October 14, 2008

Malaysian Indian Society in Ferment

by Dr. V. Suryanarayan

The unprecedented demonstration by Malaysian Indians before the British High Commission in Kula Lumpur at the end of November 2007, under the sponsorship of the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), has brought into sharp focus the pathetic situation in which the Indian community finds itself today. The HINDRAF is a coalition of 30 non-governmental organizations, committed to the preservation and promotion of the Hindu identity. The coalition had been agitating against what it calls the unofficial policy of temple demolition and the steady introduction of Sharia-based law. The Memorandum, submitted to the British High Commission, demanded that the United Kingdom should move an emergency resolution in the United Nations condemning the “ethnic cleansing” taking place in Malaysia. It also appealed that the issue should be referred to the World Court and International Criminal Court of Justice for crimes against its own ethnic minority Indians. In August 2007 the Malaysian Indians had approached the Royal Court of Justice demanding compensation of US Dollars 4 Trillion, which works out to US Dollars one million to every Malaysian Indian, for bringing their forefathers as indentured labourers and failing to protect their rights and interests on the eve of Malayan independence.

The Malaysian Government, true to its authoritarian traditions, refused permission to hold the rally, arrested the leaders and used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the nearly 35,000 demonstrators. The leaders of the HINDRAF should know that historical wrongs perpetrated during the colonial era, like the indenture system, cannot be undone. Presumably their objective was to highlight the increasing marginalization of the Indian community in the social, economic, political and cultural life of Malaysia. A Malaysian Indian student, Ananthi, a Rhodes Scholar, reading for her PhD in Oxford University, echoed the feelings of the overwhelming majority of her community, in a letter widely circulated in Malaysia. To quote Ananthi, “It was about being neglected, about not having a seat at the table to bargain, about having a national and communal leadership that we do not trust and is utterly discreditable. It is about saying no to being the forgotten Indians, and not enough of us in our comfortable houses, those of us who worked to manage to work the system to our benefit – stood with the other Indians, who are not so different from us”. For the first time, the marginalized Malaysian Indians displayed the power of Makkal Shakti (people’s power).

This paper is divided into two sections. The first deals with the changing political dynamics in Malaysia and the second analyses the factors that have led to the marginalization of the overwhelming sections of the Malaysian Indian community.

It has been rightly said that every issue in Malaysia, whether political, cultural or economic, had always been and would continue to be dominated by ethnic considerations. The entire political system is based on communal politics. The ordinary Malaysian grows up and lives under a pervasive communal atmosphere. While ethnicity would continue to dominate, the nature of political discourse is changing from time to time, depending upon the changing political dynamics. In order to put the issues in proper perspective, it is necessary to highlight certain political realities.

The Malays feel that they are the indigenous people (Bhumiputra) and, therefore, they have a special claim for dominance in the political and cultural life of the country. The British colonialists upheld this claim and ruled the country in the name of Malay Sultans, on whom sovereignty vested. At the same time, as part of imperialist objectives, the British also encouraged large-scale immigration of Chinese and Indians for the economic exploitation of the country’s natural resources. The existence of a plural society prevented the growth of anti-British feelings and a sense of common nationalism in Malaya before the Second World War. As the English novelist Somerset Maugham wrote, “Malaya was a first rate country for third rate English men”.

The political awakening of the Malays, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, following the introduction of the Malayan Union Proposals (a unitary state to which the Sultans were to cede their sovereignty) and the unity that they forged under the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) had far reaching consequences. Not only did it compel the British to withdraw the Malayan Union proposals, it also clearly revealed that the Malays would never give up their pre-eminent position in the political life of Malaya. While in later years, the Malay leaders did co-operate with the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), in the larger interests of Malaya as a whole, the dynamic leadership of Malayan nationalism has always remained in Malay hands. The Alliance, which was voted to power in 1955, was not an alliance of equal partners; it was an alliance in which the supremacy of the Malays was clearly established. The transformation of the Alliance into Barisan Nasional in the 1970’s, with the incorporation of various Malay and non-Malay political parties, further reduced the political clout of the MCA and the MIC.

On the eve of independence in August 1957, the Malays and the non-Malays were roughly equal in numbers (Malays 49.8 per cent, Chinese 37.1 per cent, Indians 11.1 per cent and the others 2.0 per cent). Over the years the demographic structure has radically altered to the advantage of the Malays. Higher rate of natural increase and large scale immigration of Indonesian Malays have contributed to the burgeoning of Malay population. The Bhumiputras (Malays plus the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak, which were incorporated into Malaysia in 1963) constitute nearly two thirds of the population; the Chinese constitute 23.7 per cent and the Indians 7.1 per cent.

