I am surprised by the recent escalation of the situation revolving around the allegedly discriminated Sheena Moorthy and the Science, Technology and Innovation Minister, Dr Jamaludin Jarjis (JJ). I have read Sheela's letter regarding JJ's remarks and feel I should clarify the incident.
I believe Sheela was exaggerating the facts; I was present at the dinner at the Belacan Grill in Los Angeles in April together with 40 Cal Poly, Pomona, University of Southern California, Cal-Tech and International Islamic University of Malaysia students and representatives of the Malaysia Students Department in Los Angeles. I would like to make it clear that Sheela was not in attendance at the dinner. Though her action of sending the letter on behalf of her sister, Sheena, is with good intention, I do not believe she could provide context to what had happened that night.
I have read Lim Kit Siang's blog regarding the incident and find that he best summarises Sheena's grievances over JJ's comments. His blog can be read here. From this point and further, I will use his blog , as well as Sheela's letter above as my references.
Through Sheela's letter, Lim identified Sheena's three complaints as listed below. I will describe each incident chronologically and provide an actual description of each incident within context.
Incident 1 - 'Each student had to briefly introduce themselves. When it came to her turn, while speaking, he interrupted her and asked if she knew Samy Vellu, because he knows him. She did not see any relevance in that and he mentioned it a few times for no apparent reason'.
The only reason why I could see this as discriminatory or why Sheena took offence was because of the reputation that S Samy Vellu carries and the fact that they are both Indians, insinuating that because she is Indian she is like Samy Vellu. It's true that JJ interrupted her and asked her if she knew Samy Vellu. However, Sheela failed to mention JJ's comments on Samy Vellu's importance in scholarship distribution. After asking if she knew him (Samy Vellu) or had talked to him before, JJ said he knows him very well and would get Samy Vellu's help in sorting out scholarships.
Samy Vellu is the president of the MIC, and therefore in charge of the distribution of scholarships and grants to Indian Malaysians. His assistance would be beneficial to Indian students. Sheena failed to realise the relevance of Samy Vellu to the further education of Indian Malaysians.
Incident 2 - 'He gave a speech regarding how agriculture started in Malaysia. He mentioned how the British invested in Malaysia and made farmers work. Due to the lack of a work force, 'buruh India' were brought in. While mentioning this, he looked at her saying 'That's how we get Indians in Malaysia'.
JJ did not give a speech on how agriculture started in Malaysia. Rather, he gave a speech on the development of Malaysia's biotech industry. He talked about our abundance in natural resources and its potential for utilisation and began his speech with Malaysia's agricultural industry. He explained how Malaysia has progressed from an agricultural-based economy to becoming a leader in the biotech industry.
He wanted to stress the leap from an agricultural-based economy to one that has taken a cutting-edge science to the forefront. To further emphasise that leap, he stressed the importance of the Indians in the agriculture industry which contributed to the progression of our country.
During his speech he did not mention 'buruh India' nor did he say 'that's how we got Indians in Malaysia'. Instead, he used the term 'pekerja India'. JJ said neither of the two remarks attributed to him during the dinner. So then, giving Sheela and Sheena the benefit of a doubt, I will assume then there was a communication mix-up. It is understandable that a speech on the immigration of Indians be summarised as 'how Indians came to Malaysia' and from that to JJ saying 'that's how we get Indians in Malaysia'.
JJ was standing in the middle of the restaurant; it is almost impossible to say that JJ was directing his remarks towards Sheena because he was looking at all of us during the time.
Incident 3 - 'After saying he is going to get Mara to help the bumiputera students, he looked at her and asked 'How many Indians are here?' Sheena did not keep track of the number of Indian students so she mentioned that in the room there were two (pointing to another Indian Malaysian friend, who is fair skinned) and Jamaludin looked at him and asked 'Oh. You are an Indian? Which means you are an upper-class Indian and she is the lower-class one' (pointing at her). Jamaludin went on to say that, 'Oh, I am not going to help upper-class Indians, I only help the lower-class ones. They are the ones that need it'.'
All that is written above is true, and I will not dispute that. However, I'd like to mention that there is no distinction between light-skinned and dark-skinned Indians. Can you say that lighter-skinned Indians are more prosperous than darker-skinned Indians? You cannot. If you believe so, then you are misleading your mind from the truth. In Malaysia, we do not have that kind of distinction with the Indians.
And you should see Sheena and the other Indian guy - both of them are equally fair. JJ did not make his statement based on their skin colour but instead on the way they dressed and represented themselves. Neither did he make any remark based on their skin colour or race. He has even clarified it was meant to be a joke, though it may sound rude. I believe he had no intention to offend anyone including Sheena.
As far as I am concerned, the student delegates were not surprised at all with his speech. How is it possible that he could make remarks based on their skin complexion? During the dinner, the Indian guy was wearing a very nice collared shirt, unlike Sheena who wore a simple and dull black shirt with a skirt (which I would say doesn't suit her at all).
Nonetheless, JJ, in Boston, a few days later clarified that he had said some things in jest and he wished to apologise to 'the student in LA' if he had offended her. And that is a great and generous gesture from our honourable minister.