Remembering Samy Vellu, the man who ran MIC as a “one-man show”

THE MIC’s long-time president and supremo Tun Samy Vellu died at the age of 86. His death resulted in an outpouring of grief and sadness.Whatever can be said about the man and leader, his passing way elicited sympathetic comments from friends and foes.His friends and party members called him a legend and mentor whereas his one-time political foes described him as a straight fighter without personal agenda. He was also lauded for his contributions to the Indian community in the fields of education and social development.Some well-known poets from Tamil Nadu hailed him as an irreplaceable loss to the Tamil community.

Since his demise a few days ago, there is little or no analysis of Samy beyond his personality, style and mannerisms. As a result, there is a gap in so far as his leadership is concerned and to what extent the MIC and the Indian community benefited from his leadership.

There are different kinds of leadership: autocratic, democratic, transformational and others. What was the kind of leadership offered by Samy to the extent such leadership benefited the Indian community?

There is no problem in labelling Samy’s leadership style as autocratic or even authoritarian. It was more of a degree than fitting exactly with the autocratic label.For Samy, leadership was the key to making decisions and their implementation. Consensus and consultation were things that were not preferred to him; they simply did not fit with his leadership style.

MIC, the one-man show

For all intents and purposes, the MIC was a one-man show, with Samy in command. In brief, he was the MIC and vice-versa.

(Photo credit: The Star)

He managed the party and, to some extent, the Indian community, in such a way that there was no place for democracy nor consultation in decision-making.

Autocratic leadership meant not questioning Samy’s decisions and accepting them for the good of the party and society.Challenges to the authoritarian leadership of Samy were not welcomed — either the challengers had to succumb to the dictates of the leader or face the prospect of being sacked from the party and Government positions.It is well known what happened to those leaders who opposed Samy. They were either marginalised in the party or removed from posts.If Samy wanted to do something for the benefit of the Indian community, he would have done it with or without much consultation. For instance, the formation of Maika Holdings, Maju Institute of Education Development (MIED) and others, which were done without much consultation.

Whether such establishments would really benefit the Indian community was not fully researched and analysed.It was this impetuous thinking of an autocratic leader that caused much malaise among members of the Indian community.Samy’s autocratic leadership was enforced without feelings or compassion for those below him. It might have given a superficial sense of party unity in the sense of lack of divisions or factions, but it destroyed internal democracy in the party.Needs for obedience and compliance numbed creativity and freedom in the party. Those who could not accept the authoritarian leadership of Samy left the party or joined the opposition.After Samy lost power, many Indians drifted away from the party to join the DAP and PKR.

The present weakness of the MIC was caused by none other than the authoritarianism of Samy. To engender a sense of party unity, Samy cracked down on internal dissent within the party.

The synthetic preservation of unity came at the price of the loss of Indian support to the MIC and Barisan Nasional (BN) in later years.

The last straw that broke the camel’s backThe Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) movement was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. It revealed, among other things, the ineffective nature of the MIC under the leadership of Samy.The huge demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur in late 2007 organised by the HINDRAF shifted the Indian support from BN to Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in the 12th General Election (GE12) in 2008.

(Photo credit: Sahabat Rakyat)

The MIC might have been united under Samy but had to pay the heavy price of such artificial unity later.Samy’s leadership might have also placed the lid on internal politics but its subservience to UMNO in the BN coalition was legendary.While Samy was not willing to concede to internal demands in the name of preserving unity, his authoritarianism was limited in relation to UMNO.

He was bold, brash and ferocious towards his fellow Indians but when it came to UMNO leaders, he was polite and meek as a mouse.Following his demise, one fugitive commentator remarked that Samy might have been tough with Indians but he was extremely obsequious to UMNO leaders.As the former minister of works and public amenities, he ensured that a portion of revenue from infrastructure projects was reserved or channeled to the coffers of UMNO.I am not sure about this allegation but Samy’s long reign as the leader of the party was something that did not disturb the status quo or the political position of UMNO.The twin effects of autocratic leadership and subservience to UMNO might have ensured Samy’s survival in the party and the Government. But unfortunately, they proved to be disastrous to the Indian community in the country.It was the failure of the MIC in general and Samy in particular to address the myriad problems of the Indian community that contributed to the radicalisation of the rank-and-file Indians, leading them to support the HINDRAF and later the opposition parties such as the DAP and PKR.The overwhelming support of the Indian community in favour of the opposition in GE12 proved to be the death knell of the MIC. I seriously doubt whether the MIC has seriously recovered from this electoral debacle.

Without Indian support, PR would not have captured the five states in GE12. Similarly, without Indian support, Pakatan Harapan would not have captured the Federal Government in 2018.

Indians make a difference in about 60 electoral constituencies in the country. No party or coalition intending to contest and win in the coming 15th General Elections (GE15) can ignore the support of the Indian community.Thanks to the autocratic ways of Samy, Indians are solidly behind Pakatan. Unfortunately, the leadership of the MIC is in tatters.It would be near impossible for the party that was so boldly managed by Samy would make a political comeback.Samy might have been a bold, abrasive and ferocious leader. However, sad to say these qualities have ended up destroying the party that was formed in 1946 in the wake of pan-Indian nationalism. – Sept 18, 2022


Prof Ramasamy Palanisamy is the state assemblyperson for Perai. He is also deputy chief minister II of Penang.

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


Main photo credit: The Star

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