Cover: Working for change

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Some people are driven by a sense of mission, and Sungai Siput MP Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj clearly belongs to their ranks. On a recent February weekend, Rash Behari Bhattacharjee tags along with the social reformer as he tends to his constituents’ needs.

It feels good to shake hands with Sungai Siput MP Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, whom I am meeting after 28 years. We have not been in touch since I left Universiti Malaya, where he studied medicine and I did English literature, presumably. But it’s not quite a Dr Livingstone-Henry Stanley encounter despite a parallel or two.Now, of course, he has become known as the nemesis of Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu, whom he dethroned from his parliamentary seat on March 8, in the 2008 general election. The shock must have been seismic for Samy Vellu, the MIC president who had held the constituency since 1974, when he first won it for the Barisan Nasional (BN).Having known Kumar at a formative age, I was not surprised that he had contested against the imperious arbiter of Indian welfare for a third consecutive time in the 12th general election. Although Samy Vellu had presided over the Indian community for a good three decades, and was the second-longest serving cabinet minister, the social reformer in Kumar was not going to be deterred. For him, working for change is a mission that is bigger than any political opponent, no matter how established.Kumar picks up Abdul Ghani Ismail, our chief photographer, and I from our hotel in Ipoh on a Saturday afternoon. We head for a new village in his constituency, where several houses are affected by sinkholes.“The place where we’re going to is a development project within a new village,” he says in a soft, unhurried voice. “There was some kind of a deal under the previous government. It is former mining land, you see, so there is now a sinkhole problem.”Except for his thinning hair, now speckled with grey, I can find nothing about this gentle social reformer that the intervening years have changed. His speech is just as mellow at 54 as it was in his early 20s, when his precocious maturity made him stand out from the rest of us, gawky young adults seeking our own horizons. Ghani and I are tooling along in Kumar’s dusty old Volvo, an 18-year-old veteran that had given its loyal best to its previous masters. Kumar had picked it up two years ago for RM6,000, he says in reply to my query. “It has a built-in anti-theft feature,” says Kumar with good-natured levity, referring to its non-existent resale value.I muse about the contrast his lifestyle makes to that of innumerable Yang Berhormats, who ooze opulence as if it were their just reward for merely occupying public office. In truth, Kumar’s election as a people’s representative is incidental to his life’s mission, which clearly centres around social work. Neither is it quite accurate to measure his community work in ethnic terms, an assumption which may be encouraged by his contest against Samy Vellu. Luckily that error is quickly dissipated when he speaks about the challenges of organising the Orang Asli communities and residents of Chinese new villages. But we are getting ahead of our story.Kumar’s salary as an MP amounts to RM6,900, he says in response to my random questionnaire. Add another RM7,000 from various allowances, including transport and assorted benefits. Then, there is an extra RM200 per day for attending Parliament. Hotel and sundry charges are reimbursed upon submission of claims. That makes up most of the earnings of this atypical people’s representative.“Of course, my medical practice has practically collapsed since I took up this work,” says the chest specialist, smiling at his self-imposed predicament. When Parliament is not in session, he sees patients twice a week at a private hospital in Ipoh. Otherwise, it’s once a week on Saturdays, and then too people seek him out for help with their problems. The rest of the time is spent on community service.Kumar’s work as an MP takes about RM10,000 a month, which goes towards operating his service centre in Sungai Siput, Perak, including rent, salary for two full-time employees and two part-timers, constituency visits and assistance for deserving cases. He gestures towards the service centre as we pass it on our way to the new village. It is festooned with pennants bearing the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) logo, a clenched fist on an eye-catching scarlet background, signifying, I presume, the people’s struggle for justice against oppressive power structures.I subtract the expenses mentally from his income, silently surmising that his family must be making do on a Spartan RM4,000 or so. Each MP is entitled to a RM500,000 grant from the federal government for constituency development, Kumar informs us. “I’ve written for it, but there is no news of it coming,” he says. Some 11 months after the general election, most opposition MPs have not got their allocations.Kumar gets a call on his mobile. It is his trusty full-timer Kartik, who is heading for the new village in a van with the others. Kumar reviews the preparations for the afternoon’s activity to aid the distressed house owners, then the evening’s programme, a session to organise workers affected by retrenchments.In about half an hour, we arrive at the site of the sinkhole problem. I look around, half expecting to see craters to the left and right. But it is nothing so obvious, I realise a little disappointedly. Kumar’s young assistants fall in step alongside their leader as the group heads towards the house of their local contact, Devaki, who has been making calls to the service centre and