Friday, January 25, 2008

Malaysian Indians are marginalised: the evidence

Malaysian Indians are Marginalised: the evidence

Are Malaysian Indians marginalised?
By P Gunasegaram

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There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. — Benjamin Disraeli (former British prime minister and statesman, 1804-1881)

Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable. — Mark Twain (American author and social commentator, 1835-1910)

Umno politicians in particular would have us believe that Indians are not marginalised while MIC politicians maintain that Indians have progressed under the Barisan Nasional government. But opposition parties and Indian NGOs not affiliated to MIC demur and state firmly that Indians are marginalised. Who is right and who is wrong?
Let's look at the statistics because we have nothing else. And let's look at the official statistics because those are the only ones there are. And more importantly, let's look at the trends that the statistics indicate.

And we shall bear in mind always that a cursory examination of statistics often paints the wrong picture, depending on what one wants to find. If you are looking to substantiate a picture you have already painted, you will find that statistics are malleable — you can mould them to fit.

Our only reference for statistics is the Ninth Malaysia Plan, released on March 31, 2006, and most of the statistics come from Chapter 16 entitled "Achieving Growth with Distribution". That keeps things nice and simple — and easy for anyone who wants to cross-check.

First, incidence of poverty. We'll just look at overall poverty. The incidence is highest for bumiputeras in 2004, at 8.3% (12.4% in 1999), followed by Indians at 2.9% (3.5%) and Chinese at 0.6% (1.2%). But consider this: the poverty line income used for 2004 in Peninsular Malaysia is RM663 per month for urban areas and RM657 for rural areas.

In other words, a difference of just RM6 a month between urban and rural areas. Is this realistic when urban costs everywhere are much higher than rural costs? Accommodation alone costs so much more in urban than rural areas, let alone food and others. The lie in the statistic in this case will be the poverty line income and the question is if it overestimates bumiputera poverty.

The other point to remember is that the reduction in incidence of poverty between 1999 and 2004 was the least among Indians, from 3.5 to 2.9%, a clear indication that they are progressing at a slower rate than the other two communities.

The next is mean monthly gross household income, which was RM2,711 for bumiputeras in 2004 — the lowest — followed by RM3,456 for Indians and RM4,437 for Chinese. But in terms of quality of life, it is what you can purchase with this that counts. You can purchase more in rural areas, where bumiputeras are concentrated, than in urban areas. The lie here is that income determines well-being. The fact is, where you stay matters as well and that must be taken into account.

The real eye-opener and eye-popper is the table that gives employment by ethnic group. In this classification, bumiputeras comprised 57.2% of the labour force (against population share of 65.9%) in 2005, Indians 9.2% (7.5%) and Chinese 31.8% (25.3%). Malay under-representation in the labour force relative to population probably represents more self-employment.

More than a third of Indians, at 36.4%, were employed in the lowest level of occupations — elementary occupations (basically labourers), and as plant and machine operators and assemblers. The figures for Malays were only about a quarter, at 25.4%, while for the Chinese, it was about a fifth at 19.1%. Despite constituting only 7.5% of the population, Indians constituted almost twice that number in elementary occupations at 14.7% of the total. Without a doubt, the

Indians are the worst off among the three communities in this respect.

If we take the top three employment sectors — senior officials and managers, professionals, lecturers, secondary school teachers, writers and artists — 14.7% of bumiputeras are in this category, while for the Chinese and Indians, it is 21.1% and 13.1%. Again, the Indians have the poorest showing.

Another damning set of statistics is the table on registered professionals by ethnic groups. Indians constituted 10.6% of registered professionals in 2005 but it was down from 12% in 2000. Bumiputeras increased their share from 35.5 to 38.8 while the Chinese share declined from 51.2 to 48.7%.

But what is telling is that the absolute Indian numbers went up by 16.6% over the five-year period while the bumiputera number went up by 45%, almost three times as fast. The Chinese figure went up by 26%, way ahead of Indian growth. The Indian share of professionals is shrinking very, very rapidly.

And there is the share of corporate wealth — ownership of capital at par value. The Indian share actually went down from 1.5% (one-fifth of the population ratio) in 2000 to 1.2% in 2004. The Chinese and bumiputera share remained static at around 39% and 19% respectively. The methodology is of course flawed, as pointed out by many articles. The Indian share may be much lower if more correct methods are used.

Indications are clear that the Indians are marginalised and are declining in relative terms to other communities. If something is not done to reverse this, it will lead to a serious social instability in Malaysia.

In addition to these official statistics, it would be interesting to see what other indicators tell. What proportion of those in jail are Indians? What proportion of those who die in police lock-ups are Indians? What proportion of those who are shot dead by police are Indians? What percentage of those involved in violent crime are Indians? What is the literacy rate among Indians compared to other communities? What percentage of school dropouts are Indians?

Three final questions: Why has the MIC not managed to obtain these figures or compile its own? Can it, as currently constituted, represent the legitimate interests of the Indians? What should the government do under these circumstances?

P Gunasegaram is group executive editor at The Edge.

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