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Saturday March 24

For the have-not Indians, life is not beautiful
Steve Oh

12:06pm, Sat: I hope my story will encourage more Malaysians to reach out to the poor Indians, mostly Tamils, and bring people closer to our Indian friends. Theirs is often the untold story of hardship, and suffering. It is also a story of human courage and achievement, often unrecognised by the media and society. It was hard Tamil labour that built roads, maintained the railways and made Malaysia the world's greatest producer of natural rubber.

My encounter with poor Tamils, who live in shanties, took place in the early 80s. One day, while out jogging, I stumbled upon two Tamils fishing by a stream deep in the former rubber estate that is now Bandar Utama. Knowing they caught nothing, I suggested a lake in Petaling Jaya, where they could catch fish easily. The next day I drove them there and they caught many tilapias. So began a friendship, which introduced me to life in a squatter settlement.

Not long after, I learned that the squatters, who lived at the edge of the Sungai Kayu Ara river, had to re-locate their homes to a place in Kampong Kayu Ara. It was rural land then and the tolled highway was not built yet. There was no road, no water, no electricity, and no sewerage. All that was given to them was the bare ground that awaited them.

Groups of Tamils helped the squatters erect the shacks built from salvaged materials, planks and zinc sheets, from their previous homes. Slowly, the village began to materialise as the rows of shacks were completed. I observed the goings-on with child-like curiosity and it opened my eyes to how the poor survived.

Living conditions were appallingly austere. Hot days under zinc roofs made the room temperature soar to unbearable levels. At night, used car batteries powered fluorescent lights or naked candles lit the rooms. A communal tap provided water that had to be carted home, and the latrine was usually a sheltered hole in the ground at the back of the house. The kids attended a nearby government school.

There was no rubbish collection and people threw their plastic bags of rubbish onto empty spaces. I saw pink bags of rubbish strewn on the banks of the river where illegal Indonesian squatters lived next to a Malay settlement. The different communities lived peacefully next to each other but did not mix very much with one another, not unlike many places outside the area.

Killed a man

One day I met Shan. He was a school gardener and eked out his meagre salary through part-time gardening. I also met Subra, a casual labourer. Both of them were in their thirties like Dhama and Raju, the fishing duo, but they were married and each had three children. Their wives did cleaning jobs in neighbouring Damansara Utama and Damansara Jaya, upper-middle class suburbs that provided an economic lifeline to the squatters.

The scourge of the men was samsu, a cheap alcohol that was sold by a sundry shop in the village. Many of the men inevitably got drunk. Subra was the village's worst drunkard. In the past, he had killed a man in a drunken fight. He was jailed and later released. Muniandy, his neighbour, was also another drunk who often fought with his wife and was a bit of a comic.

While at the village I did not see anything unusual though one night I heard a spine-chilling series of loud noises emanating from a house. A man was in a trance. Another time, I was asked to help a teenaged girl who was supposedly demon-possessed. It was another eye-opening experience and sadly, I was told, the poor girl died some time later when I was overseas. I moved about freely in the village and made many friends.

At the time, I was an auditor and consultant and flew to Penang weekly to help a friend manage his father's business. He wanted me to help him full-time and relocate there but I decided to help the Tamils instead. After all, his father was the richest man in Penang, and didn't need me. It was a decision I've sometimes pondered because my friend died two years later in tragic circumstances.

Drunkenness was hurting the men and their families. At times there was domestic violence. I took Subra and Shan under my wings and counseled them. Getting them to stay off alcohol became a priority. Although some of the squatters had a network of relatives outside the village in other parts of the city, few managed to break out of the vicious poverty cycle.

In time, the squatters' general living conditions improved. Electricity and water were supplied and telephone lines came later. Proper toilets and bathrooms were built.

By then, Subra was the supervisor of a cleaning business I started when a company director learned I was helping some unemployed Tamils and got us to clean his company's new skyscraper in the city. We employed several squatters from the village. Two dedicated female Tamil schoolteachers visited the village and offered their help with the women and children. Another taught us Tamil though we spoke in Malay. Subra later took over the cleaning business.

Abrupt ending

Earlier, after a terrible affair with alcohol, Subra eventually cut loose from the demon drink and became a shining light in the
neighbourhood. Many of the youths became involved in healthy activities and were guided to do better in school. When I got
married, my wife, a medical doctor, helped, as some of the kids were often sick. We were helping several families and met with them regularly offering all kinds of help. In turn, they helped us in other
ways.

