[corrected] Tun VT Sambanthan and Toh Puan Umasundari Sambanthan visit Bukit Bintang Girls School
(Original photos courtesy of Uma Sambanthan)
UPON meeting her at her home in Petaling Jaya, one of the things that Toh Puan Umasundari Sambanthan inquired of me was my health. “Take care dear, it has been raining a lot lately,” she said.
Now 79, the activist, social worker and widow of Tun VT Sambanthan has the warmth and nonpartisan concern of a grandparent. It is strangely apt, since she belongs to a set that is attributed with bringing Malaysia into being.
Another question Toh Puan Uma asked me was: “What do young Malaysians like you want?” Sharp and full of stories, it is clear that the country she helped shape remains close at heart.
The Nut Graph sat down with Toh Puan Uma in the days before the advent of Deepavali to find out about past idealism, current affairs, and future hope.
TNG: Tell us about yourself.
Toh Puan Umasundari Sambanthan: It goes back to my dad. He did engineering in Guindy Engineering College, Chennai. Thirty-six in his class were recruited by the Commonwealth Development Department to develop Pahang and Perak. This was in 1926, and he was in his twenties. He built roads, bridges and waterworks. Father liked this country — and that is how assimilation starts. I was born in Beruas, in September 1929.
When I finished my primary education, there were five years of Japanese occupation. After the war, when I was 19, our family went back to India. Dad gave me the option of either getting married or studying. “In India you must study science,” he told me.
Uma: We wanted a system that didn’t oppress people At the time, the Singapore Syonan had published a very rough picture of atomic fission. I asked dad: “What is this?” He said: “If you had been in a free country, you would have studied science.” There and then I decided I wanted to study science. I studied at the University of Madras. We spent three years there.
Why did you decide to come back to Malaya?
We were exposed to all these nationalist movements. Do you know that Sun Yat Sen came to Penang to get support? And then there was the nationalist movement in India: Gandhi, Nehru. Anything against colonial rule we would support. We wanted a system that didn’t oppress people, and we wanted to do something for our country.
I didn’t complete my postgraduate degree in India. So I came back and did voluntary work in a hospital in Muar, because they didn’t recognise my degree, even though I had a bachelor’s degree with first-class honours. But a school in Singapore was looking for science teachers, so I got a temporary — month-to-month — job there.
Then I got a prospectus for a master’s degree in Germany. That university wanted a reference. By that time, my husband-to-be (VT Sambanthan) had become the first MP for Sungai Siput, and he was given the portfolio of Labour. So my dad said, since he’s a family friend, why don’t you ask for a letter from him? That’s how I first met him. This was in February 1956, during Chinese New Year.
He didn’t give me the reference. Instead, he sent me a proposal for marriage.
We were in love, so we were married in May.
Uma has a laugh with Tunku Abdul Rahman
What were those early years like?
Very interesting. Before the Constitution was written, in the Perikatan they discussed the clauses so that it was balanced for all the communities, all the religions. The multireligious harmony of this country was very important. We had to ensure the people that they would not be discriminated.
Little, little groups would come to the house and bring their memorandums, and my husband had to summarise. This happened mostly at home; at the time, the MIC didn’t have an office. So I also got to experience this.
We also met the MCA and Umno leadership at gatherings — you know, parties. I was the only graduate among the ministers’ wives.
That’s where you started to get involved in activism and social work.
We wives started getting more involved with social work, especially in the kampungs. I was one of the founders of the National Council of Women’s Organisations, the NCWO. Whatever needed pioneering, we were prepared to do. And we worked together as a multicommunal group.
Tun Sambanthan (seated, centre) with fellow cabinet membersMost of this was non-political. My husband retired from the MIC in 1974, but my role was mostly people. I didn’t want to take any political role. I ran [my husband’s] home and I did work in the Sungai Siput constituency, with people. My involvement with women’s groups was to bring the status of women up.
In those days, the thinking was backward: why should women get an education, just stay back and do housework? We were in a position to give leadership. By working together with women from all races, we were able to address all these imbalances.
It was basically an attitude change, for both the women and we who were working with them: from a feudal system to a democratic system. The role of women is very important in a free country. They not only play a role in achieving independence, but assume leadership — politically, socially.
What sort of work are you involved in today?
I am the general secretary for the Sri Ramakrishna Sarada Foundation. Ramakrishna was a 19th century mystic who taught Swami Vivekananda.
This is very interesting. Vivekananda said that religions are like so many rivers running into the ocean. So, why do we fight? We understand each other’s religion, and find that it is leading to the same place. This message was absorbed by my generation.
