You were a police inspector, and you also have three degrees and a Masters in Criminal Justice. With a civil service background, what led you to join politics?
The unfair staff promotion system in the civil service was one of the reasons that eventually led me to leave and then enter politics to fight for equal rights for everyone. The discrimination and malpractices I saw in the civil service affected me deeply. It was one of the turning points in my life. Many of my colleagues were very puzzled on why I joined politics and the opposition parties in particular.I was in the police force for a decade, having joined in 1975. Prior to that, I was a temporary teacher in a government school. I was also a member of the Askar Wataniah, the reserve army unit. Of course, I could not enter politics at that time. However, against the wishes of the government, I voted for the opposition while working in the civil service. This was one of the reasons why I was never called for interview for job promotion. I was well aware of the consequences of voting for the opposition.
Why did you choose to join the Opposition? In particular, why DAP?
I was looking for a party that was able to meet my aspirations and DAP comes closest to my principles. I was also considering Gerakan but I realised that they were trying to oppose the system from within, while I believe that you can only do it effectively from outside the system.
I think DAP has many good leaders such as Lim Kit Siang, Karpal Singh and the late P. Patto; they all have strong principles. They are people whom I looked up to and are my mentors as well. These are people with leadership qualities. Anthony Loke has also been a good mentor of mine, despite being a much younger person.
People often ask if I have ever regretted joining the opposition and DAP in particular, but I sincerely have no regrets on either count. It is true that I have burnt all my bridges to enter politics, but sometimes you need to stand up for what you believe in. What matters to me is that here with DAP, I am representing the right causes.
You are also a father of three, a husband and lecturer in a local university. How do you juggle all these roles while being an elected representative?
I am also a grandfather! (laughs) But I believe that God gave us the same amount of time. It is the method of utilising the time available to us that makes the difference in our lives. As a lecturer, I am always advising my students not to waste time in the cafeteria. As I see it, time management is the key.
One of the things I emphasise is punctuality, together with honesty and justice. I don’t compromise on punctuality, even with my family and friends. As I was a commander in the police force before, many people look to me for guidance and leadership. Punctuality is strongly emphasised in the police force. It is the essence of my life.
With so many hats to juggle, what is a typical day for you like?
I schedule my activities and time tightly. Every day for me starts at six in the morning. It has been a routine for me since I was six years old. As my name is Arumugam which also means “six” in Tamil, you can see the “six” connection now. (laughs)
As I lecture in a college, my classes begin at 8am and end at 12pm or 1pm. After lunch, I am at my service centre at 2pm, meeting with my assistant Mr. Teoh and settling matters related to my constituency. I attend to government related work and appointments and have to complete all this by 5pm. After 6pm I go to visit my constituents and attend to their complaints. This can sometimes go on into the wee hours of the morning. For example, if there was a flood situation, the day wouldn’t end for me until two or three in the morning.
If we keep to our schedule, we will be able to settle all our responsibilities. To paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘All the world’s a stage, we are just merely players waiting to exit it’, so we have to act effectively for the public while we are here.
I am also blessed with a supportive family who understands my schedules and that my work will take up most of my time. By now, my family doesn’t miss me (laughs). As I have often been away, whether it was for my studies in the UK or during an overseas work stint, they are used to me being away from home.
How can we make DAP more appealing to all Malaysians? How do we show the public that DAP is genuinely multiracial?
We must change the image of the party. We were seen as a Chinese-dominated and chauvinist party and were disparaged crudely. I think our image has improved in the sight of the public when Karpal Singh became the party’s national chairman and many Indians also hold high positions in the party hierarchy.
We need to put more effort into attracting Malays to become DAP members. We have a few high profile Malay members, but I think we need to reach down actively to the grassroots Malay areas to attract more members.
For example, in an area of my constituency called Kg Pondok which is a predominantly Malay area, I have initiated buka puasa events organised by a Malay in a Malay home. It is a simple effort and we can already see results in terms of closer ties being forged.
There were a few predominantly Malay areas in my constituency, namely Bukit Chedang, Kg Mansor and Kg Abok which was previously impenetrable for us. But now the residents there have openly approached and asked us for assistance with their problems.
As I am also an ex-policemen and civil servant in a Malay-dominated workforce, I mingled frequently with Malay colleagues. This has helped in my communication with Malay voters. My civil service background also helps me to relate more easily with the government department officers.
This is demonstrated by the friendly relationship I have with the Malay elected representatives. In our recent state assembly seating, it was announced that I had graduated from my studies in criminal justice, and all the assemblymen from both BN and Pakatan Rakyat came forward to congratulate me.
Another area that DAP can improve on is to increase its appeal amongst the young people. This is helped with the presence of many young, energetic and highly qualified dynamic personalities such as Anthony, Tony Pua, Jenice Lee and Hannah Yeoh in the party.
