Without doubt the recent massive demonstration by Hindraf to highlight the economic plight of Indians struck a chord among many Malaysians who feel the issues need to be addressed.
These are legitimate concerns, particularly on education and employment, for which the Indian community has strong sentiments. Certainly the leadership needs to hear them out.
And the Prime Minister did. On Friday, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi met 16 representatives of Indian non-governmental organisations who opened their hearts to him.
It was said to be a frank meeting where the representatives spoke up with one informing Pak Lah that he felt that the community had lost its “dignity” over certain incidents.
Such dialogue is certainly important for the Prime Minister as it would enable him to listen to the concerns of the community directly, and the sentiments on the ground.
Although Hindraf may have appealed to some sections of the community in the early stages, the extreme positions taken by its leaders, including the possible threat of violence, must have led many to review their support.
Not a single Malaysian newspaper, for example, was prepared to print the entire contents of the memorandum submitted by Hindraf. For good reason, it was simply too extreme.
But that meant, unfortunately, that many Malaysians were unable to see for themselves the whole memorandum and were also unable to make a better judgment of the group. That, in some ways, put the Government in a defensive position as Hindraf leaders continued to hold gatherings locally and overseas.
In their memorandum to the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the Hindraf leaders complained about how “Commonwealth ethnic Indians” in Malaysia were allegedly persecuted by “government-backed Islamic extremist violent armed terrorists” who destroyed an Indian temple in Shah Alam last month.
They appealed to Brown to move a “UN resolution” as well as to go to the World Court to condemn the “ethnic cleansing” in Malaysia, adding that “1,100 over Indians were slashed and killed” by the Malaysian Government in Kampung Medan.
The fact is, in that racial clash in 2001, six persons were killed and 154 people arrested at the scene.
Hindraf has also charged that it was a “policy” to kill one person every week, of which 60% of the victims were Indians. This is farfetched and exaggerated.
It is a reminder to us all that extremism cuts across all religions and ideologies.
While the temple demolition issue generated much unhappiness, if not anger, among Hindus, less talked about was the fact that the temple in question sat on private land. In short, it was an illegal structure, no matter a place of worship, and squatting on someone’s land. Compensation and an alternative site had been offered – but these facts were omitted by the Hindraf leaders.
There were claims, via the Internet and SMS, that the temple was a 100-year-old heritage building. Not many asked if indeed this was so: why wasn’t it a tourist site, like Batu Caves, for example?
Statistics have now been provided that on a per capita basis, there are more Hindu temples than mosques and suraus in Selangor, although the total Hindu-Indian population is about a quarter of the total Malay population.
At the Batu Caves, where a huge protest took place, we seemed to have lost sight of the fact that there is a huge statue erected on the grounds of the temple that has been accorded recognition by the Government. Thaipusam and Deepavali are also gazetted holidays.
There is also not a single Indian majority constituency, state or parliamentary, and yet the MIC is recognised as the third largest Barisan Nasional component party with representation at state and national levels.
But as action is taken against the Hindraf leaders, there are lessons to be learnt from the incident. The Hindraf protest was unprecedented and certainly the MIC must sit up and listen hard.
It has been weeks since the party talked about setting up hotlines to listen to the grievances of the community and we have yet to hear details of the plan and the committee set up to analyse the issues affecting the poor.
In the case of the demolition of the illegal temple, it is highly insensitive on the part of the local authorities to carry out the action so close to Deepavali, a religious celebration. All Mentris Besar and Chief Ministers must learn from this incident.
Problems affecting the Malaysian urban poor, regardless of their race, need to be addressed. There must be a comprehensive plan to tackle these social concerns. It is not a consolation to use statistics to tell the community that they are not the poorest.
Similarly, officials of some public universities must avoid holding examinations just days before the Chinese New Year, which has been a practice at one or two universities.
Thus it is good to hear the National Service Department announce that trainees will be allowed to take off for Chinese New Year and Thaipusam.
Maintaining race relations in Malaysia is not an easy job. As recent events have shown, it is a very delicate process indeed.