Sunday, January 13, 2008

Indians in Malaysia are not in the prosperity loop

Prosperity eludes Indians in Malaysia

Sandeep Phukan
Sunday, January 13, 2008 (Kuala Lumpur)

Earlier this week there was confusion as reports came in of a ban on Indian workers in Malaysia. Those reports were promptly denied by Kuala Lumpur, but for years now ethnic Indians in Malaysia have complained of discrimination by the government.

Every year Malaysia gets around 2.5 lakh Indian tourists. But questions are being asked; in a country where Indian tourists are so welcome, why is there hostility towards Indian job seekers?

The Malaysian government has denied any such ban but doubts remains. Would Indian professionals employed in sectors like IT, hotels, construction or financial institutions be asked to leave the country now?

It's difficult getting people to talk about the government but there are few Indians who speak on the issue.

''Considering the way the Malaysian economy is growing, the way it is developing and connecting to the world, the way they are promoting technology, it is beyond belief that there will be a blanket ban especially on Indian expatriates. I have not heard. We have never felt that our work permits would not be renewed,'' said Rajan Mittal, president, Bharat Club.

But in March 2003 didn't the Malaysian police pick up 270 IT professionals on charges of illegal stay, though all of them had valid work visas.

''Come on experience it yourself and then report. This will give a true picture of the country. If you are a law abiding citizen, you won't have a problem,'' said Ashok Kulkarni, Treasurer, Bharat Club.

Foreign workers

Perhaps the confidence stems from the fact that trade between India and Malaysia is expected to touch $8 billion this year.

Also, an economy that's worth over $300 billion, simply cannot do without people from outside. Malaysia has 2.2 million legal foreign workers.

About 60 per cent come from Indonesia, then come the Nepalese who form about 11 per cent of the foreign work force, while Bangladesh and India together account for 16 per cent.

''Many argue that migrant workers and professionals are Malaysia's foreign exchange heroes because without them Malaysia perhaps would not have seen the kind of growth and foreign investments that it has now seen,'' said Ashok Kulkarni, Treasurer, Bharat Club.

So how and why did the ban scare come about?

''On Monday we got several calls that visas of priests were being shortened. On inquiries, the government told us that the home ministry was processing the papers. The ministry had not consulted before doing this kind of an exercise,'' said Vaithialingam, Malaysian Hindu Sangam.

Hindu priests here usually come from India and Sri Lanka on a five-year visa that's renewed annually.

However, this year the government decided that visas of priests will be renewed every six months. The term was even shorter for other temple workers.

Many believed, this was in retaliation to protests by ethnic Indians belonging to the Hindu Rights Activists Force or HINDRAF.

Better rights for Indians

In November last year, HINDRAF members had clashed with the police demanding better rights for the 2 million ethnic Indians who form the third largest group in the country after the Malays and the Chinese.

HINDRAF says the government's affirmative action policy - be it for university education or jobs - benefits only the Malays.

''They say Malaysia is Malays. Over 90 per cent of the government jobs go to them and only 10 per cent to others,'' said Subramaniam, restaurant manager, Tamil.

However, moderate voices among ethnic Indians have their own understanding of what ails the community.

''You see, you have to understand their history. The ethnic Indians came to this about 150 years ago to work in the rubber plantations, clear the jungles and build roads. They were very poor people and lived in poor conditions,'' said Dattu Vaithialingam, Malaysian Hindu Sangam.

''Their children mostly went to Tamil schools and when they had to go to the high school they dropped. When development began, the Indians came to the cities where they were in a state of culture shock. So, they wanted to stay together and speak only Tamil so that they could cope with change. You know, this happened even to the Chinese in the 1950s,'' he added.

But that's history. Now, the Chinese are known as one of the most prosperous communities in Malaysia. So what went wrong for ethnic Indians?

''Indians never invested on education and economically. Now we are trying to stress on education and economic empowerment,'' Vaithialingam further said.

Most Indians in Malaysia believe, the Malaysian government is pragmatic enough to realise the contribution made by them towards the country's prosperity. And the Indian diaspora - be it in Africa, America or Europe - have always excelled. So, why should Malaysia be an exception.

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