Malaysia is celebrating its 47th birthday this year and 53rd year of independence. Are we all Malaysians now?
I was born before Merdeka and through the years, I find that there is more integration of the races. For instance, in the past mixed marriage was a taboo, now it is quite common. Our children are beginning to look more and more mixed, which means we’re less likely to differentiate a child as Malay, Chinese or Indian just by his or her appearance. So I think we are moving in the right direction.
Nowadays we see that many of the political parties especially in Pakatan Rakyat are harping less on racial issues. Sadly, the same cannot be said of UMNO, MCA and MIC. But all in all, I think the country is moving away from racial polarisation and towards racial unity.
As an elected representative serving far away from Putrajaya and the Prime Minister, what do you make of the 1Malaysia slogan and its ability to unite our citizens?
The 1Malaysia slogan is just rhetoric. The people have been practicing racial integration and harmony long before it was conceived. It was merely reshaped from what is practiced everyday.
On the superficial level, the concept seems to be working. However when we look deeper into its religious, economic and political aspects, we see glaring discrepancy in its practice. Special preferences for certain people continue to be upheld. Politically, BN continues to divide the people by saying Malays must be championed by UMNO, Chinese by MCA and Indians by MIC.
How can we begin to identify as one people? Can the racial segregation of the last few decades be overcome?
To do so we must be bold in changing the policies that discriminate amongst groups of Malaysians. For example, Petaling Jaya Utara MP Tony Pua recently suggested that we should remove the seven percent discounts for purchase of houses valued at more than RM500,000 for the Bumiputeras as this will only benefit the affluent Malays and not the average Malay wage earner. Why should other buyers be discriminated on such a basis? Likewise, the student selection basis for government scholarships should also be opened for public scrutiny.
How is Pakatan Rakyat fairing in Negeri Sembilan now? How do the people assess Pakatan’s performance since March 2008?
The people are beginning to accept our multi-racial appeal. This is certainly unlike the previous leadership under BN which has Malays under the UMNO, Chinese under MCA or Indians under MIC. I concur with Karpal Singh who said in a recent interview that this is the first time in his experience that the Opposition has been so multi-racial.
Today’s younger voters are no longer easily influenced by mainstream media as they are also internet-savvy. They are able to discern for themselves what PR has done and achieved.
We are now seen as a collective unit. Even BN members have addressed us as Pakatan Rakyat instead of identifying us individually as PAS, PKR or DAP. In a recent state assembly session, as one of DAP assemblymen raised an issue, the Menteri Besar unconsciously rebutted us as PR naysayers, not DAP per se.
To further this collectiveness, the state DAP has begun to organise many functions and activities that also involves the other Pakatan parties. Often, we include them as organising committee members as well and this fosters closer ties amongst us. Many of the PAS and PKR leaders regularly attend our events. I would say that our friendship is deepening.
What are the issues or challenges facing Pakatan in the state currently?
The racial barriers remain daunting. In addition, we need to raise leaders who are qualified, educated and with the heart to serve the people. Another area I would highlight is the importance of educating the public as well as PR party members of our stance and positions on issues.
We must also be genuine and sincere in our interactions and cooperation with other PR party members. For example, previously there was some mistrust of PAS and its stance on the Islamic state. As a result of the March 2008 election results, we have had more interaction with PAS and this has helped to remove misconceptions of each others’ stance.
Our genuine cooperation with PAS has changed many Malays perception towards DAP. For example, many imams in my constituency openly embrace and support me.
What are the chances of Pakatan taking over the Negeri Sembilan state government in the next election?
PR dominated the urban seats in the last general elections. This shows that the urban dwellers generally support the message of change. They are well aware of the issues and it is easier to reach out to them.
However, the rural areas are still BN’s strongholds. They won most of the rural areas because the people there are generally not as receptive towards the change message. An example is the voting results in the 2009 Bagan Pinang by-election (a rural seat ultimately won by UMNO’s Tan Sri Mohd Isa Samad).
If we can overcome the rural voters apprehension of us, the chances of Pakatan forming the state government in Negeri Sembilan is bright. However, the rural people’s information gap and mindset remains a big obstacle as they have been influenced first by the Alliance and now by BN for more than 50 years. For example, in the recent Hulu Selangor by election, many of the rural people actually thought the current Menteri Besar was still Khir Toyo and not Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim!
Pakatan Rakyat in Negeri Sembilan must reach out to the rural people through newsletters, messages and frequent house visits. The rural areas are difficult areas to reach, and Negeri Sembilan is basically a rural-dominated state. Herein lies the key for us.
With the presence of PKR and PAS, our task of bridging the racial divide has been easier. PAS is able to reach the rural Malay voters while PKR can concentrate on attracting the urban Malays. Our close relation with them and formulating a coherent strategy will be the key to win the state in the next elections.