INDIANS IN MALAYSIA

INDIANS IN MALAYSIA

The smallest of three main ethnic groups, the Malaysian Indians form about 10 percent of the population. Most are descendants of Tamil-speaking South Indian immigrants who came to the country during the British colonial rule. Lured by the prospect of breaking out of the Indian caste system, they came to Malaysia to build a better life. Predominantly Hindus, they brought with them their colourful culture such as ornate temples, spicy cuisine and exquisite sarees. [Source: Malaysian Government Tourism]

There are about 1.5 million people of Indian decent (excluding those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent) in Malaysia. Although they originally came from many parts of South Asia and include Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and Parsis they are generally categorized as two types; 1) “Bengalis,” or north Indians; or 2) “Klings,” or south Indians. There are significant numbers of Telugus, Pathans, Malayalis, Punjabis and Sikhs. Collectively, there are about 150,000 members of these groups.

Most Chinese and Indian Malaysians are descendants of 19th and early 20th century immigrants who came as traders, laborers and miners during British colonial rule. The main group of Indian immigrants in Malaysia and Singapore are Tamils. Many were brought in by the British from South India and to a lesser extent Sri Lanka during the 20th century to work as laborers in the tin mines and at rubber, palm and tea plantations. Most Indians in Malaysia speak Tamil and English.

Indians have tended to live in the cities. They have worked as small business owners, civil servants or in professions such as law and medicine. Some still work as laborers. time. In the early 1970s, 60 percent of Indians still lived and worked on plantations often under harsh conditions. Many are still there.

Ethnic Indians occupy the bottom of Malaysia's economic and political hierarchy. Vijay Joshi of Associated Press wrote: “At the time of independence, most Malaysians were poor, regardless of race. But an affirmative action program that gives Malays preference in university admission and government jobs, discounted homes and a mandatory 30 percent share of all publicly listed companies has lifted the Malay standard of living. The Chinese, already well established in business, continued to flourish. But the Indians remain at the bottom of the barrel. [Source: Vijay Joshi, Associated Press, March 6, 2008]

Indian Plantation Workers in Malaysia

Many Indians are employed in menial jobs, such as rubber and oil plantation work. Vijay Joshi of Associated Press wrote: “About 85 percent of the ethnic Indians are descendants of indentured laborers brought by the British to work on rubber plantations in the 19th century. The work, where it remains, pays about $60 month. But many plantations were turned into golf courses and luxury home communities in the 1980s and 1990s, and the workers lost their jobs and the free housing and schooling that was included. [Source: Vijay Joshi, Associated Press, March 6, 2008]

Other plantations converted to palm oil, which does not require the skills of rubber tapping, and the Indians were replaced with Indonesian immigrants at lower wages. Another rubber estate in Kuala Lumpur was cleared for stadiums and athlete housing for the 1998 Commonwealth Games. Former workers still live on the last 40-acre patch, which is slated to become a graveyard. The residents have been classified as squatters and offered two-room rental apartments in a nearby low-cost housing development. Their school and temple will be relocated inside the burial ground, a proposal that has incensed the residents. "My age is 43 years. I have lived here for 43 years. How can I be a squatter?" said Shanti Vasupillai. "All I am asking for is our rights."

Discrimination Against Indians in Malaysia

Many Indians allege they are deprived of employment and education opportunities and say their temples are being systematically destroyed. They have laso spoken out strongly against the government’s decades-old affirmative action policy favoring Malays in education, jobs and business. Authorities deny any unfair discrimination, saying minorities in need also receive assistance.

While Malays control the government and the Chinese dominate business, Indians complain they are at the bottom of the society with little wealth, education or job opportunities because of government policies that give preferential treatment to Malays. Many Indian still do menial labor similar in nature to what the British brought them to Malaysia to do.

Reporting from Rinching, about 50 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur, Vijay Joshi of Associated Press wrote: “With a small knife, plantation worker Ramalingam Tirumalai makes raw incisions on the rubber trees every morning to harvest the oozing gooey latex. Just like the gashes on the trees, Ramalingam says, countless wounds have been inflicted by Malaysia's government on the country's ethnic Indian minority, denying them jobs, education, freedom of religion and most of all dignity. [Source: Vijay Joshi, Associated Press, March 6, 2008 |+|]

“The government denies discriminating against Indians, citing statistics that show the poverty rate among Malays is higher than for Indians. But analysts say the statistics are skewed because the Malay figure includes indigenous tribes that are extremely poor and not ethnically Malay. Indians were also infuriated when municipal authorities destroyed several Indian temples in 2007 because they were deemed to have been built illegally.” |+|

Ethnic Indians say discrimination continued after Malaysia's independence in 1957 because of an affirmative action policy favoring Malays. Activists say more than two-thirds of ethnic Indians, who constitute about 8 percent of the population, live in poverty, with many trapped in a cycle of alcoholism and crime.

