Looking beyond the Tamil sub-ethnicity in latest Malaysian cabinet reshuffle

FOLLOWING the Dec 12 cabinet reshuffle, certain well-known politicians on the verge of political extinction and other diehards appear to have overplayed the issue of minority ethnic Tamil representation in the cabinet.

To provide their grievance greater significance, they have incorrectly implied that ethnic ‘Indian’ representation in the cabinet is absent. That the current Indian appointee is not Tamil-speaking has also been highlighted.

But while Tamil is the most widely spoken Indian language in Malaysia, it is not used in cabinet meetings.

Besides, Tamil-speaking leaders have had the exclusive preserve of cabinet positions allotted to Indians for almost seven decades. Yet even then, they were in an asymmetrical situation, sometimes only commanding a naive position than a no-nonsense one.

With one extraordinary exception, a few of them relinquished their ministerial positions in relatively well-oiled opulent circumstances.

This was a distinct feature that did not apply to the vast majority of ordinary Tamil and other Indian folk.

Healthy scepticism

Entering a discussion of this sort suggests a brazenly ignorant indifference to the cabinet minister currently most identified as of obvious Indian heritage. The sole Indian incumbent, Gobind Singh Deo (main pic, in yellow shirt) is the son of the late Karpal Singh dubbed “the tiger of Jelutong”.

Like most other enlightened folk in Malaysia, Gobind is of the “Malaysia-first” genre. He has, to the best of most people’s knowledge, abided by the highest standards of probity and professionalism. He is now tasked with handling the challenging task of digitalisation.

This is a somewhat problematic project given our relatively poor state of preparedness and appalling standards of primary and secondary education.

The lack of efficiency, proficiency in English and operational efficacy of some of our state institutions – also plagued by corruption – does not help. Artificial intelligence (AI) and high-tech digitalisation has to be embraced and regulated to benefit the nation and not just confined to pockets of isolated elitist ecosystems.

This is a huge challenge not only for Gobind but for the entire government, academic and private sectors.

Ironically, he is called the minister of “digital” – a position that exists nowhere else. It is gracious of him to accept the responsibility to helm a ministry strangely described with an adjective rather than a noun!

Gobind is an excellent choice to reinvigorate Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s relatively fair but flagging year-old administration. He brings professionalism and panache to his ministerial post like his former ministerial colleague Datuk Seri Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad who is now back as the Health Minister.

Looking beyond sub-ethnicity

Tun V.T. Sambanthan

At the time of Malayan independence in 1957, it was not surprising that the mild malleable, largely Tamil labour force was politically represented by refined upright urban-based Tamil leaders than some rustic rubber estate revolutionaries.

Those Tamil leaders were given stall seats in the Malaysian cabinet. They seemed preoccupied with facilitating citizenship status for their fellow Indians.

One minister in the first Malayan cabinet, Tun V.T. Sambanthan, identified himself with the plight of rubber estate workers displaced by the fragmentation of some larger European-owned plantations in the late 1950s. He established a national land cooperative in 1960 to acquire some of these estates. It still operates with a much-reduced land bank.

Ironically, both the ethnic Malay and Indian communities have lately had personages who seemed far more competent in accumulating private fortunes than in managing community-wide assets.

Like Bank Bumiputra, Tabung Haji or Felda Global Ventures, Maika Holdings had in the past showed a knack for depleting asset value than in building it to world-class standards.

Pic credit: Free Malaysia Today

Given this background, we need some healthy scepticism when assessing whether the sub-ethnicity of a leader within a community can assure better prospects for that community.

The appointment of a singular Indian member in a cabinet system cannot possibly reflect that community’s vast support for the current government.

Dissatisfaction or misgivings over the lack of recognition of this fact should not morph into a situation where the current Indian incumbent’s professionalism and probity should be questioned.

By all means, if another Indian can be appointed to a ministerial rank position, it would more realistically reflect the prevailing ratio of Indians in the population.

As Anwar moves into his 14th month in office, Malaysians must trust that the government will become more efficient and effective in delivering the reforms and the resilience that the nation needs.

For their part, politicians, professionals and technocrats must lead and rise above the temptation to resort to corrosive tribalism. They must serve the entire population fairly. – Dec 23,


Datuk M Santhananaban is a retired Malaysian ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience. For a complete version of his views which first appeared in the ALIRAN website under the title “Trenchant Tamilian tantrums target PM”, click here.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

Main pic credit: Gobind Singh Deo’s Facebook

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