Batu Gajah MP Sivakumar Varatharaju Naidu comes off as a fierce, straight-talking MP, ready to take on any challenge put before him. He one of the most strident and vocal DAP leaders on issues concerning Indians in the country. He has previously lambasted MIC for not accounting for funds meant for the development of Tamil schools and has been outspoken about the welfare of Indians in the country. However, what he is most remembered for was his pivotal role in the 2008 Perak Constitutional Crisis where he was the iconic State Speaker up against the might of BN. Ralvin Manikam and T. K. Tan met up with him to walk us through his life, his story and his experience during the crisis.
Recollections of his past
V. Sivakumar, as he is better known, was born in Ipoh. He completed his Sixth Form in the Anderson School and had intended to study law after completing his STPM. However at the time, only two universities in Malaysia offered the course – University Malaya (UM) and Universiti Islam Antarabangsa (UIA).
“So it was not easy at the time to pursue the course that I wanted. There were only eight Indian students admitted into the law faculty (during my year).”
After getting his STPM results, Sivakumar knew he would not be accepted into the law faculty, because his scores were not up to mark.
He then applied for economics in UM; a more pragmatic decision as he knew he had a greater chance of being accepted.
He said that his experience after STPM opened his eyes to the difficult reality of education here, that everything was based on results and exams.
“I chose economics because I knew I would be accepted into the course – not what I truly wanted to do, which was law.”
When Sivakumar studied in University Malaya, he noticed that most Indian students he met there were from very poor backgrounds.
“They suffered not being able to support themselves while pursuing their studies.”
Obtaining a loan was difficult back then, it was unlike the National Higher Education Loan Fund (PTPTN) that students have the luxury to apply for now. Scholarships were even harder to come by
“My friends in university who came from the estates did not get any money from their parents, who could not afford to support them.”
“So they were forced to work part time, they taught tuition just so that they could eat half a decent meal of bread or maggi mee.”
He also that it was in university where he began to experience discrimination.
“We struggled to get a loan, while others were choosing between different scholarships to opt for.” Sivakumar, like many others who were not Malay were forced to watch, as they picked between MARA, TNB and JPA scholarships.
In Sivakumar’s case, he said he “managed somehow” to get a loan from the public service department (JPA). Although it wasn’t a scholarship, there was a limited quota for Indian students, JPA selected students who were in their third year so as to limit the number of Indians obtaining the loan in the first year.
“JPA also did this so that they did not have to fund our education for the entire duration of the course,” Sivakumar opined.
Even after he graduated, Sivakumar struggled to land in a job that matched what he was trained to do.
Having majored in Public Administration, he was not given a position in the government department.
“I was trained to be an administrator. Myself, four other Indians and a Chinese friend applied for a civil servant position as a Pegawai Tadbir Daerah (PTD officer).”
Sivakumar said that those who majored in Public Administration would not need to go through the motions and undergo external training for the position, because this was the position they were qualified to assume.
To be an administrative officer, one has to apply and sit for an examination, but none of the six who sat for the exam were called up for an interview.
“We were trained to be PTD officers, u know!” he said.
However, he explained that it was not that they did not accept non – Malays into civil service, “but even an Indian guy who did Geography was given the position!”
“And some other guy who did Kesusasteraan (literature) was offered the job too!” he added.
Dumbfounded, he questioned the system and criterion in selecting candidates for the position.
“What kind of system is this?” he remembered asking himself back then.
“You wouldn’t do this unless you don’t want someone qualified to be in the position la!” he said.
These are some the things he said led him to believe that the government “was really useless”.
But his awareness of Malaysian politics had sparked back when he was in Form Six. The Tun Salleh Abas case, he said, opened his eyes to the state of democracy in the country.
Sivakumar remembered how the Tun Salleh Abas case back in 1988 really changed his perception of the country.
“I saw how the Lord President was sacked – just like that,” reminiscing the shock he and his friends had when following the case at the time.
The case saw his sacking as Lord President of the Federal Court, decided by a tribunal that included Abdul Hamid Bin Omar who eventually became his successor.
Sivakumar, like many others who watched with disdain at the interference by executive powers in the judiciary during the tenure of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, said that he saw blatant unfairness in the proceedings.
“From then on, I knew that I was never going to support this government,” he said.
His early years in the DAP
A friend of his, who was a party member had asked him if he wanted to join the DAP at the time. This friend, he said, was obliged to do so because he saw that Sivakumar already had “the party ideology” within him.
“I believed in the struggle, but DAP was very weak at the time, I remember.”
He then served the party as Kula Segaran’s Political Secretary. Later, he was co-opted into the party’s Central Executive Committee as the assistant to then National Organizing Secretary Kerk Kim Hock. Sivakumar said that he was proposed for the position by Lim Kit Siang himself.
He said that of the leaders in the country that he emulated, the two who stood out were Lim Kit Siang, and the late Karpal Singh.