An important clue to the understanding of the political economy is the social and political contract arrived by the elite of the three communities on the eve of independence. It was assumed that the economic predominance of the Chinese would be offset by the political supremacy of the Malays. It was believed that with the passage of time this equilibrium would give way to a more balanced one, the Malays would play a greater role in the economic life and the Chinese and the Indians would play a greater role in politics. The pre-eminent position of the Malays was enshrined in the Constitution – the retention of the Malay Sultanate, the acceptance of Islam as the State Religion, constitutional provisions safeguarding the “special rights” of the Malays and the acceptance of Malay as the national and official language. The major concession made to the non-Malays was the conferment of citizenship on them.

The fragility of the Malaysian political system came out into the open on May 13, 1969, when following the reverses suffered by the Alliance in the general elections, large-scale Sino-Malay clashes took place in Kuala Lumpur. Emergency was proclaimed and when democratic process was restored after amending the Constitution, Malay political power was further entrenched. The Royal Commission appointed to enquire into the riots was of the view that the crisis was due to the disenchantment and frustration of the Malays, who had not enjoyed the fruits of independence. In 1970, Malay corporate ownership was a meager 2.4 per cent, compared with 63.3 per cent enjoyed by the foreigners, 22.4 per cent enjoyed by the Chinese and 10.0 per cent by unknown parties. While the overall poverty incidence was high, 51.2 per cent in 1970, 76.0 per cent of them were Malays. A New Economic Policy (replaced by National Integrity Plan in 2004) was launched to bring about economic transformation, with particular emphasis on the development of the Malays. In the political sphere, democratic rights were curtailed, it was made a seditious criminal offence to challenge the special rights conferred on the Malays, the language provisions in the Constitution, institution of Sultanate and citizenship laws.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Mahathir (1981-2003) Malaysia underwent a fundamental transformation. From being a producer of primary commodities, it had become an industrialized country, virtually an economic power house in the ASEAN region. Despite occasional hiccups, for example, during the Asian economic crisis, the country registered an economic growth averaging 8.0 per cent. The absolute poverty level came down from 51.2 per cent in 1970 to 7.0 per cent in 2000. By 1990, the Malay share in the corporate capital went up to 19.2 per cent, Chinese 46.8 per cent and the Indians 1.5 per cent, the nominee companies 8.5 per cent and the balance owned by the foreigners. What further endeared Dr. Mahathir was his strong criticism of American foreign policy in West Asia and Southeast Asia.

The negative side of the story was increasing authoritarianism. In addition to continuing criticism of the non-Malays about the pro-Malay and pro-Islamic policies of the government, the discontent also spread to Malay middle class. The first to raise the banner of revolt was Tunku Razaleigh Hamzah, who in 1987 formed a secular Malay party, Parti Sengamat 46 (Spirit of 46). Subsequently Razaleigh was readmitted into UMNO. Far more important was the revolt led by Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, who formed a political party called Kedilan (Justice Party) under the leadership of his wife. The unfair trial of Anwar Ibrahim, coupled with the third degree treatment meted out to him, has earned him considerable good will in Malaysia and abroad. After his release, Anwar Ibrahim started speaking in a more democratic idiom, for widening the democratic space, tolerance of dissent and the establishment of a truly pluralist society, with emphasis on redistributive justice. He was prepared to champion the non-Malay cause when he promised to abolish the New Economic Policy and to promote equality for all. The cumulative effect was the ruling Barisan Nasional suffered serious reverses in the general election held in March 2008. In the 12th general election, the UMNO and its coalition partners in the Barisan Nasional suffered unprecedented reverses. It lost its two third majority in parliament. What is more, it was removed from power in four states – Kedah, Perak, Penang and Selangor – besides failing to regain power in Kelantan. What is more, Anwar Ibrahim re-entered parliament by winning the by election in the Permatang Pauh, with a huge majority. Anwar Ibrahim is openly making a bid for power by enticing ruling party members of parliament into his fold. Another important consequence was the decision of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to expedite the transfer of power to his deputy Najib Abdul Razak.

