Q: You have been elected to an unprecedented 11th term as MIC president; that’s close to three decades in power. What can you do for the party and Indian community now that you couldn’t before?

A: One cannot deny the fact that Indians have excelled in many fields but there remains a section of the community who are still not out of the poverty zone. This has been my main concern. I have dedicated my entire life to the Indian community. Never a day goes by without an Indian problem to be solved. This list of problems is beyond our wildest imagination. I still feel I have the zeal, energy, commitment and love for the party and community. I feel I can still contribute effectively to the Indian community.

I was raised in an estate, we were estate workers’ children and encountered so many problems in our lives. So being MIC president, I always wanted to alleviate their problems.

Your defeat in the general election last year was seen as the end of your rule. But you remain MIC president. What was it like being defeated in Sungei Siput?

A: On the day the election results were to be announced, my friends told me that I had lost. I thought, well, the people gave it to me, now they are taking it back.

If you ask me how I feel, it is this: when I was in the Government, I had the muscle to do whatever I wanted for the community. But as MIC president, I can only listen to the people and run around to get things done. In the past, I could just pick up the phone, speak to a minister and get things done. What was shocking to me was that having served 29 years, almost day and night, a bunch of people came around and said you have done nothing. They kept saying that to impress upon the minds of the people that I had actually not done anything.

The statement by Dr Mahathir who came out openly the day before the general election to say that I had not done anything shocked me. It affected me very badly. I lost the Malay and also the Indian support. As a media man, even you know that we raised so many issues and talked about so many problems.

You sprang back with one more victory speech after being returned unopposed as MIC president last month. But many are saying that you are not the person who should, or even can, lead the MIC out of its predicament.

My very humble conclusion is that many right persons who held office did not actually do their jobs well. Here, there is one wrong person who has assumed the responsibility and done his best for the community. Sometimes, you have a very qualified person who takes the chair, but nobody knows if he would have the time to mingle with the ordinary people, to listen to their cries like I have.

You are one of the hardest hitting persons in Malaysian politics. Now, you’re at the receiving end. The question being asked is this: is the MIC still representative of the Indian community with you as the party head?

Life is give and take. There are times you keep on giving and times when you keep on taking. When you keep on taking for sometime, you will again go back to keep on giving (laughs).

You’re not just suffering from bad press. Malaysian Indians, in fact Malaysians in general, are saying the same thing – that you should go.

Yes, very good. But it is the party that decides. Even if I wanted to contest, the party could have said no and I would have left. But there are multiple requests for me to stay on – for party unity, for the strength of the party and also because I am one person who can understand the community very well compared to any other leader. And number four, because I am someone who has been with the community all along.

These are certain qualities I have maintained in my leadership. Today, if I were to call for a conference to say “It is time to go”, let us see how many people will say “all right, get out.” People talk about age, but this country has seen people like Mahathir who stayed on until 78. I am only 73, I can still put in another five or six years. But I don’t want to because I think other leaders are on the way up.

But the worry now is that the MIC is not better off today than it was a year ago when your party was thrashed in the polls.

Did MIC lose because it is the MIC or because it is in the BN (Barisan Nasional)? There was a nationwide wave against the Barisan and MIC was among the victims. In the past during an election, I could easily get between 75% to 80% of the Malay votes. Today, I can’t. The mind of the Malay voters of the past is different from that of Malays today. Similarly, the mind of the Indian voters. But the mind of the Chinese voters is still the same. There is no change. They already indicated sometime back that they would not vote (for the BN).

Apart from your rebranding exercise of the MIC, what concrete proposal have you made to regain Indian support for the MIC and the Government?

After the rebranding exercise, we have to a great extent changed the mindsets of the leaders. Many of them were down after the general election. They were wondering whether there is a future. Through the rebranding exercise, I told them that there is a future. They were wondering whether I would still serve the people. I told them, you just adapt yourself to the new needs of the people. That is the rebranding. I told them to change their style and approach so that the people would like them. It is a matter of time.

I go back to your unopposed victory as party president. If the contest had been allowed, we could have known your influence in the party. By what margin were you expecting to win?

