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For the workers (V.T. Sambanthan)

Millennium markers - Personalities

V.T. SAMBANTHAN'S early childhood and experiences as a student in India prepared him for his future role as leader of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). As a student at the Annamalai University in South India during the turmoil of India's battle for independence, he was greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence.

Not surprisingly, he become involved with the Youth Wing of the Indian National Congress. The ethnicity and sectionalism in Indian society troubled him and this was to influence his later advocacy of racial tolerance, harmony and cooperation in Malayan politics.

Sambanthan's father was a pioneer rubber planter in Sungei Siput, Perak - where Sambanthan was born in 1919 - who ran his estate along enlightened lines. When his father died, Sambanthan took over the estate and followed his father's philosophy of improving the welfare of his workers.

The young man was drawn towards politics in Malaya following his experiences in India. In the post World War II period, the Indian professional elite was largely held together by the unifying ideology of Indian nationalism. In 1946, the Indian elite in Malaya formed the MIC.

For the first eight years, the MIC leaders were either North Indian or Malayalee, representing a minority among the Indians. The majority of Indians (90%) in Malaya at that time were South Indians, mainly from the labouring class.

The MIC's main challenge was to reconcile the political aspirations of the middle class with the poverty and needs of the labouring class, who in 1938 comprised 84% of the plantation labour force.

Sambanthan started a recruitment campaign among plantation workers, relying on patronage of Hinduism in its popular South Indian form, increased use and fostering of the Tamil language, and Tamil cultural activities.

His gamble paid off and he was elected MIC president in 1955. He was also acceptable to the Malay leadership because he played down political (and to some extent, economic) rights in favour of cultural and language rights.

But the MIC under Sambanthan failed to reconcile the needs of labour with the political aspirations of the middle class. The traditionalists and the lower middle class strengthened their hold within the party, while the upper class professionals and the intelligentsia moved away from it.

Subsequently, two paths to leadership emerged among the Indians - political and trade union - with very little interaction between them.

The Emergency (declared by the British in 1948 to battle communist insurgency) regulations and new trade union legislation also led to the leadership of the trade union movement passing from the Chinese, who were much better organised, to the Indians.

This dilution of the MIC's objectives impacted on the status of Indian plantation workers in the Malaysian economy then and its repercussions are still being felt today.

Indian plantation workers, the main group of wage workers in Malaya at the time, experienced enforced segregation because of plantation compound housing.

The plantation labour system also worked against the integration of Indian workers into society at large and perpetuated racial and occupational differentiation.

For one thing, they were unable to acquire skills that would facilitate their move to better-paying jobs elsewhere.

Moreover, the fact that they were encouraged to grow their own food, especially in times of depressed economic conditions, resulted in some form of ''self-sufficiency'' and the ''reconstitution'' of their peasant status.

The plantation workers consequently functioned as part wage workers, part farmers - and their part proletarian, part peasant positioning facilitated the domination of capital over labour.

Furthermore, as migrant workers, they were regarded as ''aliens'' - ineligible for citizenship rights or other legal, political and civil rights - and subject to deportation in cases of ''misbehaviour'' or repatriation during depressed economic conditions.

Migrant plantation workers were therefore marginalised and polarised in Malaya. Their wages in the post World War II era, which were around 50 cents a day, were tied to rubber prices, falling when the rubber price fell, but never rising when prices rose. The weakest linkUnder Sambanthan's leadership, the MIC effectively became a Tamil party. It was also the weakest of the three main political parties. It had the smallest electorate - 7.4% in 1959; and it had little support from the Indian community at large.

Since the Indian community was geographically dispersed and divided, it comprised less than 25% in any constituency. Therefore, the MIC's overriding concern was to remain a partner in the Alliance (the Umno-MCA-MIC Alliance that had won the first elections in 1955, and that was subsequently renamed Barisan National) and obtain whatever concessions it could from the dominant Umno. In the process, political and economic rights of workers were sacrificed.

Sambanthan served as president of the MIC from1955-71 and was largely responsible for the transformation of the party from an active, political organisation to a conservative, traditional one, emphasising Indian culture, religion and language.

