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Star Tuesday, November 27, 2001

Nagging pains of local Indians

Despite serious efforts by Indian politi-cians and the community, the spate of violent crimes involving Indian youths seems to be continuing. What are the causes? Is the media contributing to the problem by exaggerating crime stories? A.LETCHUMANAN reports from talks with academics and social activists.

ON DEEPAVALI day, former national walker Mahadevan Kuttappan was slashed to death by an Indian gang at Sri Sentosa flats in Petaling Jaya.

In Klang, a Deepavali reunion of five former colleagues at a public park ended in a bloody tragedy when they were set upon by a group of parang-wielding assailants.

These attacks come in the wake of other brutal acts such as the shocking drowning of a toddler, who was thrown into a river, in Kampung Medan and the rape of an eight-year-old girl in Kuala Lumpur, the harassment of her family and the brutal killing of her father.

These incidents are worrying the Indian community and its leaders.

According to police statistics, the number of Indians involved in criminal
activities has been rising in the past few years. From 69 cases in 1996, the
number rose to 179 in 1999 and 111 in the Jan to Aug 2000 period.

Figures from August last year have not be tabulated but based on news reports, the upward trend is not expected to change.

Police records show there are 38 Indian crime gangs in Peninsular Malaysia with membership of around 1,500.

About 63% of detainees under the emergency ordinance and 14% of detained juveniles are Indians - members of a minority community.

It is not that Indian political and community leaders are not aware of the statistics. The MIC has, in fact, taken steps to resolve problems faced by Indian youths by setting up the social arm called Yayasan Strategik Sosial.

Independent Indian-based non-governmental organisations have been working with plantation and squatter communities.

Why then do these unpleasant events continue to afflict the Indian community?

Social workers and academics believe the Government must do more to address the root causes of alienation faced by Indians.

Engineer and social activist K. Arumugam, who has carried out many
development programmes through the Tamil Youth Bell Club, the Education, Welfare and Research Foundation and the Child Information, Learning and Development Centre, said the Indian community was in crisis.

"Feeling marginalised and generally trapped in poverty, the Indians are devoid of a caring and sharing Government.

"Feeling ostracised in all sectors - schools, institutions, enforcement agencies, government and corporate - they tend to seek a defence mechanism to overcome their woes and challenges," he said, adding that organising themselves into groups or gangs provided Indian youths a senseof belonging.

Arumugam said that some of the groups had developed links with forces of
power and money which appear to be promoting and protecting them.

"They have become protectors, mediators, collectors and judges and mete out punishment for a fee paid either in lump sum or monthly taxes," he said, adding that even students in secondary schools were being influenced.

Although the MIC and other Indian-based organisations had taken steps to
resolve the gangster problem, Arumugam said the community saw little scope for a permanent remedy.

"These are no permanent solutions. It must be accepted that such steps do not deal with underlying causes but only postpone the inevitable," he said,adding that the problem was entrenched and interwoven with poverty.

He said that gangsterism was likely to thrive when those with power and money exploit the situation.

"Political parties and NGOs have the desire to resolve the problem but they do not have the means. The Government has to seriously look at socio-economic inequalities beyond race.''

"It is essential that long-term programmes be developed and implemented
through the five-year plans over the next 20 years with intense monitoring
of developments," Arumugam said.

Sociologist Dr M. Nadarajah, who lectures at Stamford College, said the Indian Malaysian problem was a nagging one that would not go away if only the symptoms were dealt with. He said there had been many explanations of the root causes of problems faced by Indian Malaysians, especially Tamils.

Some blamed external factors like government policies while others pointed a finger at internal issues such as culture, Tamil schools, movies and family system.

However, he said the low status and marginalisation of the Indian community today was a consequence of vast problems faced during themarket-directed growth of a post-colonial state trying to define its identity in a particular way.

"During that period, the Indian community was trying to make sense of its moorings while faced with immense internal problems such as lack of socio-economic resources, low political bargaining abilities as a result, and absence of visionary leadership at critical times of its life in this nation," said Dr Nadarajah.

He said the problem could not be resolved firmly unless the values of compassion and justice were upheld. He believed this could happen only when the nation's politics was transformed beyond race and when people stopped thinking in ethnic terms on issues and situations that were essentially national.

