Through these columns I intend to present a picture of the marginalization of the Indian poor in Malaysia and also try and put forth a coherent explanation of how it happened. I am going to do this in several parts. Part One was published a week ago. Here is Part Two. In this part I am going to lay out a picture of the phenomenon of the Economic Marginalization of the Indian poor.
The story of Mariappen
Let me narrate the story of Mariappen to you to illustrate how all of this works . Mariappen now 32 years old ( born in 1977) is married, lives in Kulim with his wife, Pechai and 3 young sons. He ran away from home when he was eleven, rebelling aginst a drunken father and a miserable life in the estate. He lived a life between being a runaway child, an inmate of a juvenile home, and a prisoner a few times over. He says he cannot remember how many times he has been in and out of the home and prison or how many years he has spent thus.
His father, Subramaniam was born in 1928 in the estates, grew up and worked first in one Estate in Sungei Bakap, then after that estate was sold worked in another called the Merah estate and finally in a Coffee estate, all in the Kedah region. His father was a daily paid worker for most of his life. Mariappen was the last of his16 children – boys and girls. All of them are now deceased except for Mariappen. I asked him how come, because his siblings would be in their forties and fifties, had they been alive, and were too young to be all deceased.. He said this happened for various reasons, but several of them died due to drinking, including his father. Alcoholism has been a major scourge to this family, like I suspect to many other marginalized families. Marginalization leads to alcoholism, which leads to short and unproductive lives. Condoning this process of marginalization has an effect of reducing the population of such poor. When such condoning happens with impunity, it is probably intentional.
Mariappan now works as an odd job laborer, whenever he can find a job. He is totally illiterate – can do some basic arithmetic. His wife, also illiterate works occasionally as a cleaner in a restaurant. He and his wife do not have ICs , his 3 children have no birth certificates. He and his wife therefore cannot find legitimate jobs. They do not effectively exist under the law. His marriage to his wife is not registered. Two of his children are attending a nearby Tamil school, two out of about twenty children without birth certificates in that school. Every Tamil school in the country has several children with this problem, from what I have seen. He and his wife have frequent violent fights, in the house, mostly over money and often when he is drunk. They live in a rented house in the fringes of Kulim, struggling through their lives every single day in this manner. They barely exist…. Also, imagine what all this will translate to when his children became teenagers or young adults. I asked him this question. Of course his answer was that they would likely turn out to be the same, now times three. See how the problem multiplies. That is exactly what has been going on to the problem over these 50 plus years.
The key factors in the economy which initiated the marginalization process
That his life became like this is not an accident of history. It was a natural outcome of what was happening in the economics and politics of this country. Let me share some data to show how this was happening on a National scale. The data clearly shows how the Indian Population distribution changed from being primarily in the Estates to being primarily in the towns and cities:
Source: Dept of Statistics, Government of Malaysia Census report 1991-2000, 9th Malaysia Plan 2006
From 75 % rural to 80% urban. From the estate shanties to the urban squatter homes.
This shift occurred because of a few key things that were taking place in the economy:
1) Large rubber plantations run by the British in the early years after independence, were being broken up into smaller estates as the large British companies left Malaysia.
2) Plantations were shifting production to palm oil from rubber because of the higher returns for palm oil than for rubber.
3) The plantation companies in collusion with the Government allowed in foreign workers, both legal as well as illegal to man the oil palm plantations both depressing the earnings of the Indian workers as well as reducing the number of jobs available to the Indian workers.
According to a recent report there are 2.1 million foreign workers in the country (Source: Dept of Statistics, Government of Malaysia Census report)
4) Land was being taken up for industrial, commercial and residential development as the economy expanded. So many estates just turned to property development from production of rubber or palm oil.
The Indian marginalization problem was ignored as a matter of policy
That this displacement was happening was no surprise to the policy makers. The policy makers just ignored it. The Indian Political representatives in the MIC too could not make any difference to the outcomes. They were impotent by virtue of their self serving relationship with the UMNO elite. This problem effectively was not national priority. The UMNO led Government of the period did not provide anything to address this problem. They could have taken measures such as:
a) Compensation for loss of the estate homes and the secondary incomes from small scale breeding or small scale agriculture.
b) Alternative housing in the urban areas, for those forced to move out from the estates because of factors beyond their control
c) Provision of land through agencies such as FELDA, FELCRA, PERDA, KEDA, KEJORA and such other development agencies of the Government.
d) Providing support to become self employed
e) Retraining into new skill areas
f) Social support schemes, to help in the transition
The Alliance government of that period and the BN government of today, led by UMNO, just washed its hands off the problem. The MIC that was supposed to safeguard the Indian interest reneged on its historical role and at best only looked after the interest of the few among the Indian elite. They could not stop the fragmentation process. Instead as with so many other problems afflicting Indians they started a self help program – the National Land Finance Co-operative Society (NLFCS) with false promises of a solution to the problem of displacement and riches to come for the poor. The likes of this never could touch Subramaniam, the father of Mariappan.