If there was a contest, there would have been 300 people who would have voted against me out of 3,600 delegates. We have now identified, that in the nomination, many of the proposers’ signatures (for challenger Datuk M. Muthupalianappan) were falsified. They have written in to say that it was not their signatures, that someone had forged it. About 60 people have complained that they signed for me first and then their signatures were forged (in favour of Muthupalaniappan). About 10 others who did not sign at all found their forged signatures on the forms. The MIC headquarters is investigating this.

It was recently reported that the MIC wanted to withdraw its minister and two deputies . The reports did not attribute it to any source but it had to come from you as it was a serious matter. Was it just a PR stunt by the party, or were you angry at being left out of the Cabinet despite being returned as MIC president?

I am not at all angry at being left out of the Cabinet because I do not wish to be in the Cabinet. Everyone else asked for a Cabinet (seat), but I have not. Because I feel that I have served 29 years as minister and also because a younger person is holding the Cabinet post for the MIC. And we have two new deputy ministers. I will not fit into the new Cabinet. The difference in age is paramount.

But you would have accepted a Cabinet post had you won in the general election last year?

If I had won, it’s a different issue. I lost so I should take it that it is the end of my career ... as a minister.

When you first won the MIC presidency, you proclaimed “education, education and education” as the only way for the Indians to overcome their plight. So you pioneered the setting up of Vanto Academy, Tafe College and AIMST (Asian Institute of Medical Science and Technology), but these institutions have been mired in controversy, with the quality of education also questioned.

All three institutions did not suffer from quality of education. The doctors who qualify from AIMST are said to be the best because we pay so much attention to recruiting some of the top overseas professors. The controversy created by some people is about the cost of the university. They said the RM220mil cost had ballooned to RM435mil (laughs).

They don’t understand that RM220mil is for phase one, which includes all the faculties. Phase two includes the student hostels. And then another phase which includes staff quarters and a stadium. There are phases in the university. Our original estimate was RM520mil but we finished the project at RM424mil. We did not call tenders for another RM16mil because we thought it was unnecessary.

Your critics say that it is the non-MIC educational efforts, like that of the Sri Murugan Centre, which has been effective in uplifting the Indian community’s education. Datuk Devamany, one of your deputy ministers, is a product of the centre. You agree?

The Sri Murugan Centre has benefited the community but only to a certain extent. In Tafe College, 43,000 students have graduated as para professionals since its inception in early 1985. And MIED (Maju Institute for Educational Development) has given 14,600 people about RM100mil (in total) to study and some are still studying. Now, we have created a great university (AIMST). No Indian outside India owns a university, it is only in Malaysia. We have 3,000 students there. All the students produced by Sri Murugan Centre will eventually end up in universities such as AIMST.

Indian ownership of equity lags between 0.9% and 1%, although the grand plan of the MIC was to hit 10% by 1990. You have called for government intervention to increase Indian equity to 3%, but many say only the rich Indians will be enriched. Any justification in such claims?

It (Indian ownership of equity) has actually gone down from 1.5% to 1% because nothing concrete was done by the Government to raise the economic status of the Indians. But they take a lot of steps for the others, but not for the Indians. This matter was raised in the Special Cabinet Committee for the Indians, and they agreed to a certain extent that there should be some allocation purely for the Indians. For the PNB to buy the shares and later deduct (share price paid) from whatever they make. But I don’t see any change. Whatever discussed did not materialise. You don’t expect an Indian to go and buy shares for RM60,000 or RM100,000. For an ordinary Indian to hold some equity for himself and his future, he should be assisted by the Government like how the bumiputras are being aided.

But will 3% of the pie merely enrich the already rich Indians in the country, and not the poor Indians in need of help?

Our request first was to specifically look at the poor. That 20,000 shares (each) be given only to those in the lower income group. We are still working out how to do it.

Maika Holdings, that’s the albatross around your neck. You have not told us how you plan to return the lifesavings of the many poor Indians who invested in the scheme.

I formed Maika Holdings. I ran around the whole country and collected RM100mil. After that, I was not the executor of the company. It was formed and handed over to several people who took charge of it. If they brought the company down to that level, I should not be blamed. I only create and hand over to other people. The best thing we had in Maika was Oriental Capital Assurance Bhd (an insurance company that is a Maika subsidiary), worth about RM130mil. It was decided at the AGM (in 2007) that we should sell the company and pay off all the shareholders, so that once and for all we can close the company down and the people who invested get back their money, with due consideration.

