Friday, December 7, 2007

It's apartheid in Malaysia, says poet Sharanya

It’s apartheid, says poet who fled Malaysia

22-yr-old Sharanya talks about the plight of Indians

HONG KONG: As a celebrated bilingual poet, Sharanya Manivannan, 22, knows the searing power of words.

Yet, as an ethnic Indian-Sri Lankan who lived in Malaysia for 17 years — and fled to India last month to escape systematic racial harassment — she finds even the most powerful words hopelessly inadequate to describe the plight of Indians there.

“What is happening [to Indians] in Malaysia,” Sharanya told DNA from her Chennai home, “is nothing less than formal apartheid.”

Strong words, particularly when you consider that Sharanya doesn’t exactly come from the “bottom of the pyramid”. Her grandfather was a former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Malaysia.

On Sunday, ethnic Indians’ pent-up anger over Malaysia’s Constitution-sanctioned discrimination spilled over on to the streets.

This drew international attention to the dirty truths that lie beneath picture-postcard images of “multicultural Malaysia”.

To go behind the headline-grabbing news of temple demolitions and rising Islamo-fascism in the country and get a first-hand account of how this discrimination manifests itself in day-to-day life, DNA spoke to Sharanya.

“Article 153 of the Malaysian Constitution explicitly privileges Malay Muslims above all other ethnicities – principally ethnic Indians [of whom Tamils make up the largest number] and Chinese. Indians have drawn the shortest stick owing to a number of historical and economic forces. In the absence of economic clout, which the Chinese arguably possess, ethnic Indians are the most disadvantaged. In the first place, large groups of Indians came to British Malay as coolies, in servitude.

“To this day, the United Malay Nationals Organisation (the largest constituent of the coalition that has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957) upholds the concept of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ (Malay Supremacy) ostensibly to “uphold racial harmony”. That so absurd a concept as racial supremacy – and the expectation of kowtowing to a certain race to maintain general order – can exist in the modern world is perplexing.

“Then there’s the Bumiputera (literally, ‘prince of the earth’) policy, instituted at independence: it allows Malays a large, race-based quota to enter universities, entitles them to ‘discounts’ on land or property purchases, and other quotas including in civil service jobs, government contracts and private business. Officially, the Bumiputera policy is supposed to protect indigenous minorities too, but in practice non-Muslims cannot actualise this privilege. (Ironically, Bumi (earth) and putera (prince) are Sanskrit words, derived from India!)

“You ask me how this discrimination manifests itself. Where shall I begin? On a day-to-day basis, the derogatory word keling (sort of an ‘n’ word) is still widely used to describe Indians. The Tamil language and Indian accents are mocked so commonly that it’s a part of pop culture. I have ethnic Indian friends who are fifth- or six-generation Malaysian. They are not Indian; Malaysia is their country, and ought to be their home. But they frequently hear bigoted statements along the lines of

“Indians should go back to India.”

“But let’s go beyond cultural stereotyping and name-calling. In recent times, there have been several instances of “body-snatching”: the corpses of Hindu men have been taken away from their families by authorities and their last rites performed according to Muslim tradition. Countless temples have been demolished, and idols smashed – oftentimes in the middle of prayer sessions – and devotees have been attacked. It’s not just about reclaiming squatter land, as the authorities claim; it’s to say: the ways of your people are not welcome in this land.

“In April 2006, while still a student in Kuala Lumpur, I wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on my blog (, calling upon the Indian government to speak out on this issue of clear religious and ethnic discrimination in the same way that it had responded to the Danish cartoons parodying Prophet Mohammed.

“I wrote that letter because what is happening in Malaysia is nothing less than formal apartheid. The fact that its Tourism Board promotes a picture postcard image of multi-culturalism is rather audacious. You have to understand that I say all this as a person who loves Malaysia, but who was forced to leave.

“Last year, my grandfather, a former High Commissioner, had a passport thrown at his face and was shouted at by a Malay officer at the Malaysian Consulate in Chennai! I myself have been harassed at Malaysian immigration checkpoints on countless occasions, while always travelling legally. And after one particularly bad interrogation at immigration, I knew that if I did not make the choice to leave, I would probably be deported. I think I was right, considering the events of the past few days.”

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