An important political reality must be highlighted. It is extremely difficult for opposition parties to function in Malaysia. The dracnonian Internal Security Act, which provides for detention without trial, has been frequently used against opposition leaders, Malay and non-Malay alike. The Internal Security Act is inhuman, because it denies the victim a fundamental human right, the right to a fair trial. Anwar Ibrahim underlined some of the evils of the Malaysian political system in an international conference in New Delhi, few months ago, “What is an election if the political parties in the opposition do not have access to freedom of speech, assembly and movement, necessary to voice their criticisms of the government openly and to bring alternative policies and candidates to the voters? Where I come from, the opposition is barred from the air waves, rallies are not allowed and opposition newspapers operate underground”. Prof. Harold Crouch, an astute observer of the Malaysian political scene, has remarked, “It is hard to place Malaysia in a clear cut category between democracy and authoritarianism”. He concludes “Malaysia is neither democratic nor authoritarian … as the Malaysian political system has been oscillating between repression and responsiveness”.

Let me now take up the second part of the essay dealing with the complex issues relating to the marginalization of the vast majority of Malaysian Indian community. At the end of the Second World War, the Indians (the term today includes Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans) constituted about 14.0 per cent of the population of Malaya. Number of them returned to India during the years of the communist insurgency and the dark days following the communal riots in May 1969. By 2,000, Indians numbered 1.8 million, representing 7.7 per cent of the total Malaysian population of 21.89 million. According to the Singhvi Committee Report, the total number of Indians in Malaysia is 1,665,000, of which 1,600,000 are Malaysian citizens, 15,000 are non resident Indians and 50,000 are stateless people. Approximately, 80.0 per cent of them are Tamils; followed by North Indians (mainly Sikhs) 7.7 per cent; Malayalis 4.7 per cent; Telugus 3.4 per cent; Sri Lankan Tamils 2.7 per cent; Pakistanis and Bangladeshis 1.1 per cent and others 0.4 per cent. As far as religion is concerned, Hindus number 81.2 per cent; Christians 8.4 per cent; Muslims 6.7 per cent; Sikhs 3.1 per cent; Buddhists 0.5 per cent and others 0.1 per cent. In the specific context of Malaysia, where Islam, the religion of the Malays, is the State religion, sections of the Muslim community of Indian origin have got assimilated into the Malay society.

We should make a distinction between the middle class (mainly non-Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils) whose standard of living is fairly high and the working class (mainly Tamil) who are poor and getting marginalized. The working class belongs to the lower castes of the Hindu society like Adi Dravidar, Vannan, Maruttuvar, Nadar, Vanniyar etc. The Indians, especially Tamils from the Madras Presidency, were the preferred labourers to develop the rubber plantations, because they displayed unquestioned loyalty and obedience, content with what they earned and were non-rebellious by nature. Most of them continue to be weighed down by low esteem, which is worsened by lack of interaction between the well-off and the less well-off sections.

A notable feature of the Indian community is its changing socio-economic profile. In 1970, 47 per cent of the Indians were engaged in agriculture, 74 per cent of them in the plantations. With rapid economic expansion and diversification of the economy, the plantations have been converted for other purposes, including the construction of luxury homes. The uprooted Indians were only paid a pittance as compensation. They naturally migrated to urban areas and joined the squatter population. Few years ago, Samy Velu, the President of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), deplored the plight of thousands of estate workers “living in squalor in slums in dozens of long-houses and squatter settlements all over Selangor”.

Aliran, the well-known journal of the Malaysian reform movement, provided statistical details, few years ago, which made alarming reading. 40 per cent of the serious crimes in Malaysia are committed by the Indians; there are 38 Indian based gangs with 1,500 active members; during the last few years, there had been a hundred per cent increase in the number of Indian gangsters; Indians recorded the highest number of those detained under the Emergency Regulations and banished to Simpang Rengamm prison. In the field of social woes, it is the same story. In Kuala Lumpur, 14 per cent of the squatters are Indians; they have the highest suicide rates; 41 per cent of the vagrants and beggars are Indians; 20 per cent of the child abusers are Indians and also 14 per cent of the juvenile delinquents.

The communal clashes that took place between the Indians and the Malays in Kuala Lumpur in March 2001 sent shock waves throughout Malaysia. It was the worst ethnic riots since the communal clashes in May 1969. Ethnic tensions in Malaysia are mainly due to Sino-Malay rivalry; but the Indian involvement in 2001 riots (five of the six killed were Indians and the other was an Indonesian) was a sad reminder that in Malaysia’s progress towards prosperity, the Indians were being left behind.