To continue with my story, nothing resulted from all of that for Mariappan’s family. Subramaniam, Mariappan’s father did not get any compensation when the first estate was sold and he had to move out. They were just thrown out of their jobs and they had to go. There were no institutes to retrain them into some new trade, maybe carpentry, maybe metalworking, maybe basic wiring, maybe mechanical or electrical trades to meet the needs of the new economy. The thought of that would have been preposterous, and all kinds of arguments would have been raised against the feasibility of such programs. There was to be nothing.
Complicity between the MIC and UMNO behind the marginalization process
FELDA or FELCRA or RISDA definitely did not consider that Subramaniam was the type that they were set up for. It is all just a question of priority for the Government and Subramaniam was not their priority – that’s all. After rejection from UMNO to address the problem and not to appear impotent to do anything about this problem, the MIC set up the NLFCS. But anyway,the only ones to have really benefited from these feeble schemes set up by the MIC, are a few among the Indian elite and some of their cronies. I quote this example because it clearly was repeated time so many times and with impunity – the NESA scheme, the MIC Unit Trust Scheme, the Koperasi Pekerja Jaya company, the Maju Jaya Cooperative, the MAIKA Scheme, The AIMST and MIED funds.
UMNO got away scot free from any responsibility for uplifting the poor Indians because of this kind of complicity between the MIC and UMNO. MIC worked hand in glove with UMNO to create an illusion of grand plans for the salvation of the Indian poor. MIC was the front guy. UMNO was the mastermind behind. This is the kind of treacherous role that MIC has played and caused harm to all the Indian poor in this country, over the last fifty years. But the real culprit is UMNO.
The creation of the underclass
So, left with no support or real help, this large shift of the Indian workers to the urban centers resulted in squatter colonies mushrooming across the country in urban areas on fallow land, old mining land, on State land. These communities were bereft of their ancestral social structures which they were forced to abandon when they left their estate communities. The squatter colonies were no better. They were just basic settlements, crowded, without proper sanitation or amenities for an urban dwelling.
The migration to the urban areas further resulted in the breakdown of the social system the Indians had been living with for several generations prior. Hard earned social facilities like hospitals, dispensaries, crèches, and schools, meager as they were in the estates were abandoned. Effectively the Indian worker was cut free from all bondage and support and left entirely to fend for themselves and in the process the underclass was created.
The result is that a vast majority of them landed up as menial laborer, contract worker, unskilled factory workers, manual workers, drivers, security guards, helpers, sweepers, jaga kereta boys, cleaners, restaurant hands, gardeners and so on.
Crime and alcoholism as a direct result of marginalization
Like Mariappan many also turned to crime. The ecosystem for the turn to crime was building up. I asked Mariappan, how come he got involved in the crime like he did. His answer was that there were many friends who showed him how, and there were people to buy whatever they stole. It was easy while it lasted, he said. . The net result, 200,000 Indian youth are involved in crime, said our erstwhile Minister for Human Resources, Dr.Subramaniam recently in Parliament.
Alcoholism seems also to be common with the poor Indians, like Mariappen. It seems to suggest that this is a kind of response to the effects of the marginalization experienced by Mariappen and his like. They see very little in the form of hope. Their self image anyway is already very low. They do not see a way out. When I asked Mariappen, why he let so many administrative lapses happen in his life, like with ICs and birth certificates, his response was that even when he wants to do something, he feels he has to do everything on his own, he feels alone, abandoned. He feels a kind of hopelessness. They feel they do not belong, they feel rejected, they feel there is no more hope, so what does it matter. This is fertile psychological background for something like alcoholism to set in for the males and I suspect suicidal tendencies for the females.
The overall social and economic conditions in the urban centers created this kind of a poverty trap. This became a breeding ground for the underclass, of which Mariappen is just one example. .And most of them were living just above the Poverty Line Income established by the Economic planning Unit. Indians form 60% of urban squatters and 41% of beggars (The Economist 22nd Feb 2003)
Not every case of the marginalized will be exactly like Mariappen. But elements of what is happening in Mariappen’s life is surely present in most of the Indian poor. This is all directly a result of the shift in the economy of the country, the socio economic position of the vast majority of the Indians to start with, the utter negligence of this problem by the UMNO led Government and the complicity between them and the deceiving MIC.
In the next part I will discuss the way in which our system based on unequal rights and opportunities catalysed and accelerated the economic marginalization process.
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