When you’re young, you are very idealistic. Personally I was very much taken up by this. Because our country, we are exposed to so many religions.
Anyway, the foundation does charity work. We run study centres and kindergartens, as well as provide assistance to single mothers.
How is Deepavali celebrated here?
Uma handing out certificates to schoolchildren Deepavali represents the triumph of good over evil. Narakasura prayed and asked for power, but when he got it, it went to his head. He used his power in the wrong way. The people reacted against it: they kept on forebearing, forebearing — but it came to a point where they couldn’t take it anymore.
But Deepavali is a social celebration. It is a day of joy for us, and a day of respect for our elders. And nowadays, it’s enlarged, it is for our friends. We serve things the other races like to eat. There would be this exchange of goodies. We have particular traditional dishes that we make, but nowadays we make Malay kuih and Chinese cakes. It’s become very muhibah.
This is the speciality of our country. We live together, and this exchange of goodies is part of our culture. During our festival, we’ll send them our goodies; during their festival they’ll send us theirs. There’s a mutual respect and affection. Culture is also about loving our neighbours’ food. Interacting with people is also eating together and drinking together. That brings us together. There is no political pantang.
But Deepavali is sometimes a political issue.
In this country, everything is made a political issue. The date of Deepavali, for example. It is held in either October or November, when the exams are going on. There are people who want to make it a political issue. They’ll say that the government is basically Muslim, and they are not sensitive to the needs of other races.
I believe it is just carelessness. The government has to be a little sensitive — maybe move the exams. The Ministry of Education can do that.
In Tunku’s time, we would pay attention to all these things. When they banned lion dances after 1969, my husband, as the first Unity Minister, made it a point to bring it back. “This is a cultural expression of the Chinese,” he said. “They’ve done a lot, they’re part of the country. You cannot take away their culture.”
Tun Sambanthan puts a golden cloak on Tunku Abdul RahmanAnd you know what happened? Now you’ve got Malays and Indians as part of the lion-dance teams. It has become a muhibah expression.
We must be careful. This year especially, when 8 March really radically changed the way people vote. People are watching. When you go and do things like the ISA (Internal Security Act which allows for indefinite detention without trial), it just makes people more disillusioned. They are now mature enough to question the political leadership. If you’re culturally unhappy, how are you going to integrate with the country?
The government has to be sensitive and make people feel that their needs are important, too. We have to have a dialogue, and attempt to win their confidence: find out why they are unhappy, diffuse the situation, and meet them halfway. Not suppress them.
That’s not political — that’s common sense.
What are you most worried about for Malaysia nowadays?
I was someone who was brought up to love this country, to respect the other faiths, and all peoples regardless of what race they were. We built up this fellowship. Of course, we made mistakes. But from the beginning, communalism was our main enemy.
It was only from 1957 [onwards] that race took this political form. Now we are going through a crisis: for the short benefit of winning an election, communalism is being spread. When you go to schools and colleges, you see students in separate groups. This is very unhealthy.
Uma today, with her daughter Deva KunjariWould young people of your generation accept the idea of Malaysian multicommunalism? It’s not meaningful to young people. We had a commitment to it in the first 10 years — but another 40 years have gone by. And Malaysians of your generation and my daughter’s generation have only seen this separation.
Talking about multiculturalism. Lim Guan Eng said something very sensible about the NEP. He said: “Apply it in a positive way.” He didn’t say anything wrong. He got into trouble for that. Immediately some people want to scream.
He’s experienced all these things: he’s been in jail … But he still has a positive attitude. I’d rather root for him. I’m supposed to be [supporting the Barisan Nasional]. Supposed to be. But any day I’d support him. Sorry, but that is how I feel.
We’ve been independent 50 years. We should be mature enough to face this problem. If we don’t face it, do you think the people of today will have faith in what we say on the platform? In politics we exaggerate, I agree. But at least tell basic truths. When you say we are multicultural — be. You can’t say one thing and practise something else.
I haven’t given up hope, but I feel very, very sad. At the end of 50 years, at an age when a human being is supposed to be matured, you don’t want a country to be at this stage.
It is very hard to bring together, but very easy to break apart. We should take the trouble to bring back multicommunality.
I feel the more we remove politics from religion, the healthier the country will be. We should never mix education and religion with politics, or use these things as a tool for dividing people. The one basis of the success of Malaysia is this multicommunal understanding.
That, to me, seems to be the message of Deepavali.