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Indian Diaspora Tale: A Malaysian Malady

Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • December 05, 2007

    Malaysia’s so-called multi-ethnic harmony was deeply shaken when the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) organised in Kuala Lumpur the largest ever mass protest against the ‘marginalisation’ of ethnic Indians as a consequence of the government’s ‘discriminatory’ policy. The incident has clearly exposed Malaysia’s political class of creating and favouring a unified trans-racial community called Bangsa Malaysia (‘Malaysian race’). The federal Constitution accords special privileges to these Bumiputera and this is not for the first time that the problems of unfair treatment towards the ethnic Indians have come to the centrestage. The Malaysian Police had targeted IT professionals of Indian origin in March 2003 on grounds of checking illegal immigration. In fact, ethnic tensions had previously erupted as early as December 1969 when over a 100 people were killed in clashes between the Malays and the Chinese. This prompted Dr Mahathir to launch a New Economic Policy in 1971 and a determined effort to encourage the Bumiputeras and raise their share in the economy – at the cost of the ethnic Chinese and the Indians. Samy Vellu of the Malaysian Indian Congress had served as the Works Minister in the Mahathir cabinet and was the sole representative of the ethnic Indian community.

    The demonstration comprising about 10,000 people was heading towards the British High Commission to submit a memorandum seeking to appoint a counsel to represent the Indian community in a class action suit. The memorandum called for an emergency UN resolution condemning the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of ethnic Indians and urged the UK to lead a global condemnation of Malaysia’s ‘atrocities’ against the Indians. The Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who also holds the Internal Security portfolio, taking grave exception to the memorandum indicated the government would not hesitate to use the Internal Security Act to prevent demonstrations. Some 88 ethnic Indians were arrested on November 28.

    Indians constitute 8 per cent of the population in Malaysia totalling 1.8 million and of whom about 90 per cent are Tamils. But in proportion to their number they control very little wealth. In contrast, the Chinese constitute about 25 per cent of the population and the majority Malays roughly 60 per cent. Although there are a large number of Indians as doctors and lawyers; they are a far greater number ‘under-represented’ in other sectors.

    It would be unrealistic to expect India to remain unaffected by the current developments. Malaysia’s institutionalised policy of discrimination towards the Indian Diaspora (mostly Tamils) is bound to create pressure on the Centre from its coalition partner in Tamil Nadu to respond in a forceful manner. Not surprisingly, Hindraf leader P. Watythamoorthy met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi on December 2 to lobby for the cause of the Malaysian Indians. The Indian government needs to be sensitive to the problems and concerns of its diaspora especially in Southeast Asia and unflinchingly take a principled position. During the freedom struggle leaders like Subhash Chandra Bose sought their cooperation and now a ‘Rising India’ with its newfound economic musclepower can ill-afford to ignore its economic diaspora.

    India’s economic ties with Malaysia have been an intrinsic part of its Look East policy. The two share many common multilateral forums such as ASEAN and the WTO and are at the forefront of taking up the cause of the developing world. Like Malaysia, India believes that the WTO should not introduce non-trade issues into trade negotiations. Both countries will begin negotiating the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) in January 2008. This will give an impetus to trade and investment between the two. India has an unfavourable balance of trade with exports to Malaysia at $1.3 billion and imports at $5.3 billion. The total trade is expected to rise to $16 billion by 2012. Malaysia is the second biggest ASEAN investor in India and has made a total direct investment of about $143 million in the period August 1991 to July 2007. Given the strong economic connect, India should not only powerfully voice and stand for the welfare of the ethnic Indian community but also assert influence over the Malaysian government to effectively address the problem.

    While India’s experience of shaping a plural democracy may serve as a model, Prime Minister Badawi’s own statement bears recalling: “What is important is that the government has to be fair to all because if we concentrate only on one group, others will complain.”