Bad feeling Stirred Up When Muslim and Hindu Festivals in Malaysia Coincide

In October 2006, Malaysia's prime minister defended joint religious celebrations by the country's Muslims and Hindus. "A joint celebration does not mean that Muslims and Hindus have to mix their religions. "Everyone has their own beliefs and faith,'' Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said in a speech. "It does not in any way tarnish one's religion.'' The comments were apparently aimed at ending a controversy over whether Muslims should send holiday greetings to Hindus for their religious celebrations including the festival of lights, Diwali or Deepawali. [Source: AP, October 18, 2006]

Associated Press reported: Diwali was followed by Eid-al-Fitr - known in Malaysia as "Hari Raya'' - the main Muslim holiday at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. The two lunar calendar holidays often occur back to back and are celebrated together in a weeklong holiday, nicknamed "Deeparaya.'' Controversy erupted this year after the religious chief of a government-linked Islamic finance group, Takaful Malaysia, advised its Muslim employees not to wish Hindus "Happy Diwali.'' In an e-mail to employees, Mohamed Fauzi Mustaffa described Hindu festivals as being against Islamic tenets because they involve idol worship, considered blasphemous in Islam.

Takaful Malaysia, which is majority-owned by Malaysia's Bank Islam, later apologised after Hindu groups, many Muslims and government ministers expressed outrage at the comments, describing them as a narrow interpretation of Islam. "The issue at hand is about ... creating a sense of unity among all the races in the country and one identity that we are all Malaysians,'' said Abdullah, a respected Islamic scholar. "I do not want any confusion in all this ... I want to set the record straight that this does not in any way go against the faith of Muslims in the country,'' Abdullah said.

Anti-Hindu 'Cow Head' Demonstration and the Caste System in Textbooks

In August 2009, a group of Muslim protesters trampled on a severed cow's head to protest the building of a Hindu temple. AFP reported: “In the latest religious dispute to erupt in multi-cultural Malaysia, local media said 50 Muslims took the head of the cow -- a sacred animal for Hindus -- to the central Selangor state government office and stamped on it. The protest was against the relocation of a Hindu temple to a Muslim-majority neighbourhood in the state. News websites Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insider published pictures of the bloodied cow head. [Source: AFP, August 29, 2009 ~*~]

“Lawmaker Khairy Jamaluddin, leader of the youth wing of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), criticised the protest as "emotional and insulting". "(This) act did not consider the sensitivity and respect for other religions which is needed to maintain the country's harmony," he wrote on his blog. "The act definitely will anger the Hindus and Malaysians," Khairy added. Veteran opposition legislator Lim Kit Siang said the act was "deplorable". "In a multi-religious society, the act of sacrilege to one religion must be regarded as an act of sacrilege to all other religions and the entire nation," Lim said. ~*~

“State police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said the protesters will be investigated for sedition, according to English daily Sunday Star, but the demonstration organiser told AFP they would not apologise and rejected responsibility for the incident. "There is no point in us apologising as it was not our work. The cow head was brought in by an individual and we don't know that person," Mahyuddin Manaf, who led the group of local residents, said. "Maybe that was just a way of expressing the anger. We just want the Hindu temple to be relocated to another area as this is a Muslim-majority area," he told AFP. ~*~

In January 2011, Associated Press reported: “Ethnic Indian activists in Malaysia have decried a government decision to retain a high school textbook that refers to the Hindu caste system. The dispute has aggravated many among Malaysia’s ethnic Indian minority who complain that authorities in Malaysia fail to respect their sensitivities. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said that a special panel will propose amendments that can be made to the book before it eventually becomes compulsory for high school literature classes. Mohan Shan, president of the Malaysia Hindu Sangam organization, said the book should be withdrawn entirely because it allegedly portrays ethnic Indians as coming from inferior communities.” [Source: AP, January 28, 2011]

Indians and Politics in Malaysia

Indians have traditionally voted for the Malaysian Indian Congress, their party in the National Front. The National Front is dominated by the party of the Muslim Malay majority. It also has the support of some ethnic Chinese, who are 25 percent of the population, and some Indians, who are eight percent.

On the eve of election in March 2008, Vijay Joshi of Associated Press wrote: “Seething anger among ethnic Indians like Ramalingam is likely to singe the government during parliamentary elections on March 8. "We have been independent for 50 years," the stocky 53-year-old said of his country. "But there has been no change in the lives of Indians." Voters are upset by rising prices and a surge in urban crime. Ethnic tensions are also at a high, largely because of the increasing influence of Islam in daily life. "We need a new kind of leadership," Ramalingam said in an interview near his plantation. [Source: Vijay Joshi, Associated Press, March 6, 2008]

But now the Indians will "definitely vote for the opposition," said S. Nagarajan of the Education, Welfare and Research Foundation, a nonprofit group that represents impoverished ethnic Indians. "This time there is raw anger." Indian voters could make a difference in 62 of the 222 constituencies, said Denison Jayasooriya, a political analyst who specializes in Indian affairs.

