KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – The longtime leader of Malaysia's main ethnic Indian party stepped down Monday after more than three decades at the helm, leaving a legacy tarnished by the 2008 general elections when supporters abandoned him in droves.
S. Samy Vellu, who had been the unchallenged chief of the Malaysian Indian Congress party since 1979, has been harangued for not doing enough to protect the largely Hindu Indian community's rights in the Muslim Malay-majority country.
"From the moment that I go out of the room, I am no more (party) president," the 74-year-old Samy Vellu said. He will formally hand over the party's leadership to his deputy, G. Palanivel, later Monday. "I know the time has come. There should be a leadership change."
An instantly identifiable figure of Malaysian politics — thanks to his rich black bouffant that never faded or diminished with age — Samy Vellu was born in family of rubber tappers in 1936. As a child, he made hand-rolled tobacco leaf cigarillos to contribute to family earnings. Later, he became a bus conductor before being employed as a janitor at an architect's firm. He put himself through school and earned a degree in architecture in 1972.
In the meantime, he also worked as a grass-roots worker in the Malaysian Indian Congress. After years of behind-the-scene maneuvering, he took over as leader of the Malaysian Indian Congress , or MIC, in 1979.
The MIC is one of the 13 parties in the ruling National Front coalition, which is made up of ethnic-based parties in a system that seeks to give equitable representation to Malaysia's main ethnic groups: Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous people of Borneo.
But in reality, most power is controlled by the United Malays National Organization party, which represents the Malays who make up 60 percent of the country's 28 million people. All others parties play second fiddle to UMNO.
The system had ensured a hold over power for the National Front, which has governed since independence in 1957. But that changed during the March 8, 2008 elections when the restive Chinese and Indian communities turned against their traditional parties amid anger over real and perceived discrimination by the government.
Indians, who are 8 percent of the population, and Chinese who are 25 percent, voted in large numbers for the opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim, which is largely based on ideology rather than on race, and the National Front scraped through with a simple majority instead of the more than two-thirds majority it had previously held.
Same Vellu's MIC won only four seats in the 222-member Parliament, down from 9 previously. Among the losers was Samy Vellu himself, who until then had held several Cabinet posts including as minister of works, energy and telecommunications. The elections were held on his birthday.