Dr Nadarajah also took issue with the coverage of Indian issues in the media. He said the media's role in representing the community, especially putting up issues on the front page, added a symbolic load.

"If what appears on the front page covers ethnic news relating to a particular community, the symbolic load is great, given ourethnically-charged environment. When problems are printed on the front page in connection with a rich community, what is reported is seen as an exception to the rule.

"But when a problem is reported involving the Indian community, it is usually read symbolically as a rule. That kind of representation on asustained basis builds the image of the Indian community as a problem community which is different from a community with problems," he added.

Dr Nadarajah said this recasting of the community as a problem community presented serious problems in the everyday life of individual members.

He said that many informed and sensitive Malaysians knew the MIC had
not been able to bring into its fold the whole diverse community of Indians.

"This unresolved problem is exploited in ways that add to the community's
problems. In programming of Indian movies in the electronic media, the use
of words such as Diwali instead of Deepavali and Rangoli instead of Kolam, and characters who appear in promotional material, the Malaysian media helps deepen the problem by constructing and crystallising the North Indian-South Indian divide, quite carelessly.

"Of course, as observed, the south Indians we are dealing with are of the majority Tamil community, not Sri Lankan Tamils or non-Tamils who understandably have their own grievances," he said.

Dr Nadarajah said the Malaysian media had never shown enlightened concern for ethnic communities and this revealed the perceptions and(unwritten) editorial policies of media owners towards the Indian community.

He said that media reports of high crime statistics involving Indians were out annually but there was hardly any serious discussion on the reasons why there were such a high number of gangs.

"Without careful analysis of the situations that give rise to gangsterism,
some institutions of the Government and the mainstream media are contributing to the creation of the 'problem community' image. How can the problem be ever resolved?" he asked.

Dr Nadarajah said without proper examination, the recasting of Indians as a problem community contributed to the creation of a punitive strategy
rather than a preventive one to deal with gangsterism.

"Improving Tamil schools and education, for instance, as a national
objective can begin the process of long-term resolution of the problems,
including that of gangsterism," he said.

Dr Nadarajah said that media reports tended to be one-dimensional and
without background support or careful checking of facts - sometimes reflecting the lack of professionalism of the media and at other times reflecting prejudice.

"Sincere reporting related to ethnic groups, informing citizens of happenings in the nation, need to be balanced with the clear focus and strategy of disallowing negative image formation and communalising Malaysians,'' he said, adding that a politically and economically marginalised community was always at a disadvantage.

MIC education bureau chairman Prof Datuk T. Marimuthu, however, felt
the media should not be blamed for highlighting the problems of the Indian
community.

He said it was the same question thrown at media in the United States and
Britain accused of only reporting crimes involving blacks or coloured
people.

Economist Charles Santiago said that Tamil films were not the main factor
responsible for the increase in criminal activities among Indians as claimed
by certain quarters.

"Tamil films like Talapathi show the people taking the law into their own
hands after a breakdown in police support for the people," he said.

He said that racial clashes in Kampung Medan and the indiscriminate
breaking down of temples showed disrespect on the part of certain
government apparatus.

"These temples have been there 30 to 40 years and suddenly one wakes
up and decides they have to go. There has to be consultation between the
relevant people, including temple committees, the MIC and others,"
Santiago said.

Prof Marimuthu said that rapid urbanisation was putting pressure on
Indians who previously lived in close-knit family environments in rubber
estates.

He said that many Indians were forced to migrate to towns after the
plantations they worked in were bought for deve- lopment projects, adding
that since they lacked education and skills, they ended up in slum areas.

"These slum areas lack infrastructure. There is no value system and
everyone becomes impersonal and a sense of community is lacking. Some
children drop out of school, having to fend for families with inadequate
incomes, and this provides a conducive climate for criminals to recruit
young members," he said.

Prof Marimuthu said that only education could save the children and there
was a need to start kindergartens and remedial and enrichment
programmes to help youths.

"The quality of living has to be improved, and infrastructure upgraded,
including better housing, sanitation, roads, drainage, piped water and
electricity," he added.

Prof Marimuthu said, after the Kampung Medan incident, the Government
had realised the magnitude of the problem.

He said there was now a need for government intervention with assistance
from NGOs and voluntary organisations.

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