See 2008 and 2013 Elections

Violence and Protests Involving Indians in Malaysia

In March 2001, five Indians and one Indonesia were killed and 100 people were injured in clashes between Indians and Malays that broke out in a poor area of Kuala Lumpur. A group of Indians sued the government for not doing enough o stop the fighting.

The disenchantment exploded in November 2007 when about 20,000 Indians demonstrated in Kuala Lumpur. The protest was seen as a watershed in the country's politics, emboldening Malaysians unhappy with the government and boosting opposition parties to spectacular gains in general elections in March. Several smaller demonstrations have taken place since. [Source: Associated Press, October 16 2008]

Large Ethnic Indian Protest in November 2007 Violently Put Down by Malaysian Police

In November 2007 about 20,000 Indians demonstrated in Kuala Lumpur over privileges granted ethnic Malays and discrimination against Indians. The protesters — some of whom carried pictures of India's independence leader Mohandas Gandhi and banners that read "We want our rights" — gathered before dawn near the Petronas towers. Tear gas and water cannons were needed to put the protests down. The protests were organized by the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf.

Associated Press reported: “Police used tear gas and water cannons to crush a banned rally by more than 10,000 ethnic minority Indians -- a rare street clash that exposed Muslim Malaysia's deep racial divisions. Slogan-shouting protesters hurled water bottles and stones at police, who chased them through streets surrounding the famous Petronas Twin Towers and doused them repeatedly with tear gas and chemical-laced water for more than eight hours. There were no immediate reports of injuries. Witnesses saw people being beaten and dragged into trucks by police. Shoes and broken flower pots littered the scene after protesters scattered to hide in hotels and shops. The organizers said hundreds of people were detained by the time the protest dispersed. [Source: AP, November 26, 2007]

“The rally -- rooted in complaints that the ethnic Malay Muslim-dominated government discriminates against minorities -- was the largest protest in at least a decade involving ethnic Indians, the country's second-biggest minority after the Chinese and the most underprivileged. "This gathering is unprecedented," said protest leader P. Uthayakumar. "This is a community that can no longer tolerate discrimination." It was the second such street protest in Kuala Lumpur in month. A November 10 rally that drew thousands of people demanding electoral reforms was also broken up with similar force, but lasted only a few hours.

The later rally was meant to support a US$4 trillion lawsuit filed in London in August 2007 by the Hindu Rights Action Force, a Malaysian rights group, demanding that Britain compensate Malaysian Indians for bringing their ancestors to the country as "indentured laborers" and exploiting them. Samy Vellu, the government's top ethnic Indian politician, denounced yesterday's protest as "an opposition ploy to smear the government's image."

"If they push us against the wall, we don't know what will happen," demonstrator Lingam Suppiah said. "The day must come when the time bomb will explode. We cannot be patient forever." Police obtained an unprecedented court order prohibiting the public from rallying. On Friday, three of the Hindu group's leaders were arrested and charged with sedition. Kuala Lumpur Police Chief Zulhasnan Najib Baharudin declined to say how many people were arrested. "We're still doing our work," Zulhasnan said. "This is necessary for law and order."

Protests by Indians Raise Questions About Malaysia’s Ethnic Policies

The protests in November 2007, shook the government and raised fears it would destroy the fragile peace between the country's three main communities - Muslim Malays, the ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians. John Burton wrote in the Financial Times, The protests “triggered political tremors in multi-ethnic Malaysia. Not only did the protest defy a state edict against unauthorised outdoor assemblies, it also broke a taboo against publicly questioning the country’s long-standing policy of preferential treatment for majority Muslim Malays. [Source: John Burton, Financial Times, January 9, 2008 <<>>]

“Malaysia’s government was clearly rattled. Abdullah Badawi, the prime minister, invoked the colonial-era internal security act for the first time since coming to power in 2003, detaining without trial five leaders of the Indian protest. This week it was also revealed that officials had been considering curbing the entry of temporary workers from India. The protest revealed underlying racial tensions in what has been seen as one of the world’s most successful multi-ethnic states and one of its more open economies. Malaysia is among south-east Asia’s richest countries, regarded as a model for other Muslim countries in embracing globalisation. <<>>

