Malaysia's top ethnic Indian politician on Tuesday dismissed his community's biggest anti-government protest as an opposition ploy and denied he was out of touch with the increasingly agitated Indians.
Sunday's rally by more than 10,000 people, who defied water cannon and tear gas to protest racial discrimination, could pose a headache for the government ahead of early polls as Indians are traditionally seen as a vote-bank for the ruling coalition.
In an interview with Reuters, S Samy Vellu, the combative head of the main ethnic Indian party and Malaysia's longest-serving minister, branded protesters as "trouble makers" and said he was not losing sleep over the bloody demonstration.
"We have fought worst battles than this during elections," the ebullient 71-year-old leader said.
"We don't worry about this. We are confident of winning the next elections handsomely," said Samy, the Works Minister and an architect by training.
"They (the protesters) are fighting to create problems. They are trouble makers," said Samy, dressed in a smart black suit and red tie, as he attended to a handful of Indians at his ministry. His luxurious Mercedes Benz was parked on the driveway.
He has been leader of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and a cabinet minister since 1979. MIC is a junior partner in Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's ruling coalition, which is set to call general elections within the next few months.
The coalition dominates the 219-seat parliament with 199 seats.
His friends regard Samy as the "champion of Indians" but foes say he stands in the way of solving the many socio-economic problems facing Malaysia's 1.8 million Indians.
The community, which forms just 7 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people, is in a parlous state, said a Hindu rights group which called the protest.
It said Indians lacked educational and business opportunities, adding that a government affirmative action policy in favour of majority Malays had marginalised them.
The Indians have always struggled to air their grouses openly. The community's economic clout is a scant 1.5 percent of national wealth and that too is in the hands of a few top businessmen.
Many blame the MIC and Samy, known to some for his authoritarian style, for not quickly solving their woes.
And Sunday's protest, which attracted Indian doctors, lawyers and other professionals as well, could be an eye-opener to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, politicians said.
A senior leader of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the bulwark of the 14-party coalition, said Barisan should study the Indian grievances and try to overcome them.
"We have to look at the real issues, what is causing this unhappiness and I think BN has to pay attention to it," he said.
Samy took the criticism in his stride.
"To me, I can throw the records on the floor on what I have done. I am not a man on the streets. I am a man on the job. There's always unfinished business."
But he gave no hint when he would step down.
"I have been around for 29 years. At an appropriate time I will hand over."
(Additional reporting by Mark Bendeich)