He said that at the time, everyone knew Karpal and his exploits, in and outside Parliament- both as a lawyer, and a parliamentarian.
“He was truly a man of the people,” he said.
Karpal, he said truly embodied the spirit of the party and this was a great motivation to him.
On Lim Kit Siang, Sivakumar said that he admired him for his leadership qualities which in turn made him able to pick the right person with the right qualities to stand for a seat in a constituency and to position someone in the party itself.
“Kit and I were just ‘hi-bye’ friends,” he recalled, when the DAP Parliamentary leader tried to convince him to stand for the Canning constituency.
In 1999, Sivakumar had to make a serious decision, to stand for the Canning constituency under the ticket of DAP. From being the political secretary of Kula Segaran back then, this was a very big step.
Sivakumar being reluctant to risk his permanent job needed convincing to take that bold step ahead. It was then that Lim Kit Siang had spoken to him, telling him not to miss out on the opportunity.
Sivakumar then spoke to his employer, asking him if he could return to his position there were he to lose. To his surprise, his direct superior and his General Manager both agreed.
He was given almost 2 weeks leave for the elections – which he subsequently lost. Sivakumar then returned to his company to pick up where he left off.
In 2004, he opted not to contest for any seat. He felt that since his loss in Canning, he was not consistently active in the party and said that others who were more committed deserved to stand under the party ticket.
From 2004 to 2008, Sivakumar became active in the party once again, and agreed to contest for the Tronoh seat in 2008.
“That was a very difficult seat, but I studied it, and concluded that DAP found it hard to win the seat due to the lack of Indian votes.”
“The Indians were the deciding factor in Tronoh.”
The Indians, he said, were making “bulk votes”, voting for Barisan Nasional.
“And I thought, maybe I could swing the Indian votes to my side; and that is exactly what happened. I won by a 2,571 vote majority.”
While the Chinese DAP supporters loyally voted for him, he opined that the Hindraf movement had an impact on the Indian community who realized the sorry state of the Indian community under BN rule.
To the surprise of many including Sivakumar himself, the opposition was victorious in securing the state government of Perak. This, he said was something almost no one had expected.
Sivakumar was then selected to be the Speaker of State Assembly. This was a historic first for an Indian to be elected as a Speaker for the state of Perak.
First Indian Speaker during a tumultuous year for Perak
Sivakumar, fresh in office as the Tronoh Assemblyman was elevated to the position of State Speaker in no time. Little did he know that he would have to endure one of the worst debaucheries of democracy in the country.
“Even after we formed the government, BN were trying different ways to buy over our assemblymen.”
“My own experience – BN offered me RM60 million to buy me over.”
This was three times more than what they had offered him before he became the Speaker.
“They used many strategies; they called me repeatedly; they even waited in front of my house. Not just RM60 million, they offered for me to become the MIC Perak chairman. They even spoke to my in-laws. But my father-in-law responded with a curt “No, sorry”.
The Perak constitutional crisis in 2009 saw three Pakatan Rakyat representatives defecting, creating a situation where Pakatan and BN both had 28 representatives, with 3 of the defectors as independent representatives pledging their confidence to BN.
Pakatan Rakyat MB Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin’s request to dissolve the state assembly and call for new elections was denied by Sultan Azlan Shah, Sultan of Perak who asked Nizar to instead resign together with his cabinet.
Lim Kit Siang had then cited the Perak State Constitution, saying that the Sultan was obliged to act on the advice of the Menteri Besar. However, nothing that was said in line with democracy and the state constitution were heeded. The Sultan had selected Zambry Abdul Kadir as the new state Menteri Besar on the advice of Najib Tun Razak who was the UMNO Perak Chief.
On 3 March 2009, Sivakumar, as the Speaker, called for an assembly seating outside the Assembly hall under a tree later known as the tree of democracy. This was done as the State Secretary, police and Federal Reserve Unit prevented the assemblymen from convening inside the hall.
Sivakumar believes that the sitting is valid as there are only two things necessary for a sitting, which is the Speaker and the coram. One of the resolutions passed under the tree was the barring of Zambry Abdul Kadir and nine other state assemblymen from attending the state sittings.
The privileges and special rights committee decided to bar Zambry and nine other state assemblymen including the defected three from attending any state assembly meeting for 18 months and 12 months respectively.
The Perak power grab
On 7 May 2009, an assembly sitting was called by BN. This was highly irregular as it was only the Speaker who had the power to call for a meeting in the state assembly.
Zambry’s motive to move a motion against Sivakumar prompted Pakatan leaders to attend and “hold the fort” to prevent the new Speaker R. Ganesan from taking over.
Sivakumar, understanding that he was the last man standing in the way of Barisan Nasional taking over the Perak state, remained plugged to his seat to prevent what he and other Pakatan leaders call an unconstitutional power grab.
This also meant that he didn’t have the luxury of a washroom break.
“I could not move from my seat; if I did, then Ganesan would take over,” he said.
