In an exclusive interview with Malaysiakini, deputy presidential hopeful S Sothinathan defends himself against accusations of caste and money politics.

What happened between you and MIC president S Samy Vellu?

Actually there is no friction between us. What happened is that I understand the present change in the political scenario in the country after the March 8 elections. I think there is a need for a young and vibrant leadership in MIC. I think we need to embrace this change if we want to remain relevant to the community. On that basis, I told him (Samy Vellu) that I wanted to go for deputy presidency... and there was total agreement all this while. But in May, I didn't know there was a change in (his) mind... they wanted to remain neutral and remain as what they were (maintain status quo for deputy presidency)... which I feel would not help us anymore.

So I stood firm in my decision to go for number two... because a much more dynamic leadership has to be established for MIC to remain relevant. On that basis, I stood by what I felt was right. I think that is the correct thing to do at this moment. Because of that, they might not be very happy with my decision. But I am not really interested in that. Because I am more interested in staying relevant to the community, the party must be relevant, the leadership must be relevant. If that change cannot be brought about, I don't know where we are heading towards.

For a long time, it was said that you would be the appointed successor and the president was giving the same impression. Now that the situation has changed, do you feel betrayed?

I don't feel betrayed because in politics you must be brave enough to face anything. In politics, if you are fearful or very dependent on something, you will never succeed and you can never lead a community. We are talking about leading a community. When you are leading a community, when something unfavourable comes, you must accept it. It does not mean you must be dejected, you must move ahead with bravery and determination. In my case, I am not dejected because I take this as a greater challenge, and if I make it in this challenge, this is what is going to give me the real strength in politics.

You have always been seen as Samy Vellu's man. Do you believe you can stand on your own feet?

I am very determined and I feel very strongly about it. As I told you earlier, this is what is going to decide the future. If I can get the mandate, this is what will give me the real strength to lead the community and the party in future.

On the president's recent attack against you, that you are nothing without him, and that you speak with a forked tongue.

I don't practice this kind of politics. It has never been my style of leadership at all. Because I just speak what I feel is right. I don't speak one thing here and another thing there. That is not my way of campaigning. All the delegates (that) I have met will vouch for this. I have been very open to say what is my reason (for contesting)... it is purely to say what I can do for the party if they elect me. I don't smear anybody's campaign.

Why is he doing this then? His attacks have always been towards S Subramaniam, now suddenly he is focusing on you.

Only he will know why he is doing that. I remain focused on what I am doing because I am not going to be disturbed or distracted by what others are doing.

Do you feel hurt by his attacks?

In politics, you got to face all these things. You can't be too sentimental about it. You have got to be practical about things.

How are your proposed reforms different from that of your rivals? Even Samy Vellu is talking about change.

My question is very simple. They have all been there in this position. What change have they brought? I am asking them (the delegates) to give me a chance (to change things). When you talk about change, for 25 years they have been there as deputies, they couldn't bring this change. Give me the opportunity to bring about the change. When someone who has been there for such a long time, I mean at this particular stage in life, to talk about change, I really don't understand what (that) change is all about.

Change means, change for the better. If there is a transition, if someone comes to take up the leadership, they should have the age with them. Not someone who is about to retire, comes into politics, and says 'I want to lead this community'. A man's most productive period is in the range of 45 to 60... and that is what I say, let us believe in that. Let us believe in a man's productive period... and not those who have gone past those times, and come back to say 'I want to bring about change'. You must have the physical strength and mental strength to lead a community, not just the wish to do it, but also the stamina.

So you are saying that your rivals have 'missed the boat' to bring about change

See... Samy Vellu became president of MIC at the age of 44. You can see the kind of changes that he brought into the party. The kind of was really great. Look at (Barack) Obama at the age of 47. I mean for being a black, everyone thought he would not do well but he is doing a fantastic job. Because they have the courage and determination and also the physical and mental strength to carry out what they feel, to carry out their vision. This is what is necessary.

How do you rate your chances, going against two heavyweights?

We are talking about a new leadership. To remain relevant, the society looks for young leadership. Given my advantage in those areas and given my experience, I am sure these will be advantageous for me. They (his rivals) have been in that position (deputy president) and people can see what they have done, and at the same time, I have been in the low position (vice-president), people can see what I have done. And they know my style of leadership, and the leaders on the ground can access what will be good for the party and community.

So you are saying that the delegates are mature enough to vote for change?

There are many things going on. There is a lot of intimidation, there are a lot of money politics, which I hear. Although I don't practise that, I do hear (about it). I am talking about change. I don't want to subscribe to all these. When I talk about change, I am talking about some new ways... people must genuinely support, then only we can lead this community. If there is no genuine support, then I think we are wasting our time.

Can you elaborate on the intimidation of delegates?

