As wishes of condolences pour in for the former MIC president, we look back at Tun Samy Vellu’s life and career
Getting up in the morning and reading the obituary of someone you know is not how you want to start the day. But the passing of Tun Samy Vellu, 86, set my thoughts racing down the memory lane of interesting, and sometimes incredible, memories of a leader, an artiste and a tough guy.
The former Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) president is perhaps one of the most colourful, if not the most interesting, characters in the Malaysian political arena, at least during the first half of the last century. Everyone would have some opinion about him. Great leader? Check. Hilarious grasp of Malay? Check. Did a lot for the Indian community? Check. Did nothing for the Indian community? Check. Helped anyone? Check. Helped only cronies? Check.
You can’t pigeonhole him into a stereotype. Call him corrupt, you will have a group coming with torches. Call him the kindest man, well, there are few out there still feeling the pinging pain on the cheek, courtesy of Samy Velu’s palm.
“I knew him in 1962,” recalls veteran TV and film director, K. Vijeyasingham when contacted over the phone this morning. “His drama troupe came down from Batu Arang to KL to stage Thanthaiyin Kural.” The drama is the Tamil version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Samy Vellu, who was born in the same town as I was (Kluang), had since moved to the north and has been active on stage, played the King, (and Vijeyasingham was Horatio), and well, the former was not bad as an actor.
Samy On Stage
This was followed by a slew of stage shows, and at the same time, Samy Vellu was becoming more and more active in politics — he joined the MIC in 1959 — but he had always had his eyes on the art fraternity, may it be stage plays, variety shows, then TV and film.
Indeed, he was also a newscaster in RTM for a while. There, according to Vijeyasingham, though he cheerfully issued a disclaimer, Samy Vellu managed to pull some strings and got the first short drama broadcasted. He had been at it ever since.
In fact, Samy Vellu was even useful for stagecraft. His own educational background in architecture (then, a draftsman) availed him for the stage production work, a skill Vijeyasingham dutifully picked up.
In the political arena, Samy Vellu rose steadily in MIC, a party that had its own share of feuds, friction, fracas and fistfights. Budgets to replace broken chairs were constantly on the rise during those days. It needed a strong leadership. And this leadership needed whip and electric prod.
That’s not an insult. We all heard of the jokes (or scenarios) about Indians and Snakes. It is no secret knowledge that Malaysian Indians are as fragmented as post-accident windscreens. A single Malaysian Indian community is a myth. There are the Tamils, Malayalis, Telugus, and the Sikhs. Then, they are split by religions – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Baha’i faith. Add to that those who still put their castes first before breakfast.
You need a forceful leader, strong-willed and if possible, iron-fisted, with Infinity Stone Glove to handle this restless community. Samy Vellu was the right man for the job. Ever since becoming the MIC chief in 1979, he took the bull by the horns and shored most of the Indian support towards that party — facing the usual rebellions with diplomacy firmly locked up in the cellar. Which means, dealing with the likes of rebellious leaders such as M.G Pandithan, who did a protest-fast on a coffin. The Gandhi-an way misfired. Or rather, Samy Vellu fired him. You don’t mess with this guy.
Don’t Mess With The Guy
My own encounter with him has been few and far in between, as my journalism work didn’t require crossing paths with him all that much. But with those few that I have had, I still watch in awe at how he carries himself. He is who he is, he smiles when amused. His hilarious Malay pronunciations are legendary, stuff that brought meals to stand-up comedians and cartoonists. He will call you out if you annoy him, so you better be prepared during press conferences. Never mess with him.
“But as far as we are concerned, he had been good. A nice man, a gentleman,” says Vijeyasingham, speaking on behalf of the Indian artistes — art being Samy Vellu’s weakness.
As with that platform, within his capability and capacity, the former Sungai Siput MP did what he could for the community. As for the country, under his watch, the Works ministry and later, Energy, Telecommunication and Post ministry, implemented what was required to put our country into the next rung in the civilisation ladder while continuously facing (not dodging) criticisms head-on, fighting accusations whether or not they are actually valid. Don’t mess with Samy Velu.
But most importantly, he would be remembered as a colourful character. It would be great fun and a challenge, for an actor, to play him if at all his story is staged or filmed. Rest in peace, Tun S. Samy Vellu. That’s some historical footprints you have left behind there! Nobody’s gonna mess with that, for sure. — NMH
The points expressed in this article are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the NMH.