Kumar.There is plus-sized Kartik, an unassuming youth in his early 20s with a fresh face and faint beard. Nagen is slightly older and more muscled, clearly an able-bodied keeper of the faith. The third assistant is Bhavani, an earnest-looking young woman who does work with the party’s education programme. She had come up from Kuala Lumpur of her own accord, Kumar tells me later. Their common denominator is their simple dressing — roundneck T-shirts, jeans and sandals. Kumar too is in humble office wear — white, short-sleeved shirt, dark pants and black loafers.Again, the contrast to the well-padded finery of the establishment types is as striking as can be. The housing project, Kumar explains, has been built on land that the previous government gave to the developer to build homes for the lower income group. “The whole thing is a mining area, you see,” Kumar explains. “They just filled up the mine and built on it. Basically, I think, the land is not very solid. So, anywhere there is water running, it erodes.”“But the law is tricky,” says Kumar. “You see, the contract states that the land owner is the employer and the contractor is the employee. The house owners have been sold the land, and they are given plans, and the contractor is required to build the houses according to those plans.”“So, how can you blame the contractor if anything goes wrong, because he built it according to your plans?” he asks. “But everyone is required to use the same contractor, and the land is sold by a sister company.” It is a legal bind.We stop at Devaki’s house first. She points out the badly eroded area around her septic tank. Bhavani, from the education programme, is standing on a stone slab when it suddenly gives way. Her leg is caught in a sinkhole that goes up to mid-calf and Kumar and the others gingerly help her out of it. Luckily, she is not hurt, and Kumar quips, “Bhavani mengorbankan kaki untuk masyarakat.” (Bhavani sacrifices her leg for the benefit of society.)He peppers his discussions with the team with many such one-liners as they go about the survey of the area. It helps Kumar build rapport with his team. This is Kumar’s second visit to the new village since the problem was reported to him. There have been letters to the Kuala Kangsar Municipal Council (MPKK), which investigated the matter, then backed off, saying the problem was within the private property of the house owners. The developer washed his hands of the matter, invoking the six-month limitation on defect liability.  So, now, it is the MP’s turn to get a handle on the problem. His team progresses from door to door, surveying the signs of damage to cemented compounds, walls, perimeter drains and culverts. Kumar speaks to each resident in turn, then thumps the cemented compound with a handy broomstick or pipe to test whether there are cavities underneath. Details are noted on a small square of notepaper in his hand.After he had collected some more data, I ask him how he is planning to tackle the issue. “We need a geological report, that’s one thing,” he says thoughtfully. “Question is, how do we get one done? We need to find the money, of course. The legal options may be limited because the developer can transfer all the money out and leave a bankrupt company, so suing them won’t work.”Without a surfeit of funds, people power must come to the rescue. “We try to organise the community wherever we go, so that they can act for themselves,” says Kumar. “And if they need to knock on the doors of government, that’s what we are here for.”But getting the people to come together is not all that easy, I can see. Most of the people we meet are forthcoming with their experiences, but they seem to be mostly dealing with the subsidence problem in their own limited way. Probably many will not stick their necks out if push comes to shove, I muse.The afternoon stretches into evening as we continue our walkabout. Then, a new element of hope enters the picture. One resident approaches our group. He seems a little more enterprising than some of the others whom we have met. His house is quite close to a stream that runs at the back of the housing scheme, he tells Kumar, and from his animated narrative, he seems to have tried valiantly to engage the authorities.For Kumar, this looks like the right chord. He asks Devaki and this resident to get the affected people together for a meeting to discuss their next steps and he promises to make time to attend.The afternoon’s mission accomplished, we pile into the creaky Volvo once more. At the turn of the ignition key, the engine grumbles momentarily before coming alive, reluctant to be woken from its slumber.Kumar sums up the house buyers’ dilemma:“If it is a housing developer, and there are more than a certain number of houses in the project, it is required to be registered under the Housing Ministry. This fellow (the developer) is not required to be.”“These are individual houses, so it’s a loophole,” he says. “And even if the buyers sue his company, he can transfer out all the money, set up another company and continue to do business.”“After our first visit, we wrote to all the departments,” says Kumar. “All came back: Geoscience, MPKK, developer… nothing has been done, you see.”