The disadvantaged status is clearly visible in the economic sphere. The Chinese are firmly entrenched in trade, business and industry. They are reconciled to the subordinate status in the political life of the country; at the same time, they have sharpened entrepreneurial skills and have become indispensable. The status of the Malays has steadily improved as a result of the energetic drive of the Malaysian Government since the introduction of the New Economic Policy. In 1970, the Indians owned only 1.0 per cent of the share capital in limited companies, while the Chinese controlled 22.5 per cent, Malays 1.0 per cent and the rest being held by the foreigners. At the turn of the century, the Indians held only 1.5 per cent, compared to 19.4 per cent of the Malays and 38.5 per cent of the Chinese, the balance being held by the foreigners.

The deplorable status of the Tamils is directly related to poor educational attainments. Though the Malaysian Government has expanded educational facilities in a big way since independence, the fruits of education have not percolated to the disadvantaged sections of Indians population. The importance of education in the development of disadvantaged sections of population has been highlighted by many writers. It is a means of upward social and economic mobility; an avenue of modernization; an instrument to enrich cultural life and, above all, in the Malaysian context, a means of national unity and integration. The Indians continue to be the most disadvantaged section at all levels of education. The Tamil medium primary schools are in a deplorable stage. Single teacher handling multiple classes; ill equipped schools with teachers having no commitment and high drop rates are some of the serious drawbacks. The family life is characterized by alcoholism, violence against women and addiction to Tamil TV Channels. They do not provide a congenial atmosphere for study. As a result, only limited number of Tamil students reaches the university stage. The current intake of Indian students in Malaysian universities is only 6.2 per cent, most of these students hail from non-Tamil and Sri Lankan Tamil sections; the few Indian Tamils, who are lucky to get admission in the Universities, are also from relatively affluent families.

Compounding the complex situation is the general perception that increasing Islamisation of the country and destruction of Hindu temples are posing grave threats to the Hindu way of life. Given below are two illustrations which took place in 2003. The first related to Shyamala Sathiaseelan. Shyamala’s husband got converted to Islam, he gained custody of their two children and had them converted to Islam without the permission of his wife. Shyamala’s appeal for help from authorities went unheeded. The second case involved Murthy Maniam, a convert to Islam, whose dead body was buried according to Muslim rites by the religious authorities despite his widow’s claim that he had remained a practicing Hindu until his death. The non-Muslim members of the Malaysian cabinet requested the Prime Minister to provide constitutional guarantees for religious freedom, but their appeal was ignored by Prime Minister Badawi. Many Hindus also were deeply hurt when, for the first time, the UMNO General Assembly was held during Deepavali. As Dilip Lahiri, former Indian diplomat has written the UMNO youth leaders brandished and kissed the Kris (dagger) and threatened to shed Chinese and Indian blood if Malay supremacy was challenged. The Hindus also began to feel that the Government was lukewarm on the sensitive question of destruction of Hindu temples. As a result, the HINDRAF and allied organizations began to take deep roots in the Hindu community.

In the preservation of the Hindu identity, in the prevailing atmosphere of increasing Islamisation, the temples do play a very big role. The temples and religious festivals are the only visible attachment to traditions and the Hindus cling to them tenaciously. Needless to say, there is a close nexus between religion and Malay politics. The policies of the Malaysian Government have been double edged. On the one hand the leaders of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) are committed to the promotion of Islam in all possible ways. Dr. Mahathir has mentioned several times that Malaysia is an Islamic State and the Islamic identity is projected in a big way both within the country and outside. Such a policy is necessary to mobilize the Malays under the UMNO banner. Otherwise, the Malays will flock to Parti Islam (PAS) for leadership and inspiration. At the same time, the realities of Malaysia and the needs of modernization dictate that the Government must encourage a less exclusivist approach towards Islam. When the desecration of the Hindu temples began in 1978, the most horrendous being the destruction of the Murugan temple in Kerling, Prime Minister Hussein Onn came down heavily on the Islamic extremists. But the situation has been allowed to drift during recent years. In its Memorandum, the HINDRAF has pointed out that in every three weeks one Hindu temple is destroyed in Malaysia, the most significant being the demolition of the Mariamman temple in Shah Alam. The Government maintains that most of these temples have been constructed in government owned lands without proper authorization. But the temples have been functioning for many years; strangely there are no reports of the destruction of Chinese places of worship. Is it because the Chinese are more organized and will hit back if their religious beliefs are tampered with?