Sometimes when you go and see the delegates, they are threatened not to see us. A lot of things... when they express support, they come under intense pressure. All this is not good for the present generation, it will not look good in the eyes of the community.

On the issue of caste politics, you have been accused of campaigning along those lines?

Throughout the 49 years of my life, I have never been brought up in that manner. My family has never taught me all those things. I myself am not sure who belongs to which caste. I have never practised caste politics in my life. I do not know who belongs to which caste, unless they explain to me. I have never done that. Although many people who claim that (accuse him), are the ones who practise it, but they put the blame on others who are innocent. The public is the best to decide, the public knows who preaches caste and who preaches money politics.

I mean, one can go and say 'I don't do this, somebody else does this' but at the end of the day, each and every single individual in MIC and also the public knows as a matter of fact who preaches all these things.

Are you saying the president also does this?

Let the people decide, they are all informed about what is happening. I am not pointing at any individual.

Do you agree that the practice of caste politics is rampant in the party?

It rises during elections. This is not good for the party. When we talk about the Malaysian Indian Congress, I think we should represent all Indians irrespective of caste. I think our greatest challenge is that we don't work along caste lines. We should try to integrate and unite the Indians. If we talk about caste, we are not going to unite the Indian community forever.

It is said that caste politics is one of the factors that turn away the younger generation from MIC...

I would not say it is rampant. It surfaces during elections, you can see that it is rampant (only) during elections, and then it disappears but rises again during elections, people tend to go along those lines. It is not a healthy trend for us.

How do you eliminate caste politics?

I think it all comes back to the leaders. We should always avoid ourselves from this kind of political campaigns. We should just go on our own merits, 'What I can do', 'What kind of changes can I bring for the community' and 'How can I improve the lot of the community?'. If we go along those lines, we can revamp.

There is also the perception that you are 'tainted' with regard to the Telekom shares issue scandal. How do you think this negative perception will affect your chances?

This is an issue which arose in 1991/92. It is now almost 18 years. After nine years (following the issue), I came into politics, I was the political secretary (to Samy Vellu), I became a member of parliament, where I won (the Teluk Kemang parliamentary seat) by a majority of over 5,000 votes in the by-election, I became the secretary-general of the party, thereafter in the 2004 general election, I won with an 18,000 vote majority, I was promoted to a deputy minister, I also won the (MIC) elections as vice-president. And when election comes, there are no other issues, and they try to plant things and create issues out of nowhere and try to taint somebody's image. This is very unbecoming of present politics.

I think one must go on one's own merits. I have a first class honours degree in business administration from University Malaya, I don't think any other Indian has achieved that yet. I also have a second (class) upper degree from University of London in law. Colleagues of mine have done well in their lives, I have sacrificed my whole life for the public, and today when I see these kind of things, I am sure many other youngsters or professionals will never want to engage in public life (by entering politics). But still I take it as a challenge.

Let people say what they want, the public knows what is right and what is wrong. They know about my integrity, I will go on that. I will go on public perception, not on individuals' lies which is being spread around. When you don't agree, they come and taint you and you are a useless man, when you agree, you are a great man.

It is wrong to say that it is an individual perception, to a certain degree, it is the public's perception because of your association with the matter.

Those things have been answered and cleared. People are now trying to bring back the same issue, just to tarnish one's image. This is a smear campaign that is going on. I have gone so far in politics, today you can see how organised my campaign is, so the only way (for his detractors) is to smear one's name. I am not going to smear anybody's name. I am going to go on a very clean campaign and go on merits.

If people believe in me, believe in the change, if they support me, I will do what is necessary for the community. If they are going to believe in this smear campaign, there is nothing much I can do for them.

Critics are saying that it is not the second tier, but change is only possible if the president steps down.

He has indicated that after these elections, he will give way to whoever is elected. This is known to everybody.

But now he is saying that he might stay on...

That has to be decided by the MIC members. If we don't embrace change, we have to face the consequence of it. I firmly believe in that. You can deny, but you cannot run away from that fact.

Do you perceive him as a stumbling block?

It all depends at the end of the day. The decision has to come from the members or the delegates. They have to make the bold decision. If they want to remain relevant, they have to be brave enough to make the decision. If they don't want to, I think nobody can change our destiny.

Based on the feedback, do you think the delegates are 'brave' enough to make the change?

I am very confident about that.

The president has already named his preferred choice. If someone else wins, will it create further divisions like what is happening in MCA?

The problem that we are facing now is the perception of the community. It is not the problem over the choice of one individual. It is the community's perception that we have pay heed to. If we don't do that, we have to face the wrath of the community.

You can go down to the community and find out what is their preference, what they expect. Remember, at the end of the day, it is the community that makes the party, it is not the top leaders that make the party. If the community says it wants this and that, and if we don't pay heed to that, we are gone.