“So although it looks like a longkang (drain) problem, it really shows that the balance of power between house builders and house buyers is so uneven,” says Kumar. But what is the solution? “I think with the proper legislation, you can solve this problem,” he offers.The light is fading as we head towards Kumar’s service centre for the workers’ gathering. There are some people there already, and the crowd soon gets bigger. The idea is to get a retrenchment committee going. The centre occupies a shoplot fronting the road into Sungai Siput town. It has been cleared of furniture for the evening’s programme. The space is filled with plastic chairs in lecture hall style. Kumar gets his team to join him in rearranging the seats to form a circle, to encourage interaction. He leaves us for awhile to listen to several people who have issues to discuss. Kartik and Nagen are always close at hand to note details for follow up action. The night air is warm and as the crowd swells, I wonder whether we will get to eat until late at night.Soon after, Kumar makes a brisk exit and joins us. “Let’s grab a bite before the programme starts,” he says, to my relief. We drive around the corner to a mamak restaurant, where we are joined by a wiry, middle-aged man with a guileless smile. Kumar introduces him as “Mr Chong”, a workers’ representative. The shop owner takes our order of teh tarik and roti canai. Kumar ribs Chong, trying to get him to eat. “Chong gemuk,” says Kumar in mock admonition. “Tak boleh makan.” (Chong, you’re fat. You musn’t eat.) We all enjoy the joke at Chong’s expense. “Makan, makan,” urges Kumar, but to no avail.While we wait for our food, Kumar fills Chong in about the purpose of the evening gathering. Chong responds with reports that have reached his ears of impending lay-offs, reduced overtime and pay cuts. Our simple treat is enough to recharge us, and we head back to the centre. Gearing up for retrenchmentsWhen the hall is fairly full, a party worker starts the proceedings with a brief report about the type of workers’ complaints that have been pouring in. He is clearly experienced in addressing workers’ groups and rattles off cases of reduced overtime, late payment of wages, discrimination against local workers, forced leave and retrenchments. He prompts those present to share their own workplace experiences. One after another, they speak of shrinking take home pay, threats by their superiors and other forms of oppression. They are clearly not in a strong bargaining position. There is an air of dismal expectancy about the future in the room.Kartik is next. He surprises me with his confidence and the ease with which he presents his points.Then, Kumar takes over and guides the workers through the coming economic scenarios. There is no political rhetoric. The focus is on economic justice and self-help. After that, it is time to encourage the sharing of experiences and the facilitator takes over once more. He calls for ideas on how to tackle the problems linked to retrenchments, but most of the participants are stumped. Obviously, the issue is bigger than they feel empowered to act on. The final act is to encourage the workers to form a network so that they can channel information about the retrenchment situation to the centre for follow up action. Now, there is great willingness to participate and the evening’s work is saved. Almost everyone present volunteers to become the point person in their workplace.It is close to midnight before we head back towards Ipoh. On the way home, we stop for dinner at a food centre and plan for the next day’s programme.Organising the peopleThe next day is a Sunday, and Kumar is due to meet residents of another new village in the morning. It is one of the meet-the-people sessions he schedules regularly in the new villages for them to bring up the issues that are affecting them. When we arrive at the new village, we observe that the Sunday market is still doing brisk business. We are ushered into the impressively renovated community hall. About 30 villagers have turned up. They are a geriatric bunch in various stages of decrepitude, making an odd circle of stoics around Kumar and his team. He tells me that many of them were members of the former Labour Party that was a force to contend with in the 1950s and 1960s.I wonder why no young people have turned up. Are they mostly working abroad, recalling something that Kumar mentioned the night before. When I ask him later, he says frankly, “They’re not interested.”It is obvious that building rapport with the constituents is slow work, especially when there is no cash to be spread around. But Kumar is prepared for the long haul.I ask him how long he sees himself as an MP. “We never expected to be elected,” he says. “But it is an opportunity to showcase our socialist vision. Maybe the party will choose someone else to stand in the next election. It doesn’t matter. The work is for the long term.”“We have to face the fact that socialism has a terrible image problem,” says Kumar. “After the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s, we’ve had a credibility crisis.”“Even in the popular culture, if you want to say that a person is terrible, you call him a communist, don’t you?” he says. I see the challenge he faces in a new light.Kartik launches into a brief address about the service centre’s work, inviting the residents to contact him or his colleagues. His youthfulness makes an odd contrast to the hardened experience of his audience, and I look for signs of rejection on their faces. But Kartik acquits himself well, appearing relaxed and confident as he fluently runs through his practised pitch. Thankfully, there is nothing in the elderly villagers’ demeanour to show that they do not buy his message, and I mentally heave a sigh of relief.It is Kumar’s turn. He has no trouble keeping their attention although he talks about weighty issues like the economy and budgetary matters. But he gets to the heart of the day’s agenda quickly, which is to encourage them to raise their problems with him so that he can serve them as their elected representative. The villagers are mostly silent, however. Chong, who has turned up as well, gives a short address in Mandarin to encourage the residents to speak. After a hesitant start, two of the more self-assured among them say a few words. They have not much else to say, so the gathering disperses.Kumar mingles with the residents, urging them to get a committee going. One authority figure tells him that people expect ang pows, especially since Chinese New Year had passed recently. I chat with an elderly gentleman and find out that when Samy Vellu was their MP, he had given a cheque for  RM4,000 for the community hall and another RM4,000 to the village club. And there were ang pows for the residents too, he says.I wonder to myself whether that explains why a framed picture of the former MP still looks on the proceedings from a high perch in the hall. Or perhaps it is too near the roof to be brought down easily.