As president of a party that was a component of the ruling Alliance Par-ty, he was appointed Minister of Labour (1955-57), Health (1957-59), Works, Posts and Telecommunications (1959-71) and National Unity (1972-74).

The MIC's success in the early years was due to the close personal friendship between Ma-laysia's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, and Sambanthan. For his part, Sambanthan ran the MIC as a largely informal party, in deference to Umno, rather than as a political party with definite programmes.

In effect, it became a vehicle for distributing patronage (senate and legislative votes, nominations for decorations and awards, licences) to supporters, furnishing the Indian vote, and an instrument for the leadership to entrench its role.

But patronage was always in short supply and, eventually, rising dissatisfaction with Sambanthan led to a prolonged leadership crisis in the party.

When Tun Abdul Razak Hussein succeeded Tunku Abdul Rahman as Malaysia's prime minister, the MIC was forced to become much more responsive to the dictates of Umno.

Sambanthan, by now bearing the title ''Tun'', was forced to retire in favour of V. Manickvasagam in 1973. This intervention is an indication of the inertia that had gripped the MIC following Sambanthan's rise to leadership in 1955.

Subsequently, he was appointed chairman of the National Unity Board (1974-78) that replaced the National Unity Ministry. Throughout his political career, which spanned 25 years, he had preached and practised the doctrine of unity amidst diversity. Appropriately enough, in the Malaysian context, it was to national unity that he devoted the last few years of his life. He died in 1979.In his own way, Sambanthan instituted some reforms among Indian plantation workers. For example, he promoted education and thrift among Indian workers, lobbied for the introduction of English language instruction in Tamil schools in Perak and for the transformation of the South Indian Immigration Labour Fund into an education fund for the children of plantation workers.

Perhaps his greatest achievement in this area was the formation of the National Land Finance Co-operative Society in 1960 to provide an opportunity for land ownership among Indian workers when rubber estates were being fragmented.

He toured rubber plantations to persuade workers to buy shares in the cooperative; a worker with a registration fee of $2 and a share costing $100 (payable in instalments) could buy a stake in a plantation.

At the time of his death in 1979, the cooperative had bought over 18 estates, totalling 12,000ha and had a membership of 85,000 workers. The Malayan Plantation Agencies administered the estates on behalf of the cooperative. However, the cooperative represented only a fraction of the plantation workers.

In the last few decades of the 20th century, Malaysia made the transition from a primary producer of raw materials to manufacturing/newly-industrialising country status. This, however, has not led to an improvement in the lives of plantation workers.

In rubber plantations, Indian workers continue to form a sizeable category. Wages in the plantation sector are still linked to the market price of commodities. Until recently (March 2001), wages were still paid on a daily basis because it is easier to manipulate the daily wage system of payment. The monthly wage system of payment has only been implemented for workers (principally Indonesians) in oil palm plantations.

Rubber is the less important commodity of the two, and rubber plantation workers are deemed less important compared to other plantation workers. The owners have changed, but the lot of plantation labour has not improved markedly - a fact that would surely sadden the man who, like his father, ran his estates along enlightened lines.

Prof Amarjit Kaur, who formerly taught at Universiti Malaya, is presently Professor of Economic History at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, and is a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. She teaches South-East Asian and Asian economic and business history, and globalisation and the international economy. Her most recent publication is a Historical Dictionary of Malaysia (New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 2001, second edition). She has written widely on transport and labour systems, markets and standards. Her latest book, Wage Labour in Southeast Asia: Globalisation, the International Division of Labour and Labour Transformations, 1840s to 1990s (Basingstoke: Palgrave) will be released next year.

Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.

Notes: STF -: Tun V.T. Sambanthan, fifth president of the MIC, is credited with three important developments in Malaysian political history: the consolidation of the Malayan (now Malaysian) Indian Congress, its transformation into a mass-based party, and its integral role as a partner in the current ruling alliance. In this week's Millennium Markers, Prof AMARJIT KAUR makes a frank appraisal of Sambanthan's politics and how they continue to impinge on the lives of plantation workers today, half a century later.

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