Monday, October 08, 2007

17 years on, Penang Indians 'have nothing' (Mkini)

17 years on, Penang Indians 'have nothing'
Athi Veeranggan
Oct 8, 07 12:12pm

When the standard of living among some sections of Indian Malaysians falls lower than that of foreign workers in the country, tough questions have to be asked.

And community leaders are asking the questions - with plenty of scepticism, too - in the wake of a Penang government pledge to lend a “strong helping hand” to some 150,000 Indian Malaysians in the state.

Last week, Chief Minister Dr Koh Tsu Koon said a comprehensive policy would be drawn up to upgrade the standard of living of the community.

But with speculation growing that a snap election could be called by March next year, community leaders wonder if Koh is attempting to make up lost ground and if the decision only amounts to an election gimmick.

United Hindu Religious Council president G Mugunthan said Koh should have kick-started such a policy when he was sworn as the state’s third chief minister 17 years ago - not now.

"Since Gerakan took over the Penang chief ministership after the 1969 general election, Indians have been marginalised, sidelined and discriminated against. They have not reaped the benefits of economic prosperity enjoyed by the state over the past three decades,” he said.

"The community now lagged far behind others, including even foreign workers."

National Silambam Association Penang branch treasurer L Balasupramaniyam also claimed that migrant workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia are far better off than the majority of Indian Malaysians in Penang.

He said Koh will not need feedback from Indian grassroots leaders to formulate and execute the policy because “it’s open for all to see that Indians are the most marginalised community in the state and country”.

“It’s shocking that it has taken 17 years for the Penang chief minister to realise this," he said.

Koh had announced the policy when officiating the People's Progressive Party state annual general meeting, and had called on local Indian leaders to provide feedback to assist the state government.

This is not the first such announcement. Two years ago, he said the state government would set up a special fund to provide soft loans at a low interest rate to Indians to finance business ventures; further their education at either public or private tertiary institutions or to acquire vocational skills; expand property ownership; and increase their economic stake. The fund has yet to materialise.

Difficulties confirmed

The Penang government has long been aware of the Indian Malaysian community’s difficulties.

In 1997, it commissioned and funded a study on the socio-economic status of Indians. More than RM100, 000 was spent on a survey conducted by the Socio-Economic and Environment Research Institute (Seri).

Between November 1997 and February 1999, it polled 3,100 Penang Indian households in 27 residential areas, focusing on employment and income distribution; participation in the corporate, professional and business sectors; social development; youth and children; housing and community facilities; and education and skills.

The findings of the study told an appalling story of neglect:

• 80,000 or 60 percent were wage earners in the lower income brackets.

• Average monthly income was between RM500 and RM1, 000 per household.

• Seven percent were living in hardcore poverty.

• About 80 percent in the manufacturing industry, Penang’s biggest revenue earning sector, were low-level workers.

• Involvement in the tourism sector, the state’s second highest revenue earner, was virtually non-existent.

• About 50 percent of private companies did not have a single Indian employee.

• The share in paid-up capital investments in the state were a mere 0.2 percent.
• The majority were indulged in traditional businesses due to lack of funds, bureaucratic red tape, racial discrimination and difficulty in securing loan.

• Nearly 30 percent were squatters or living on temporary occupation licence (TOL) land.

• About 75 percent of pupils in 28 Tamil primary schools had failed to achieve the minimum pass-mark of `C' in all six subjects in the Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah public examination.

• At secondary level, 80 percent of pupils had stopped schooling after Form Five.

• Many Indians were involved in alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and child abuse.

• Nearly 40 percent of the state’s suicide cases involved Indians.

Publicity stunt?

Although the state government then announced it would use the Seri report as the foundation of a comprehensive policy to upgrade standard of living for the community, there has been no follow-up action.

Mugunthan said the findings were unambiguous that Indians lag far behind other communities because of unequal distribution of state wealth.

Balasupramaniyam pointed out that 50 years of independence and capitalism have not done the community any good.

He said the state government has yet to start a comprehensive programme to increase Indian share in the state economic pie and improve academic achievement by investing in physical infrastructure and teaching facilities in Tamil schools.

Discrimination in terms of jobs and salary, especially in the private sector, has affected the livelihood of several generations of Indian Malaysians, he claimed.

“It’s clear that Koh’s recent announcement is only to fish Indian votes. He knows that the majority are disgusted and disillusioned with the Gerakan-led state government," he said, pointing out that the need is to redress the imbalance instead of carrying out frequent publicity stunts for political mileage.

"Otherwise, the state will soon have a large pool of impoverished people, dominated by Indians. The symptoms are there. This could trigger serious social problems," he warned.

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