‘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.
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.”