‘I’m not a racist’

The new ‘Na­tional Unity and So­cial Well­be­ing Min­is­ter’ says that his Hin­draf roots will not hin­der him from do­ing a good job.

The Star Malaysia - - Focus - By MARTIN VENGADESAN sun­day@thes­tar.com.my

I AM not a racist.”

It’s some­thing Se­na­tor P. Waytha Moor­thy is keen to em­pha­sise – he is just ad­vo­cat­ing the rights of marginalised mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties, and that do­ing so does not make him any less of a Malaysian patriot.

Ar­guably one of the more po­lar­is­ing fig­ures in the new Malaysia cabi­net, Waytha Moor­thy has a sur­pris­ingly low pub­lic pro­file con­sid­er­ing the tasks he is re­spon­si­ble for as a Min­is­ter in the Prime Min­is­ter’s Depart­ment in charge of Na­tional Unity and So­cial Well­be­ing.

As one of the lead­ers of Hin­draf (Hindu Rights Ac­tion Force), he led his fol­low­ers through a num­ber of con­fus­ing shifts in­clud­ing years in ex­ile and an eight-month spell in Na­jib’s govern­ment af­ter GE13.

This time around, he’s de­ter­mined to de­liver and has found him­self with some broader is­sues, not least of which is the wel­fare of the Orang Asli.

“The Orang Asli De­vel­op­ment Depart­ment (JAKOA) was placed un­der my port­fo­lio three weeks ago,” he tells The Star in an exclusive in­ter­view. “With my pas­sion I can do a lot of things for orang asli as well. The sum of RM100mil al­lo­cated in Bud­get 2019 will be fully utilised for the de­vel­op­ment of the com­mu­nity, es­pe­cially for ed­u­ca­tion.

“From ini­tial dis­cus­sions held, the orang asli are not keen to send their chil­dren to res­i­den­tial schools. So, the govern­ment will try to bring ed­u­ca­tion closer to them.”

He adds that gen­eral in­fra­struc­ture, like roads and trans­port, needs to be im­proved in or­der to help the com­mu­nity.

Waytha Moor­thy be­lieves that his ex­pe­ri­ence cham­pi­oning the causes of the mi­nor­ity gives him a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the orang asli com­mu­ni­ties who are still lag­ging be­hind in terms of life ex­pec- tancy and ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion and health fa­cil­i­ties.

“I think it’s an hon­our. From my en­gage­ment with the orang asli and other groups like the Siam com­mu­nity, I can see that the rights of th­ese com­mu­ni­ties have not been prop­erly ad­vo­cated and I am cer­tain I will be able to as­sist them.”

Still the root of his struggle has been to help poor and marginalised In­di­ans.

“Many have said that I am race-cen­tric. I do ad­mit that I advocate the rights of the marginalised In­dian com­mu­nity, but I think it’s wrong to think that I am bas­ing my struggle on the In­dian com­mu­nity alone.

“I would say it’s the most marginalised com­mu­nity in the coun­try. We have been side­lined from the main­stream eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment for far too long. Nor­mally in a demo­cratic coun­try, the ma­jor­ity race takes pride in cham­pi­oning the cause of mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties. It is re­ally un­for­tu­nate that in our coun­try, the ma­jor­ity does not speak for the mi­nor­ity. There­fore I have taken it upon my­self,” he says.

“Whether with Barisan or Pakatan, my stand is the same. I think the In­dian com­mu­nity has a unique prob­lem. We have 800,000 peo­ple who were dis­placed from the es­tates from the 1970s on­wards with­out proper train­ing, re­lo­ca­tion, land al­lo­ca­tion or com­pen­sa­tion. Of that num­ber, 300,000 are state­less. This is­sue has been down­played.”

He is aware that talk is cheap, and is de­ter­mined to carry out con­crete so­cio-eco­nomic pro­grammes tar­geted at the mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity. “This group is no longer in es­tates, many are in low-cost flats and so forth. They need to be helped. We are work­ing on pro­grammes to in­crease their in­come so that they are not trapped in poverty bracket.