“We want to break out of that mould of giving ang pows,” Kumar says. “In the first place, we don’t have that kind of money, and secondly, we want them to understand that they have to organise themselves. That’s why we have these meetings.”In the afternoon, there is a session with Orang Asli villagers, which Kumar is most enthusiastic about. Unfortunately, both Ghani and I have other commitments and have to head back to KL after lunch. Policy mattersI want to speak to Kumar at a quieter time, when he is not so engrossed in attending to problems on the ground. This is important for me to tap into his thoughts about the roots of the social issues he spends time grappling with. So I meet him at lunchtime in Parliament later that week. Over a meal of rice and curry, I get him to talk about the plight of the Orang Asli community. How does their situation reflect the failure of the current system, I ask.“Definitely there was a reduction in the support we saw from the Orang Asli after the change of government,” says Kumar. “Their dilemma is, ‘If we go (to Kumar’s programme, when he is opposition), are we jeopardising our chances of getting certain kinds of aid which might be in the pipeline? Will my kampung and I be penalised?’”“We have this situation where the tok batin (village head) can be removed by the Jabatan Orang Asli,” he says. “They stop paying the monthly allowance, that’s all.”“And they are fairly small communities, 20, 30 houses, fairly close knit. So once the tok batin stays away, it’s kind of difficult for others to come away without crossing his path,” says Kumar.Lunchtime over, the afternoon session of Parliament begins. We retire to a lounge to talk some more. The proceedings are being broadcast from a number of CCTV monitors. We pause awhile to watch Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim castigating a BN member for equating Anwar’s attempt to topple the federal government with the BN-led change of government in Perak.We move on to a discussion about his ideological position in the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, and Kumar delves into the roots of the current global economic crisis.“We’re coming up to the end of an epoch of economic growth fuelled by capitalism,” says Kumar. “I think we are running up against very serious barriers. One is the barrier of under-consumption because the workers, who are the consumers, don’t get sufficient income. And that has gotten worse since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the massive shift of power to the corporate group and with the diminution in earnings of the working class the world over, outsourcing and exporting of industries to lower-income countries.”“So, there is a big overhang of supply over demand. And governments have tried to keep it up with Keynesian-type spending, to the extent that the US government’s debt to GDP ratio is more than 50%, before the crisis started. I think in Japan, the government debt is more than GDP,” he says.“Then there are the physical limits of growth, with end oil and a huge environmental crisis in the offing, in the form of global warming and so on. And it is going to cause dislocations like we are seeing now. It’s going to be severe and the poor are going to be affected, definitely, the most,” says Kumar.“So now we really have to think outside the box. It’s not a question of tinkering with the system. We really have to think about overhauling the system. The whole question of economic growth… that it must be based on growth of 3% or 5% and all that, has to be re-looked. Can we have a different kind of economic system, a planned economy, one that is not based on profits for the corporates, where the means of production are not owned by individuals looking for profits? These are things we’ve got to re-examine. We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater, with socialism as it was practised in a very deformed manner in the Soviet Union and Europe,” he says.“There were mistakes then. I’m not saying we should use their methods entirely, but I think there’s a need for parties on the left to espouse these views very clearly and put it across to people in a way they can understand. And to demysticise the ideology because there was a lot of false propaganda in the Cold War era. That has to be patiently detoxified,” he says.“We are in a crisis. It is not just another recession that’s going to go away with time. I think we are really in a structural bind and not many seem to be aware of it. Especially in Malaysia, the debates in Parliament, they don’t seem to know what’s going on.”It is food for thought, definitely. Suddenly, what is going on at our table seems to be more important than the unfolding drama in the House. Kumar has to join the session so that he can make some interventions, so we have to leave the discussion there. He hands me a compilation of his speeches and papers that are coming out soon to gather more information on the issues he is working on.How interesting it would be if there were a few more like him in Parliament, I wonder to myself as we part. A new Malaysia? Looks like a good start, I think.

