At 78, former MIC president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu is as active and outspoken as ever. Since leaving the Cabinet in 2008, Samy Vellu has taken on a new role as the Government's special envoy (infrastructure) to India and South Asia, wooing new projects for the country.
He talks to Sunday Star about life after MIC, his aspirations and disappointments, letting his son fight his own battles in politics and even shares a secret about his trademark hairstyle.
What keeps you busy these days?
I travel to many countries and get jobs for Malaysia. We have about RM3billion (S$1.2 billion) worth of projects in Bangladesh, to be undertaken by Malaysian contractors. These projects are to build houses and roads, including a 7km river bridge. Then I will look into building power stations. There are also many things we can do in India.
In the past, as Works Minister I secured RM25bil worth of road programmes for Malaysian contractors. Most of the modern roads you see in India today are built by them. Initially, there were not many experienced Indian contractors who could do the job. But when we went there, we got the locals to join us, and they learnt.
I must say that the standard of a Malaysian contractor doing the road is entirely different from anyone else. We have reached the European standard of road building.
You left MIC in 2010 after 31 years at the helm, but you are seen to wield a heavy influence on the party. Is that true?
When do you get very influential? When you're close to people. You love the people, you work for them, you slog and don't mind the hours. I have, for almost 29 years, never cared for my family. It's not going home at 5pm or having dinner at 7.30pm. It's 24 hours' work. If there is an accident anywhere, the minister will be there. That was the style that (Tun) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) taught me.
What do you think of the present MIC leadership?
I brought a man from nowhere. I built him; I gave him courage. I made him a deputy because at that time, we were fighting with Subramaniam (former deputy MIC president Datuk S. Subramaniam). Now, I realise there was no reason for the fight. I wanted to be with him but he was fighting me all the time. So I thought I had to put a stop to it. I brought Palanivel (Datuk Seri G. Palanivel) and presented him to the whole country wherever I went.
Why did people select Palanivel - because he has Samy Vellu's face, not for anything else! I did all the work and promoted him. He became president. From the day he took over as president, I have nothing to do with MIC. He doesn't talk to me much or call me.
You don't call him?
I can't call him because I'm an ordinary man. How can I call such a big man? The only time they call me is for the conference. I go and sit there like a fool, and come back. What I've done for the MIC, only the ordinary member knows. When I took over the MIC, there were only 650 branches. When I handed over to Palanivel, there were 3,600 branches with 560,000 members.
I gave courage to every MIC leader. I made them stand tall and proud to work for the nation but it's all forgotten. Nobody remembers that. I never open my mouth and say anything because he is the president. I can't interfere. I won't say that he's not doing the right thing - that's not my business anymore.
Are you grooming your son Datuk Seri S. Vel Paari, who is now MIC's strategic director, to eventually lead the party?
My son is on his own. If I had been a greedy fellow, I could have somehow pushed my son right to the top when I was president. He can be my son, but he has to fight his own battles. In politics, people who don't know how to fight their own battles, sink. My son doesn't consult me. I don't tell him anything. He's over 40 years old, what is there for me to tell him?
How far do you think the Indian community's socio-economic status has improved in the last 30 years?
When I took over the party, it was a very difficult period. With the Government's support, we tried to do so many things for the upliftment of Indians. I thought educating the Indian community was an important thing; they cannot be coolies anymore.
I am a coolie, my father was a coolie, my grandmother was a coolie. My whole family are coolies. I also worked in the estate but I picked up evening classes, I worked as an office boy, a bus conductor, a cook. There is no work I haven't done in life. But, every evening, I would study English and that language brought me far.
We (MIC) put up TAFE College. I felt very happy that all races are in it. They have trained around 47,000 people and it's still going on. Then I thought there must be a chance for these people to go to university. We collaborated with the British to set up the Asian Institute of Medicine, Science and Technology (AIMST).
I'm still working on the upliftment of education and other things. I established Yayasan Pemulihan Sosial, which helps the poor people with finances.
Now I can die peacefully.
In your heyday, you were quite a fighter and your foes even established the now-defunct Gerakan Anti-Samy Vellu to oust you from the presidency.
The lion in me will never slow down. It will only go down one day when I die.