Mi­nor­ity rights are all very well, but surely the Na­tional Unity port- fo­lio is about bring­ing peo­ple to­gether? Waytha Moor­thy is un­der no il­lu­sions that bridges need to be built be­tween var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties.

“We have to ac­cept the fact that though there seems to be unity in Malaysia, there is also dis­sat­is­fac­tions be­tween com­mu­ni­ties. Every com­mu­nity will have its own grouses.”

True enough, his an­nounce­ment of the govern­ment’s plans to rat­ify the United Na­tions’ In­ter­na­tional Con­ven­tion on the Elim­i­na­tion of All Forms of Racial Dis­crim­i­na­tion (ICERD), for one, has be­come a hotly de­bated and di­vi­sive is­sue.

But Waytha Moor­thy re­mains fo­cused.

“With my new port­fo­lio I will be able to carry out pro­grammes to bring the marginalised into the main­stream. It’s a big task but I think we will get there even­tu­ally.”

When it comes to eco­nomic sys­tems such as the wel­fare state ver­sus free-form cap­i­tal­ism, Waytha Moor­thy is not one to be pinned down. “I don’t have such ide­olo­gies but I am a strong be­liever that every in­di­vid­ual has to be given op­por­tu­nity to raise eco­nomic stan­dards. I be­lieve with the right op­por­tu­nity, every com­mu­nity will ex­cel.”

He recog­nises that many po­lit­i­cal is­sues have two op­pos­ing el­e­ments. For ex­am­ple mother tongue ed­u­ca­tion ver­sus na­tion build­ing.

“I am not from the Tamil school sys­tem, but I be­lieve that every com­mu­nity has a right to mother tongue ed­u­ca­tion. Many who send their chil­dren to Tamil schools are from the lower in­come group. They feel com­fort­able be­cause most teach­ers are In­di­ans. That’s why you see them do­ing well, but the mo­ment they go to sec­ondary school things change.

“At the same time, if we main­tain this seg­re­ga­tion, it’s not good for unity among races. But par­ents from Chi­nese and Tamil schools must be in the po­si­tion to have con­fi­dence that there will be true unity and their chil­dren will be sup­ported and taken care of in the govern­ment sys­tem.”

An­other worry is that cy­cle of poverty will not end for the In­dian com­mu­nity, lead­ing to other is­sues such as gang­ster­ism and cus­to­dial deaths.

“I told the Cabi­net that one of my pri­or­i­ties is to ad­dress the is­sue of gang­ster­ism. We are 7.5% of the pop­u­la­tion, but much higher in terms of crime rate. It goes back to dis­place­ment from es­tates and how the job­less drifted to­wards crime. Now there is a dan­ger of new generations go­ing in this di­rec­tion. It be­comes a vi­cious cy­cle. I think I can say for cer­tain that this govern­ment is se­ri­ous about com­bat­ing the gang­ster is­sue,” he says.

Waytha Moor­thy’s po­lit­i­cal jour­ney has cer­tainly taken him a long way, con­sid­er­ing that it was not his orig­i­nal cho­sen path.

“I started by ac­ci­dent. Peo­ple started ap­proach­ing me as a lawyer be­cause their tem­ples were be­ing de­mol­ished. Af­ter a while, I re­alised that some­thing is wrong. I did my own re­search and found that they are tem­ples that have ex­isted for a long time, for up to 200 years, and need to be pro­tected. As I was help­ing with this is­sue, more and more prob­lems came up and I found that no one was speak­ing for them. And that’s when I got in­volved in found­ing Hin­draf.”

In late 2007, the Ber­sih and Hin­draf ral­lies played an im­por­tant part in the de­vel­op­ment of po­lit­i­cal aware­ness that played a role in kick-start­ing the mo­men­tum that led to the fall of the all-pow­er­ful Barisan regime a decade later.

“When I started with my friends and brother (P. Uthayaku­mar), we never thought we would get where we are to­day. Those days, peo­ple were still fear­ful of the govern­ment and its laws like ISA. I took the view that to speak up and raise is­sues, we needed to speak boldly and not be fear­ful.”