A highlight of our friendship was when Subra and Shan came with me on a trip to Manila. We visited Malacanang Palace, which was not open to the public. We also visited the poor slums and squatter villages there and the experience opened their
eyes to the plight of other poorer people. My story has an abrupt ending because sadly, Subra and Shan died last year, within months of each other. Years of alcoholism had taken their toll on their bodies. I felt a part of me died with them. None of them lived past 50. As for Dhana, Raju, Muniandy and several other men, they died some years ago - all victims of alcohol
abuse.

I previously lived near the poor Tamils who became part of our extended family. Seeing how the poor survived has given me the confidence to live with poverty. It is in moving on to a higher level that I think many poor Tamils need help, and it is not always a question of money.

Pouring money at the poor is not the answer if the money is not spent properly. Intangible things we do that will increase their
self-esteem and confidence are equally important. These intangibles are necessary when a society fixates itself on material success, looks down on its poor and deprives the lowly of natural justice.

Righting bureaucratic injustices among the Tamils is one such intangible and does not cost anything. Subra, like many Tamils born in Malaysia, died an alien in his own country because his uneducated parents did not register him at birth and he was denied a blue identity card and citizenship.

Keeping promises to the poor is another. Shan was offered a RM25,000 low-cost flat but had waited more than 15 years for it to be constructed and until the day he died the flat was not ready. It is not prudent management if funds are used on projects instead of giving the poor basic amenities. Everyone should see how he or she could help the poor without creating a culture of dependence on charity. Those motivated by compassion sometimes do a better job
than bureaucrats.

Fires of hatred

Still, the plight of the poor is ultimately the government's responsibility and it is heartening to read they are serious about
tackling the problem. Let's hope they are as good as their word. For too long an uncaring bureaucracy has done nothing about the plight of the poor Tamils and one can't be too optimistic.

Our Asian values should reflect social justice for the needy. As a diverse nation, our true strength, our national pride and our overall success are better judged by how united we are and how equitably we treat one another, not just by our economic achievements. If we care for one another, when things go bad we will learn to share. But if we hate one another when things go bad, we will hurt one another.

I believe it is how people treat the weakest members in their society that tells something of the nature and character of their nation. When society forgets to be just and benevolent, anarchy waits to step in, as we have seen happening in Indonesia. There must be something wrong when some people have more money than they will ever need in several lifetimes while others have barely enough to live on.

We need peacemakers in troubled places. It is not the time for politicking. A multilateral and multi-faceted approach is needed. Community groups should work hand in hand with politicians both in government and the opposition to look at the most urgent needs. We should avoid knee-jerk reactions and band-aid solutions.

Government leaders, who should know better, should set the example and not make wild allegations that are unhelpful. Arresting and charging the leaders of opposition political parties may exacerbate the situation especially if people see they are merely doing their job. Instead, the police should be resolute in arresting and charging the real culprits and killers. It should send out a message to those who are all too ready to take to arms in violent mobs that society will not tolerate such tactics.

That a riot can erupt on the basis of rumour is worrying. For this reason, I feel a free media and a more open society where people can read, hear, watch and learn things for themselves is the best safeguard against rumour-mongering which reports tell us stoked the fires of hatred in the troubled areas.

Confusion, mistrust

Journalists and media owners operate under enormous pressures and it is not right to influence or suppress them when they are trying to serve the community with true and objective news. The iron hand of officialdom must not be heavy on honest journalists who are obliged by the code of ethics of their profession to mirror the truth and not be forced to be unwilling mouthpieces or parrots for the government or anyone else. Not all journalists would want to prostitute themselves in this way, I am sure.

It seems a contradiction for a peaceful country to tighten control over the media when it seeks to be at the forefront of the
technological race. It will not work and will likely result in confusion, distrust and more rumour-mongering. If the police want to be a credible source of information, they must act justly and expeditiously to win the people's confidence.

Six precious, innocent lives have been wasted and we share in the grief of their friends and relatives. It should make Malaysians determined not to allow such senseless and needless violence to recur. Apart from humanitarian concerns, tourism and investments are important to Malaysia and the last thing it needs is for the fear of social unrest to stop foreigners from visiting or investing in the country.

STEVE OH, who now resides in Australia, believes every Malaysian has a duty to work constructively to help eradicate poverty, corruption and injustice so that the quality of life of every Malaysian will improve.

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