He also recalled the moments where the Barisan Nasional Assemblymen asked him,“Speaker, you don’t want to leave and get a drink?” and “YB, have you had anything to eat yet?” – to which Sivakumar replied saying that he was fasting for the day (saya puasa hari ini).
After more than 5 hours of trying to hold on to his seat, he was physically removed by police who barged into the hall in plain clothes. Police, who according to Sivakumar are not allowed to enter a state assembly.
It was an ugly sight to see, with Pakatan state reps shielding Sivakumar from these unknown intruders who manhandled the reps and flung them aside one by one before finally grabbing Sivakumar and dragging him out of the hall like a bag of groceries.
“All this happened very fast. The moment they grabbed me, I felt like it was just a split second that I was dragged to a room,” he said.
He said that there are many who think that he was tortured in the room, but clarified that this was untrue. Those who dragged him out even came up to him and apologized that they were rough, explaining that they were just following orders.
After more than an hour in the room, Sivakumar was allowed to leave. He decided to go to the hall to see what had transpired in his absence.
“When they released me from the room, I went back to the Dewan just to see what had happened, Nizar was there. Nizar came to me and hugged me. I have a photograph of that too. Nizar hugged me, and then it hit me, that’s it, we lost everything. That was when we realized that Perak was gone. That was the most memorable moment for me.”
A dark day for democracy
Perhaps it was in that moment of loss, that the Pakatan Rakyat comrades of Perak truly felt that they had fought a good fight despite being tested and forced to resign to fate.
Perhaps that is why of all the incidents Sivakumar could have recalled as being the most memorable, it was this moment that he chose to remember fondly – that his rightful Menteri Besar embraced him after a long struggle to uphold democracy.
On May 7 2009, Pakatan Rakyat may have lost Perak, but many would still remember Sivakumar as the Speaker who did not betray the mandate of the people.
“Even to this day, random people walk up to me and ask me whether I’m that Speaker from Perak,” he said.
He said that the Perak constitutional crisis cast him in the limelight, and that everyone knew who he was after the incident.
“That incident was a learning experience and people nationwide now know me. I chose not to betray them even when millions were offered to me. I feel I did my best, and I did do my best.”
Sivakumar said that this was one of the main things that led him to his GE 13 victory in Batu Gajah. He also said that he was grateful to the party and the spirit of Ubah that the people upheld.
During and after the power grab, Sivakumar recollects how he was in hiding outside of Perak to avoid being caught by authorities, police, Perkasa or UMNO.
He believed that it was not safe for him to remain in the state as he was a target to those who despised him. There was even a time on his way into the state assembly hall, when an unknown man flashed a holstered gun at him, telling him not to enter the hall. It did seem like the other side was willing to do anything to take control of Perak.
“We were worried that if they got hold of me, then the Pakatan rule in Perak would be no more. I was the last one to fight. It’s very easy for them, because they could catch you under ISA (internal Security Act 1960) or whatever.”
One of the defectors, Jelapang state rep Hee Yit Foong from DAP was the Deputy Speaker. Sivakumar feared that they would use her to conjure up a case against him.
He says that the most difficult time for him was right after the three reps had crossed over.
“We had to make decisions very fast. Most of the burden was on my shoulders.”
“The risk was very high; not just to me but to my family.”
He was afraid that this was too much for his parents to handle. He said that even as a child growing up to his teenage years, his parents had always made sure that he was never in any trouble and that they worried more than other parents normally would about their child. They were always protective of him, he said.
“I thought that they would tell me to give it up even when I still wanted to fight.”
“But I was very surprised when my mother told me to go on, don’t give up!”
“You must fight and not let this go!” he remembered her saying.
Sivakumar said that he did not know where she mustered the courage and daring to say that; and that this inspired him to continue carrying the torch for Pakatan Rakyat despite the pressure from the other side.
Surprisingly, he said he never had to worry about his wife, whom he said was a “very daring person”.
“She was very relaxed about the whole thing.”
Sivakumar remembered his wife asking him “what’s the worst that could happen?”
“They are going to lock you up? No problem what?”
His wife, he said was very capable of taking care of the family without fearing the circumstances that could arise from unwanted parties. Despite this, he said that steps were taken so that no one could contact her or harm her in the aftermath of the power grab.
“But if you ask me whether I was afraid, I would say that I was not at all afraid.”
“If the cops arrested me, they might just lock me up, but if I sangkut (got caught) by UMNO or Perkasa, they could have done anything to me,” he added.
Sivakumar came out of the experience stronger and with a renewed confidence. In the 2013 election, he secured the Batu Gajah Parliamentary seat which according to him is one of the best seats in the state of Perak.
In the Perak crisis, he was unwavering in his commitment to the people by refusing to be enticed by the other side got him dragged out of a State Assembly embarrassed and humiliated. Yet here he stands, still fighting for the future of the rakyat as a true champion for people’s rights.
(Part 2 of our interview with Sivakumar will appear in The Rocket’s January 2015 edition.)