The question should legitimately be asked – to what extent has the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), which represents the Indian community in the government, has succeeded in its primary objective of safeguarding the interests of the Indian community? An Indian observer of the Malaysian scene comes to a dismal conclusion. Factional struggle and disunity had been the major curse of the Indian community. Since its inception in 1946, fight for power, petty politicking and mud slinging had been its major attributes. The rivalry between Devaser and Sambandan; between Sambandan and Manickavasagam; Manickavasagam and Sami Velu; and among Sami Velu, Padmanabhan, Subramaniam and Panditan – it brings no laurels to the Indian community. Samy Velu is more interested in ingratiating himself with the Malay leadership rather than championing legitimate Indian interests and aspirations. What is more, self-help measures, initiated by the MIC, with much fanfare, have not led to desired results. For example, the Maika Holdings Bhd, started in 1982, as an investment vehicle for the Malaysian Indians, incurred heavy losses, resulting in the loss of savings of large number of poor Indians. Frustration and anger against the leadership found expression when the Indian youth began to disturb the functions organized by the MIC; very often Samy Velu was booed and jeered. How distant the MIC was from the ordinary Indians became evident when the results of the 2008 parliamentary elections were announced. Of the nine MIC candidates of the Barisan Nasional, only three could win their seats, and that too with slender margins, those who were defeated included Samy Velu, the President of the MIC, who lost the Sungai Siput constituency in the Perak State. The emergence of the HINDRAF has to be viewed in the backdrop of the alienation of large sections of Indians, coupled with a non-performing MIC.

The unfortunate events in Malaysia naturally attracted the attention of Indian leaders. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Foreign Affairs Minister Pranab Mukerjee and Chief Minister Karunanidhi have expressed concern and regret over the turn of events in Malaysia. Their objective is not to interfere with the internal affairs of a friendly country, but to influence the Malaysian Government to initiate immediate steps for the redressal of long pending grievances. The Malaysian response has been unfortunate. Representatives of the Malaysian Government, including the Prime Minister, have demanded that the Government of Tamil Nadu should keep off from what it considers to be an internal matter of Malaysia. What is the record of the Malaysian Government in this respect? As a leading member of the international Islamic organization, the Malaysian Government has sharply criticized many governments for pursuing policies, which have adversely affected the Moslem communities. The UMNO and the PAS, the two leading Malay parties, have, on several occasions since independence, criticized the policies of the Thai Government which has led to the alienation of the Malay minority in Southern Thailand. The Malay leaders have also criticized the Government of Singapore for pursuing discriminatory policies against the Malay minority in the island. The Malaysian criticism of India, to say the least, is an illustration of the pot calling the kettle black.

The increasing intolerance of the Malaysian Government and its vocal advocacy of OIC sponsored causes have cast a long shadow over India – Malaysia relations. As the former Indian diplomat, Dilip Lahiri has pointed out, on a range of issues affecting India-Southeast Asia relations, Malaysia had been the “most difficult” among the member states of ASEAN. The Malaysian Government is preparing itself to crack down on the HINDRAF; few government spokesmen have started leveling the unsubstantiated charge that the HINDRAF has links with the Tamil Tigers. The perceptive Indian observers of the Southeast Asian scene remember that when General Rabuka began systematically to discriminate against the Indian community in Fiji, in order to justify himself, he was quoting chapter and verse from Dr. Mahathir’s book, The Malay Dilemma. Few years ago, in Brickfields in Kuala Lumpur, few Indian expatriates, who were working in the IT industry, were rounded up and detained as illegal immigrants, though they had proper documents to prove that they had entered Malaysia through legal channels. The shocked Indian diplomats immediately protested, and the Malaysian Government had to tender an apology for its inhuman behaviour. Turbluent times are ahead in Malaysia and for the Malaysian Indians.

The Malaysian Indian community is at the cross roads today. If the present situation is allowed to drift and deteriorate, the community would suffer untold damages and would be left behind in the economic and educational advancement of the country. If the present hardships are to be overcome, it is important the Indian community must re-evaluate its role and chalk out a new destiny by sinking its differences and working as a team. The minority character of the Indian community and its vulnerable position makes such a task all the more urgent and imperative. The Malaysian Government must also view the marginalized and impoverished Indian community with greater sympathy and understanding and ensure that the Indians, to begin with, at least obtain a share equal to their proportion in the population.

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Senior Professor and Director (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. This paper was presented in the International Seminar on India and Asia-Pacific: Convergence and Divergence at the Centre for Southeast Asian and Pacific Studies, Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupati on 13th October 2008).



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