Going back to the earlier question, if you win the deputy presidency, and you have all these ideas for change but a president who disapproves of your presence there. Would this not be a stumbling block?

The president cannot disapprove when the choice is made by the delegates. It has to be accepted. That is what leadership is all about.

But would he not make it difficult for you...

No, no, no... one man cannot deny the decision of the majority. How can that happen, no way... let it be any of the three (who is elected). It has to be accepted. If you cannot accept it, then you can't be a leader.

Critics say that MIC's glory days are over and it cannot regain lost ground. Do you agree with this?

I think we are on the verge of that. That is why I am talking about change. If we are not prepared to embrace change, we must face the serious consequences. The community is expressing a lot of interest in the MIC elections, they are looking forward to how these elections is going to take place, what will happen. This is what is going to give them hope or... these elections are very crucial to MIC.

Some say that this (your decision to contest) was orchestrated...

Let me make this very clear. There is no orchestration. I have made a very clear, a very bold decision, I am going for broke. Either I make it or I forget about it. There are no two ways about it.

If you are defeated, what will be your next plan?

I think the best is, whoever wins, led them lead the party. I am not going to get involved, and be a nagging point.

Will you quit politics?

That, I will decide after Sept 12.

So this is a 'do or die' battle?

Yes, for me it is definitely a 'do or die' battle. My intentions are very clear, very sincere. I have all my positions in the party, but I have made this bold decision to go for broke simply because I believe change is inevitable. I believe in this change (for MIC) to remain relevant. Only then is there meaning to my existence in MIC. If that doesn't happen, I don't think there will be any meaning to my existence in MIC...

Did the president try to talk you out of it?

Nobody tried to talk me out of it. As a matter of fact, they know when I make a decision, I stand firm by my decision.

Was the president surprised by your decision?

No. He knows that I have made a decision. I think he knows very well about the whole situation. I am very surprised by his late decision to put back his choice of candidate.

Was it a wise choice? How do you rate his line up?

I wouldn't want to do any rating because I only have one vote to cast like any other delegate. Let us look at the wisdom of the delegates.

Critics also say that Barisan Nasional component parties, including MIC, are too subservient to Umno. Do you think this attitude must change?

In politics one has to speak without fear or favour. You must speak your mind. If you feel something is right, you must stand by it... when you feel something is not right, you must be able to speak up. There should not be any fear or favour... because in politics, we are there to determine the future of the community. Every single decision that you make, affects the public. We must speak without fear or favour, and do not look at the feelings of one or two individuals in any particular group. That is the best approach... I do not want to dwell on the past, let me look at the future.

Since the 2008 elections, has the re-branding exercise of MIC brought about any change or has the party remained stagnant?

I think we are going through a very crucial test now. That will be answered by the delegates. Rather than me answering that, I will leave it to the delegates to answer (in the elections). They will be able to give an indication as to whether we paid heed to the calls for changes.

There is also the perception that the rot is far too entrenched from top to bottom in MIC. Will the members be willing to embrace the change or is the party in need of a complete overhaul?

They have to. My personal opinion is that we have to embrace change.

If one day you become the president, how different will the party be?

You will see that for yourself. Believe me.

Some have accused you of money politics?

I don't have money, I have not been in any employment since the March 8 elections. I have devoted my time to the activities of MIC. Since March 2008, I have been at the MIC headquarters virtually everyday, working for the party... at that moment, all these so-called people were never there. Nobody was there, everyone abandoned MIC. They all believed that was the end of it. But now when elections come, everybody is there. When I was busy campaigning, people say I don't turn up at MIC. The last three months, I have been busy campaigning but before that, every other day, MIC leaders and the public know that when they come to the MIC headquarters, I am always there to serve them.

This is what people should look at, I never ran away from my responsibilities. Despite having professional qualifications, despite being admitted to the Bar, I can always go back and do something on my own. But I was not interested because I owe an obligation to the community, to the party, where I held various positions. Just because I lost the general election, lost my government post, it means that I can run away, abandon this party and go? I stood firm by the party, through thick and thin I was there to make sure that things go very well and that we can bounce back. You can see whether others did it or not.

It was speculated that you were there every day in lieu of the promise that you would be named by the president as his preferred candidate.

No. It was not a promise. But I felt there was an obligation on me that when the party is going through a crisis, when most of its members of parliament and state assemblymen have lost their positions, you think it is wise for me to abandon the party and look after my own fortunes... I felt there was a serious obligation to work for the party at that difficult time and I did that wholeheartedly. Although I did go through a lot of difficulties in my personal life, I never shirked away from my responsibilities.

On the possibility of joining the opposition if you do not succeed...

I am very confident about winning this elections. I believe that change will take place. Change is the only way forward. It will take place. So let me stay focused on that.

So you will always be true to BN?


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