Friday, December 14, 2007

Sad plight of Malaysian Indians -- Kamlendra Kanwar

Sad plight of Malaysian Indians

by Kamlendra Kanwar

The Malaysian Government's harsh response to a street demonstration by about 10,000 ethnic Indians in Kuala Lumpur, protesting racial discrimination has brought the long-simmering issue of discontent among Malaysian Indians to centrestage.

The tragedy of the ethnic Indians has been that the Malaysian Indian Congress that supposedly represents them in the ruling coalition has been a poor votary of their cause.

It's leader, Samy Velu, who has been minister for over 29 years has never, in any meaningful way espoused the cause of the community and fought against the economic deprivation that it has been subjected to. He has instead been obsessed with feathering his own nest.

Predictably, he has sided with the government on the demonstration against racial discrimination and has warned leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) that is spearheading the demonstration. Deep within, he is aware that the Hindu rights group could pose a challenge to his unbridled supremacy in the national elections that are expected in a few months.

The sheer size of the protest represents a political challenge for the MIC. Ethnic Indians from around the country swarmed into Kuala Lumpur for the rally, despite a virtual lock-down of the capital over the previous three days and warnings from police and the government that people should not take part.
There is substance in the charge of Malaysian Indians that a government affirmative-action policy in favour of majority ethnic Malays over the last few years has marginalized them. Malays make up about 60 per cent of the population and, according to official data, remain the poorest group but Opposition groups say the most severe cases of poverty exist among Indians.

Quite unfairly, while Malays are treated as Bumiputras (sons of the soil) and are recipients of various reservations and concessions in education and jobs, the ethnic Indians and Chinese are identified by their race even though they may have been there for generations, and are by implication not treated as sons of the soil.

The ethnic Chinese, who are about 30 per cent against the 7-8 per cent of ethnic Indians, are largely into business. They are left to themselves and past attempts to strike at their economic base have been strongly and successfully resisted. They have no interest in political power and in Government jobs so long as their business interests are not encroached upon.

The Indians, on the other hand, are the ones who feel the heat the most with the Malaysian Government's pro-Malay policies. They are largely into Government jobs and work in the plantations where they first came as migrant labourers over a century ago. They have a very poor presence in business, accounting for a bare 1.5 per cent of the country's wealth.
Hindraf leader P Uthaya Kumar hit the nail on the head when he said in justification of the demonstration: "They (ethnic Indians) are frustrated and have no job opportunities in the government or the private sector. They are not given business licences or places in university." Indians are also incensed by some recent demolitions of Hindu temples. Poor education further cripples their chances of upward social mobility, forcing them to continue being labourers, although some are now losing out to cheaper foreign workers.

Significantly, the whole issue of discrimination was sparked off by an ethnic Indian lawyer in Malaysia, Waytha Murthy, suing Britain, the country's former colonial ruler, for $4 trillion. Moorthy wants Britain to pay damages of 1 million pounds ($2.06 million) to each of Malaysia's two million ethnic Indians for rights abuses he traces to colonial-era labour schemes that brought their ancestors to Malaysia as indentured workers.

Moorthy says the compensation was being sought because "we were permanently colonized during British rule, and now, under the government of the ethnic Malays. We have lost touch with our roots and have been suppressed so far," he says, while accusing British officials of failing to honour their responsibility to protect ethnic Indians when they granted independence to Malaysia in 1957.

While nobody gives Moorthy a ghost of a chance to succeed in his case, he has struck a sensitive chord with Malaysian Indians. The Hindraf rally's avowed purpose was not only to voice protest over racial discrimination by the Malay majority but also to raise funds for Moorthy's case.

In the Kuala Lumpur rally that sparked off the debate over the plight of ethnic Indians, hundreds of protestors carried Mahatma Gandhi's posters as symbolism for a non-violent struggle. However, persistent failure of the Malaysian Government to address the issues raised could lead to a section of the disgruntled elements taking to arms in tandem with the LTTE in Sri Lanka.

All in all, it would be foolhardy for the Malaysian Government to ignore the genuine grievances of the ethnic Indians. It is not for the Indian Government to intervene in any way because it is an internal matter of the Malaysians and any Indian activism on the issue would only queer the pitch for these hapless people.

However, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi was well within his right to write to the Prime Minister to take up the cause of the ethnic Indians. That is an internal Indian issue because it was not addressed to the Malaysian Government. For a Malaysian minister to tell him to `lay off' was highhanded and uncalled-for.

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