Indian Discontent in Malaysia

Image from HindRAF

The harsh reaction by Kuala Lumpur’s police Sunday to a protest organized by the Hindu Action Force, a pressure group established to further the cause of Malaysia’s 2 million Indians, turns the spotlight on the country’s third largest ethnic group and the problems it has faced for decades.

Tensions have been inflamed recently with the accelerated destruction of Hindu temples by the government. Although many have been built without permits on government land, they have been in place for decades. Three have been bulldozed this year to make way for road construction and a housing development and another three are due for demolition over the next few months.

The Kuala Lumpur police set up road blocks for three days in advance of the demonstration and charged the group’s leaders with sedition. As they had on Nov. 10 against the pressure group Bersih calling for election reform, the police confronted an estimated 10,000 Indian demonstrators with water cannon and tear gas. Some police were armed with submachine guns, weapons they rarely carry openly, as helicopters hovered overhead.

This demonstration was notably more aggressive than the Nov. 10 one, which was multiracial and led not only by Bersih, a good-government organization, but three opposition parties. Defying an order that the protest was illegal, the protesters Sunday, many of them swinging motorcycle helmets as weapons, threw cans and bottles. Disobeying an order to disperse, they gathered outside the city’s gleaming Petronas Towers, with police chasing them down side streets. Scores also gathered at the huge, Batu Caves north of Kuala Lumpur, which is filled with Hindu statues and other objects of worship.

The Hindu Action Force, three of whose leaders were arrested Friday and charged with sedition in advance of the protests, sought to present a petition to the British High Commission asking Queen Elizabeth to appoint a Queen’s Counsel to represent the Indian community. Hundreds of police from Malaysia’s Federal Reserve Unit and the General Operations Force were stationed in the vicinity of the British High Commission in an effort to thwart their progress. In August, the group filed a US$4 trillion class-action suit against the British government in London, asking compensation for being brought to the rubber plantations.

At issue in the protest is the odd niche that Indians, some 7 to 8 percent of the population, occupy in Malaysian society. Brought to what was then British Malaya to work in rubber plantations, they occupy the bottom rung of modern society at the same time their numbers are over-represented in medicine, the law, civil service, the police and information technology. Ananda Krishnan (worth $4.6 billion in Forbes' list of Malaysian billionaires), of Sri Lankan descent, is the second richest tycoon in Malaysia. He owns pay TV operator Astro All Asia Networks and telecom major Maxis, among other businesses. Tony Fernandes, CEO of Air Asia, is one of Malaysia's most successful entrepreneurs. Born in Kuala Lumpur of Indian descent, Fernandes revolutionized budget air travel in Asia and has been called the "Asian Branson."

The Indians’ presence in Malaysia, however, is much more complicated than that. Migration started in the second half of the 19th century when the British brought Tamils and Telugus from the south of India as indentured laborers, primarily to work on rubber plantations, rail lines and the ports. A second wave, mostly from Northern India, came to man the police force and become civil servants. That included Tamils from Sri Lanka and Indians from Kerala – including the father of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has always been somewhat coy about his Indian roots. Yet a third stream came as traders, Anjum writes.

Yet another wave of Indian migration arrived starting in the 1970s, according to Anjum. In particular, as Mahathir pushed the dream of Malaysia as an IT hub, they were sought after to develop the country’s information technology base, with Malaysia formally signing a Memorandum of Understanding with India for manpower recruitment on a contract basis in 2007. Today, Malaysia’s overseas Indian population is the largest outside the United States.

But outside the legions of professionals, the rubber and palm oil plantations of Malaysia’s interior are still home to some of the poorest residents of the country, their health stunted by malnutrition and their lives marked by lack of upward mobility. In 2000, Time Magazine reported that Indians had the lowest share of the nation's corporate wealth: 1.5%, compared to 19.4% for Malays and 38.5% for Chinese. The highest rate of suicide of any community is among Indians. Gangsterism and violent crime is largely associated with Indians. Some 15% of the Indians in the capital are squatters.”

