage.

But, how did the rain affect the bottomline for them at the end of the year? Fact is rubber or palm oil prices is not cost driven. They are commodities whose prices are determined in Chicago and London. The only driver of these prices are supply and demand. So when it rains and supply is down, demand remains constant, the prices can only go up. On average the rainy days do not affect the annual bottomline. That being so, indeed the estates profit more from rainy days as their costs come down as they save on wages and yet their turnover remains constant if not higher. Estates lie to their workers convincing them that they should not be paid for rainy days when they don't work. Over 10 years ago when Lim Keng Yaik made mention of "don't know what happens behind rubber trees", it was in defence of retaining the compensation structure of estate workers. Are they still ripping off the estate workers despite the super profits being made from high commodity prices? (Read this: http://http// . So tell me, how does the current flooding affect the annual turnover of the estates just because they are unable to produce anything if they are compensated by higher prices and enjoy a saving on not paying the daily wage?

I can only hope that in all the different writings of various authors in various media, there will evolve a rationale that can be accepted by all concerned to find a solution to what some feel to be injustice while the other might think that it is none of their business. The situation that we all see confronting us today is the sum of all of our past actions, whether calculated or not. But we know now there is a problem. Let us look for rationales rather than enemies , allegations and accusations, to resolving the problem. This is certainly no place for one looking to be a hero.

As for the Hindraf rally, it is obvious MIC and the government will never support it and have to demonise it. But fact is Samy Velu could never summon that many thousands as came up for the Hindraf rally. That he might be pissed off, gives me great satisfaction. As much as I object to a number of things written by Hindraf in its various missives, I still feel the rally was needed. Not so much as a confrontation against the authorities, but more so as a jolt to themselves or a kick on their own callypygians to get up and move out of the shadows of MIC.

Good luck and God bless!