Part of the rea­son Waytha Moor­thy finds him­self on the de­fen­sive is the con­fu­sion that sur­rounds the legacy of the orig­i­nal Hin­draf move­ment. He was not one of the five lead­ers (brother Uthayaku­mar, M. Manoha­ran, R. Keng­had­ha­ran, V. Gan­abati­rau and T. Vas­an­thaku­mar) who were de­tained soon af­ter the rally and served lengthy spells un­der the ISA. In­stead he went into ex­ile in Eng­land and helped direct the move­ment from there.

As time went on, RS Tha­nen­dran es­tab­lished the Barisan-friendly Malaysian Makkal Sak­thi Party and Uthayaku­mar formed the Hu­man Rights Party while Manoha­ran and Gan­abati­rau won state seats un­der the DAP. But when Waytha Moor­thy teamed up with Barisan for the 2013 Gen­eral Elec­tion, he came in for sharp crit­i­cism. In June 2013, he was even sworn into the De­wan Ne­gara to serve as a Deputy Min­is­ter in Na­jib’s govern­ment on the same day his brother was sen­tenced to jail un­der the Sedi­tion Act!

How­ever, af­ter just eight months he stepped down, cutting a dis­il­lu­sioned fig­ure.

“In 2013, striking a deal with Barisan was not an easy thing for me. But in 2008, af­ter the Hin­draf rally, we mo­bilised peo­ple to sup­port the op­po­si­tion en bloc, in­clud­ing PAS and then op­po­si­tion won big, but we thought ma­jor prob­lems could be solved. We thought they would stop tem­ple de­mo­li­tions, solve land is­sues and our voice would be heard in par­lia­ment and the four states gov­erned by Pakatan Rakyat. To our dis­ap­point­ment it wasn’t.”

“In 2013, I pre­pared a blue­print for In­dian com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment but de­spite 22 meet­ings, we couldn’t come to an agree­ment with Pakatan. On the other hand Barisan en­gaged us and of­fered to rec­tify past mis­takes. They put it in writ­ing, and con­vinced me that they were se­ri­ous in ad­dress­ing the is­sues. De­spite know­ing that I would get brick­bats, I did it. I went in, was promised my own unit,

own bud­get, but none of it was forth­com­ing and de­spite my many warn­ings, the govern­ment did not budge. I had to leave.”

Did he ever en­vis­age such a come­back?

“Strangely the day I re­signed, my staff were up­set and I gath­ered them to­gether and told them ‘we will come back, and we will come back stronger.’”

Many have ques­tioned his an­nounce­ment about the form­ing of the Malaysian Ad­vance­ment Party (MAP), see­ing it as a back­ward step and un­nec­es­sary with PKR and DAP both hav­ing a strong In­dian pres­ence.

“I will tell you why I did it. MIC served their time, peo­ple lost trust in them, but the In­dian grass­roots is still not prop­erly rep­re­sented. The In­dian un­der­class keep re­mind­ing me that they want an In­dian-based party in coali­tion, for the sim­ple rea­son, that they don’t speak much English or good Malay. A good 65% are poor and un­der­class, un­able to ap­proach lead­ers to cham­pion their rights. “I don’t blame the In­di­ans in DAP and PKR who have to ad­here to party ide­ol­ogy and struc­ture, but be­cause th­ese is­sues are unique, they have to high­lighted prop­erly. I think I will be able to fill in the gap. I have even told some of my orig­i­nal Hin­draf lead­ers that I am form­ing this party, and it would be good to have them.”

Waytha Moor­thy is not sur­prised to see his for­mer Cabi­net col­leagues hauled up on cor­rup­tion charges.

“I think it’s a known fact in this coun­try that most of th­ese lead­ers were in­volved in wrong­do­ings. The peo­ple were un­happy with it,” he notes. “Peo­ple were anx­ious to see ac­tion taken. They want to see jus­tice.”

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