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Independence for Indians
K Kabilan
, Malaysiakini, Aug 31, 2000

About 75 kilometers from the city lies Kuala Selangor, once an old fishing village with a colourful and rich history. Of course, it is now no longer a fishing village but a town with many tourist attractions.

In the middle of the town, one can enjoy the view across the Straits of Malacca from Bukit Melawati. The hillock itself is a well known fort built by locals to keep away the oncoming foreign fleets of first,
the Bugis, Siam, and Sulu, and then the Portugese and British. There is an old lighthouse tower as well as other memorabilia of the past to indicate the strategic value of this spot.

Now it is being used by the Jabatan Agama Islam to spot anak bulan to determine Hari Raya Aidil Fitri.

However, our interest in Kuala Selangor casts a wider net, in the numerous estates in the surrounding vicinity of the town. These estates were the first place to house many of the South Indian migrants who were enticed to come Malaya by the British in the mid-1800s.

These migrants, mostly Tamil speaking, came to this country as cheap labourers and were put in estates to work in the rubber and oil palm plantations by the colonial masters.

Oil man

Among the first to settle in one of these estates was M Palani, now in his 80s. A British agent promised him a lucrative job in Malaya and, based on that, he boarded a ship to Malaya from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu "sometime after World War I".

After being placed in various estates, he finally settled in Riversite Estate, a foreign-owned estate of mainly oil palm trees. Apart from working in the plantation, Palani was also selling oil to other settlers to increase his income, hence his nickname "Oil Man".

"When we first settled here, there were thousands of Indian families. We were all working at the plantation and had a white man as our boss, " Palani recalled. He added that while their wages were low, their "boss" had provided them with squatter homes to live in and the weekly Tamil cinema shows for entertainment.

Asked what Merdeka meant to him, Palani said that it gave them (the labourers) the opportunity to become citizens of Malaya.

"Until that year (1957), we were still considered outsiders by all, but with independence, we were at least given the chance to apply for citizenship here."

After Merdeka, he said, the livelihood of the labourers was still the same as before but he said drastic changes took place when the estates were sold off by the British to the Malaysian government.

Another labourer, K Sellamah, 75, said the British were better in treating the South Indian labourers.

"Maybe they thought they owed it to us to treat us well. As for the government which replaced the British rule, we were just an added burden," she lamented.

For her, the word Merdeka has lost its gloss as she feels the present government is "not up to the grades" in its treatment of the people who came with her.

Palani added: "We were basically relying on these estates to live but the government brought in other races into the estates. Changes in estates happened at a speed which we could not keep up with."

Palani said this, coupled with government's policies to move away from agriculture, meant many South Indian labourers were left in a lurch, knowing nothing that they can do in the new environment.

"Many left Malaysia for their own villages in India after this," he said.

Lack of patriotism

A retired civil servant N Siva, who is now a Commissioner for Oaths, awarded for his loyalty to the government, says the mass migration back to South India in the 1970s was the factor that prompted many to question the patriotism of Indian Malaysians.

"We are very loyal and patriotic to Malaysia. After all, most of the Indians (in Malaysia) now were born here, apart from those few first- and second-wave migrants who are still alive. We are all Malaysians and are proud to be one," he stressed.

"There are some shortcomings in the manner we are treated but most of us are used to it. We just stomach it," he said.

He added that compared with Indian Malaysians in the urban areas, they are still many Indians "stuck" in some estates, unaware of the changes that have happened to the country.

It is true that many of them are still not aware of places like Bangsar and Brickfields, let alone London and Paris.

He related one incident in an estate in Terengganu involving a Hindu wedding where more prominence was given to the estate owner rather than to the bride and groom.

"The estate owner was lording over everyone there. The people there seem to be used to this form of master-servant attitude," he added.

Master-servant attitude

This attitude is prevalent amongst the Indians in estates because it was indoctrinated in them by the British, Palani says. "They gave us everything and expected us to be their slaves, which we
were," he said.

However he said the changes in the estate management after Merdeka abolished these attitudes in the Indians. "Maybe with independence, we too were able to stand on our own feet".

He noted that for all that the nation has achieved in the past 43 years, there are still estates where the living conditions are increasingly deplorable, where households still receive untreated piped water, channeled from ponds, rivers and wells, and without any electric supply.

When the younger school-going Malaysian Indians were asked as to what Merdeka meant to them, they started parroting what was being thought to them in schools. One even believed that he could eventually become the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

However, the established group of Indians seems to be taking a more critical stance. One lecturer in a well-known private school said Merdeka for her meant the transition of power from one government to another, with nothing to shout about for the minority Indian race.

"We still lack in everything. Why do we still have to fight just to get three percent of the economic pie?

"Aren't we all contributing to the growth of Malaysia and don't we deserve more in return? We are not asking for the sky. Just give us something so that we Indians too can be prosperous," she cried.

Young entrepreneur K Chandra agreed and said that while the business opportunities are there for Indians, other factors such as loan facilities and business infrastructure are very restrictive in nature.

"We are glad that we are an independent nation but after 43 years of Merdeka, we should all be treated equally."

He added sadly that the majority of estate workers try to settle for a better life by moving away from the estates but only find themselves displaced, demoralised and disillusioned.

"Most of them end up in squatter areas on the fringes of cities, only to be involved in crime and gangsterism. Their manner of escapism is via drinking," Chandra added.

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