Ultimately, only the government — not the people — can bring about real change by giving concessions to ethnic Indians, said P. Waytha Moorthy, the chairman of the Hindu Rights Action Force group, or Hindraf, that is leading the Indian movement.
"We are fighting a losing battle, we know. We try our level best but if we don't succeed, we have to call it a day, isn't it?" Moorthy said in the interview this week in the London suburb of Hounslow, where he is living with friends in self-imposed exile.
"We have to close the chapter. There may be a new chapter, but we may not be part of the next chapter," a tired-looking Moorthy said during the chat at a McDonald's restaurant. "I know, eventually we will also fail."
Ethnic Indians form about 8 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people, and complain that the government denies them opportunities in jobs, education and business. They say that years of systematic repression have kept them at the bottom of society. The government denies this and says all Malaysians have benefited from the spectacular progress of the export-driven economy since independence in 1957.
"We want the minority Indians to be given their basic rights If they can give us two or three (real concessions), we are willing to keep our mouth shut," Moorthy said.
"That's what I don't understand: why isn't the government conceding? We are not asking for super rights, we are asking for basic rights."
Ethnic Indians, most of them descendants of 19th century plantation workers from southern India, also accuse the government of turning a blind eye to the destruction by local civic authorities of Hindu temples.
Moorthy's statements are the most honest and frank assessment of the reality faced by the minority community who have little economic or political clout. Malaysia's majority Malay Muslims, who are 60 percent of the population, control the government, while the ethnic Chinese — who are a quarter of the population — dominate business.
The Indian frustrations took public shape for the first time when Hindraf organized a massive rally on Nov. 25 of about 30,000 people in defiance of a government ban.
Moorthy fled the country fearing arrest but five other Hindraf leaders were subsequently detained under the Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite jail without trial. They were accused of being a threat to national security but no charges have been filed.
Moorthy said public support for Hindraf has increased after the arrests, but the movement was "stagnant" now.
"What we can, we will still do. But if the whole struggle is going to die, what can we do?" he said. "As it stands now I don't think we can accelerate."
He said he doesn't regret starting the movement.
"I will never regret but I feel sorry" for those detained and "frustrated with the system, the government."
He said his biggest worry is that when Hindraf fails, the poor and uneducated Indians will come to hate the government even more, and may resort to violence. He added he does not condone or support violence in any form.
He said he plans to stay in London for now and continue lobbying internationally.
"I would prefer to keep pushing, keep the people's spirit high. The safest thing to do is to conduct prayers."