We already had a buyer. When the deal was about to go through, Datuk Subramaniam (former MIC deputy president) and Nesa (Koperasi Nesa Pelbagai Bhd, one of MIC’s economic development projects) took an injunction to stop it. We talked to them several times but they refused to bow. Now the economy is down and the buyer has withdrawn. And Maika Holdings is dead. The value of the insurance company is down now. We wanted to sell (Oriental Capital) for RM130mil but Datuk Subramaniam wanted a higher price for it. There was nobody to offer a higher price despite our many efforts, but still they (Subramaniam and Nesa) did not want to withdraw (the injunction).

So what is the fate of the thousands of poor Indians who invested in your scheme? This is a time of great economic hardship for them.

The poor who want to sell their shares, they come here (MIC headquarters) and we give them the money. Because they say I am the one who sold them the shares. They tell me “I’ve got 2,000 Maika shares and am in economic distress, can you buy it back?” And I pay them RM2,000 from my pocket.

You will do this for all who want a refund?

Actually when there were articles written in the press for people to go and claim their money back, nobody came. They feel that their money is not lost, that there is a way to get their returns. They trusted us very much and they still do trust us. When we call for an AGM, only a handful of about 20 to 25 people will be shouting. When we tell them “Ok, take back your money”, they say “No, no, I don’t want to.” They still trust that they will get back their money.

How do you feel about the bad press mounting against you, political commentators saying you’re finished and demanding that you go?

I always welcome constructive, not destructive criticisms. For those being constructive, I call them and ask them for their views so we can change for the better. But when it’s destructive, going way down to attack personalities, I don’t think that’s journalism. Many have criticised us and I have listened to them. We have worked with many people like that. I take it very constructively.

So you take it constructively when they say you are not fit to lead the MIC?

All right, yes. I look at it constructively. He may have his reason and I have my reason why I think I should stay. An outsider has not gone through the problems of the party. From outside, it is easy to say we should run the party this way. But the practical experience of running a party is only known when you are doing it yourself.

The expectation is that you will step down soon anyway. The party elections are scheduled in September where the second echelon leaders will be elected. Will you state here whether you’re stepping down in September?

The new leader will need time to be trained. I can’t just walk away in September. The new man will not be in a position to do what needs to be done. In September, I will announce when I will get out of the party.

How long more then?

About a year to a year-and-half. I was re-elected only last month.

You campaigned for a new deputy president in 2006 to unseat your long-serving deputy Datuk S. Subramaniam, saying you wanted the leadership succession issue settled. Now, you are said to have changed your mind that your deputy Datuk G. Palanivel should succeed you. We’re back to square one?

No, no such thing. Now there are too many people clamouring for that post and that is the greatest headache for me. Who should really be the person to be the next deputy president? All of them have served the party in their own way.

Will you endorse anyone for the deputy’s post, as he will surely become the acting MIC president when you step down soon?

I have not decided yet. I have to have some very deep thinking first. I still maintain my influence in the party, but at the moment I do not want to say anything yet. Datuk Palanivel is the incumbent, and there is Datuk (S.) Sothinathan (MIC vice-president), Datuk Dr Subramaniam who is the MIC secretary-general, and also Datuk Subramaniam (former MIC deputy president), all aiming to contest. It is the first time there will be such a big field vying for the deputy presidency. This is going to be a very important party election. It could be either way – the candidates (who win) could keep the party going with new strategies and plans, or it could be the start of new problems and internal bickering thereafter.

Do you think your former arch-rival Datuk Subramaniam would be an ideal choice, due to his vast experience? He is said to have made peace with you.

We are friends and are on talking terms again. But the decision he is seeking can only be made by the delegates, not me. In the previous election (I sided against him) because of so many other factors.

You once said that if the Indians do not stand up for their blood, sweat and toil for this country, no one will. Do you think you have stood up well enough for them in all your years as MIC president?

I have, in all my duties not only as party leader but as minister too. I did not care about offending anyone.

I said what the community wanted me to and I stood my ground. I have looked after the MIC for almost 30 years.