While some blame Malaysia’s racial policies as the barrier to Indian social wellbeing, with Malays betting on the country’s affirmative action policy and the Chinese being formidable in commerce and business, others blame the Indians themselves. The Malaysian Indian Congress, the ethnic-based party that represents the Indian minority in the ruling coalition, is widely looked upon as ineffective if not corrupt.

Race is the big divide in Malaysia. During his 20 years as prime minister, Mahathir sought to uplift Malays, guaranteeing them a large share of business opportunities. The Chinese, the biggest minority, were supposed to lose their disproportionate share of the country's economy. But the real losers were Indians. Due to their colonial legacy, they are generally seen as providers of cheap labor in plantations and construction sites, their political and social mobility has been thwarted.

Amarjit Kaur, professor of Economic History, at the University of New England in Australia, attributes this partly to caste distinctions. She writes in The Encyclopedia of Indian Diaspora: "The underperformance of the Indian working class may be attributed to the fact that Indian workers were drawn from the less favored caste groups. Thus they continue to be weighed down by the low self-esteem that usually characterizes members of groups belonging to the lower castes and is worsened by lack of the interaction between the well-off and the less well-off Indians.... The marginalization of working-class Indians is reflected in their poor performance in business, equity ownership and employment in professional sectors and the civil service. The disadvantaged position of the majority in the Indian community has contributed to a sense of dispossession and disadvantage among many Indians in Malaysia."

Sarala Sukumaran, 40, a Malaysian Indian entrepreneur who runs an IT firm, says: ""I know many Indian families who want to get out of Malaysia. There are two main reasons behind the backwardness of Indians. One is that we are a minority here, and two, the politicians who represent us do not promote our cause."

Sukumaran is a third generation Malaysian Indian. Her grandparents came to Malaysia in the 1930s to work in the plantations in Penang.

“I feel that we are not aggressive enough as a community in terms of unleashing our entrepreneurial potential. That's why our evolution has been very slow. Comparatively, look at the Tamils from Sri Lanka,” she said. “They have a more close-knit community feeling, they help uplift each other and they are certainly doing much better than the Indians."

After the racial riots of May 1969, Malaysian leaders emphasized the establishment of a united nation and a national culture transcending ethnic identities. The dominant culture in this set-up is Malay with some elements from other cultures supporting it.

Even some new Indians, want to get out. "Being non-bumiputras in Malaysia, we can never settle down here," says Nishant Upadhyay, 30, an instructional designer. "We know that getting a permanent residency is next to impossible so we are looking at opportunities in countries like Singapore and Australia where we can easily settle down and start a family."

Many Indian IT professionals have still not gotten over the mistreatment of 300 Indian citizens in March 2003 in Kuala Lumpur, which was widely reported in the Indian press. Security agencies reportedly interrogated them rudely in a search for illegal immigrants, but all the Indians possessed valid residency documents. Subsequently Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, then the deputy prime minister, apologized for the incident.

But there are frequent reports of abuse of Indian workers and Bumiputra politics disadvantage Indians in education and work opportunities. Local university seats and scholarships are awarded under a racial quota system, and even after getting a degree, many say that discrimination is commonplace. Indian doctors, for instance, complain that they are often excluded from lists of approved doctors whom civil servants or company employees can patronize.

The conversion of rubber plantations to housing estates and golf courses also has displaced plantation workers who have drifted to urban centers. As a result, urban Indian ghettos have emerged and crime has escalated.

Many Indians blame government policies for their backwardness, a charge rejected by mainstream politicians. Says Malaysian politician Shahrir Abdul Samad: "The Indian community problems are more than just equity. Most of their problems are social problems, such as gangsterism. I admit Indians are among the poorest in this country, but their participation and achievements in many other fields are amazing."

Indian Malaysians discover themselves in a bind. Most have resigned themselves to their plight while discontent simmers within the community. But how long can Malaysia afford to allow 8 percent of its population to feel alienated?