Mention Jalan Tun Sambanthan in Kuala Lumpur and city folk will recognise it as one of the major (and busiest) roads in the heart of Brickfields.
The road is named after Tun V.T. Sambanthan, a man who played a prominent role in the movement for independence in Malaya.
Sambanthan needs no introduction as one of the founding fathers of Malaysia, with his name etched in history books for helping to consolidate the Malayan (now Malaysian) Indian Congress (MIC) and turn it into a mass-based party.
Sambanthan, who died in 1979 aged 60, played an important role in forging ties between the MIC, MCA and Umno to form Barisan Nasional.
And through it all, he understood the importance of racial harmony in cementing national unity.
Sambanthan was born in 1919 in Sungei Siput, Perak, to a rubber plantation owner. After completing his secondary education at Clifford High School in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, he furthered his studies at Annamalai University in Tamil Naidu, India.
At varsity, the undergraduate witnessed India’s struggle to gain independence from the British (which it achieved in 1947).
As a supporter of freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi’s religious principle of “ahimsa” (non-violence), Sambanthan understood the importance of “satyagraha” (insistence of truth) in a nation striving for independence.
It was Gandhi’s influence that sparked Sambathan’s interest in Malayan politics, especially in gaining independence for his homeland.
After completing his studies in 1946, Sambanthan returned to Malaya to take over the family business and continue his father’s passion for improving the plight of estate workers who suffered from illiteracy and poverty.
Eight years later, in 1954, he set up the Mahatma Gandhi Tamil School in Sungei Siput, Perak. He also lobbied for the introduction of the English language medium in Tamil schools in Perak and transformation of the South Indian Immigration Labour Fund into an education fund to assist children of plantation workers.
As recognition of his efforts, he was appointed a member of the Board of Councillors by the Perak State Department.
In the early 1950s, the young man took his first steps into politics. He started a recruitment campaign among plantation workers, focusing on Hinduism, increased use and fostering of the Tamil language, and supported Tamil cultural activities.
In 1954, Sambanthan – a prominent member of MIC by then – played a vital role in forming the Alliance Party, the political collaboration with Umno led by Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, and the MCA, founded by Tun Sir Tan Cheng Lock.
The following year, Sambanthan chalked up another milestone in his career when he was elected the fifth MIC president, a post he held till 1973.
He also left a historic mark as one of the signatories of the Merdeka Agreement on Aug 31, 1957, alongside Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tan.
In the early 1960s, Sambanthan also set up the National Land Finance Co-operative Society to help plantation workers acquire assets in the form of shares.
He was among the country’s first Cabinet ministers, having served as Labour Minister (1955-57), Health (1957-59), Works, Posts and Telecommunications (1959-71), and National Unity (1972-74).
In a 2014 article, “The meaning of nationhood” (The Star, Aug 27), Sambanthan’s wife, Toh Puan Uma Sundari Sambanthan (with whom he had a daughter), explained that throughout his life, her husband was always concerned about national unity and building bridges among the ethnic communities.
In a famous speech he gave calling for greater cooperation among the communities during the debate on the draft Constitution before Merdeka, Sambanthan said:
“We belong to a plural society, and we should always remember that in such a society we have to recognise that psychology has its own place.”
The next time you drive along Jalan Tun Sambanthan or past Wisma Tun Sambanthan on Jalan Sultan Sulaiman in KL, take a minute to reflect on this man’s efforts to promote racial harmony and national unity.