IN HIS WORDSTranslated from a booklet of Dr Kumar’s addresses in Parliament for distribution to the voters of Sungai Siput.

Protection for the people in recessionary times: “A mechanism for exempting borrowers from repaying their loans for a specified period should be established. Rescheduling of loans is often done for corporate entities in recessionary times. Why isn’t the same benefit extended to the ordinary people?”“At times like this, we cannot wait for the free market system to take effect. The government should provide jobs to all those who need them. Many remedial works are needed in our urban areas – drains, children’s playgrounds and other amenities need to be repaired; low-cost houses are needed for the poor and middle class. The government needs to implement all these using that national reserve so that the people can get work and the domestic economy is stimulated.”Health tourism:“Tan Sri Speaker, only 30% of specialist doctors remain in the public service. The rest have migrated to the private sector. However, 75% of the population still depend on the public hospital for treatment. This imbalance is the main reason for the inadequacy of the public health system. But it appears that the government does not want to accept this fact.”

On assistance not reaching the Orang Asli community:“… For instance, in Kg Pelantuk, Sg Siput, 300 acres of oil palm have been cultivated (under the government’s privatisation programme). Unfortunately, in 2007, 95 Orang Asli families in Kg Pelantuk only received RM100 a month from this scheme. With the high price of palm oil last year, three acres of oil palm should have produced an income of over RM2,000 a month, Tan Sri Speaker. But they receive only RM100 a month.”

Allocation for Parliamentary constituencies:“I would also like to ask whether there are any places in Malaysia in the 83 constituencies where the opposition has won, where the (RM500,000 annual) allocation (from the Prime Minister’s Department) has been approved? If not, is this in violation of Article 8 of the Federal Constitution, which says there must be equality and no discrimination?”

Privatisation of health system:“I would like to know whether the Economic Planning Unit is conducting a study to measure the impact of privatisation on the Health Ministry’s budget. As we all know, the health budget was only RM1 billion in 1980. Currently, the health budget has risen to exceed RM11 billion.”

Poverty line:“We say that this nation has already reached developed country status. The method used by European nations to determine the poverty line is 60% of the median income. If we use this method in Malaysia, that will give us a poverty line of about RM2,000 a month. That is more reasonable.”

Free trade agreement with US:“We should increase two-way trade with countries that reject the international trade system which is controlled by the WTO and FTAs, for example, Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba. They are building a trade system among themselves that is based on the welfare of their citizens and not for maximising profits for a small portion of rich owners.”

Intellectual property rights — a false concept:“Let us re-examine this neo-liberal concept. Do not fall into the neo-liberal trap that aims to transform all aspects of human life, including human knowledge, into commodities that can be owned, mortgaged or bought and sold! We should challenge this concept of intellectual property rights.”

Urban pioneers:“The squatter problem is not an issue that changes like the weather. It is related to the low wage policy, the policy of bringing in foreign labour to lower the wages of our workers and so attract more foreign direct investment.”

Rash Behari Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge

This article appeared in Options, the lifestyle pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 746, March 16-22, 2009.