“Many observers were surprised that the protest was mounted by ethnic Indians, Malaysia’s smallest and most quiescent racial minority, who have been the strongest supporters of the National Front coalition government since it came to power in 1957. But dissent has grown among Indians recently with the destruction of Hindu temples that officials said were built illegally and court cases that ruled that Muslim-born Indians could not convert to the Hindu faith. <<>>

“The protest reflects the new openness that Abdullah sought to achieve by encouraging the expression of grievances. But he may have decided to use the ISA to calm down the power brokers within UMNO, who don’t like to see their authority challenged,” says Ramon Navaratnam, head of the Malaysian branch of Transparency International. A close aide to the prime minister painted a more alarming picture, saying that the recent Indian protest could create a backlash among Malays and lead to racial violence. “Abdullah appears to be genuinely worried about the situation,” says a foreign diplomat in Kuala Lumpur. <<>>

Malaysian Media Told Use Restraint Covering the Ethnic Indian Protests

After the November 2007 Indian protests, Malaysia's government told the mainstream media not to sensationalize a crackdown on ethnic Indians. Julia Zappei of Associated Press wrote: “Che Din Yusoh, a senior official with the Internal Security Ministry, said newspaper editors had been given "verbal advice" not to highlight sensitive issues related to the Nov. 25 rally by at least 20,000 ethnic Indians that police broke up by force. "Don't sensationalize what police are doing. Don't give a very negative picture ... We have guidelines on publication, and they have to implement (self) censorship," he told The Associated Press. [Source: Julia Zappei, AP, December 6, 2007]

“Malaysiakini, an independent Internet news portal, reported that top editors of all dailies were summoned by the government for a meeting, and were told not to give prominence to Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, the group that is leading the Indian unrest. An editor of a Tamil-language daily, catering to Indians, confirmed the meeting took place Tuesday. He told the AP that the government advised all chief editors to be "very careful" about "sharp wordings," especially in headlines. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Che said he could only confirm guidelines were issued but gave no details.

Newspapers gave wide coverage to the Hindraf rally and the court hearings of 31 Indians charged with attempted murder for a head injury sustained by a policeman during the demonstration. The Indians were denied bail. Che said the media were told not to play up Hindraf's claims - debunked by most Malaysians - that Indians are victims of ethnic cleansing in Malaysia. "Instead of trying to tarnish the image of the government ... the media should use their common sense and discretion to refute this kind of allegations," he said. Che said his ministry monitored the media all the time to make sure their coverage did not endanger national security interests or create social unrest.

Ethnic Indian Protests After the November 2007 Rally

In February 2008, Malaysian police used tear gas and water cannon to break up an illegal rally by ethnic Indians demanding racial equality ahead of general elections. Julia Zappei of Associated Press wrote: “Barricades were set up along main roads leading to Parliament but more than 200 people managed to gather nearby Saturday shouting “Long Live Hindraf” and “We want our rights.” Police sprayed water and fired tear gas after the crowd ignored warnings to disperse. At least 20 people, including a Hindraf leader S. Manikavasagam, were detained Saturday, said a police official, who declined to be named citing protocol. More than 60 people – including two leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, that organized the protest — were detained in a police crackdown since late Friday, said lawyer N. Surendran, a Hindraf member. The group planned to hand roses and a protest note to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, but police banned the rally citing national security. [Source: Julia Zappei, AP, February 15, 2008]

It was the first public gathering by the group since police used tear gas and water cannon to crush a Nov. 25 demonstration by at least 20,000 Indians in Kuala Lumpur. he rally came ahead of general elections on March 8. Surendran said at least 40 others were arrested. “This is ridiculous ... We just want to express our right to freely assemble,” Surendran told The Associated Press. “This is a massive campaign of intimidation.”

In August 2009, ethnic Indian Malaysians rallied to defend a 150-year-old village of cowherds in Penang from being razed to build condominiums. Associated Press reported: “The fate of Buah Pala Village in northern Penang state has become a headache for Malaysia's opposition alliance, which took control of Penang but is unable to reverse the previous administration's 2005 sale of the land to a cooperative. The razing could jeopardise ethnic Indian support for the opposition, which has made major political progress recently following minorities' complaints of racial discrimination by the ethnic Malay-dominated federal ruling coalition. The village of some 300 has immense cultural value for ethnic Indians because it is their oldest remaining settlement in Penang. Malaysia's top court ruled in June that the villagers must vacate the land without compensation. Villagers say officials should have consulted them before selling the land where their families have lived since the 1850s. When the deadline for them to leave expired scores of supporters thronged to the village in hopes of delaying any demolition, said Anil Netto, a Penang-based political blogger. [Source: Associated Press, August 3 2009]

Arrests and Crackdowns After the November 2007 Rally

The November 2007 protests were organized by the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf. Five of the group's top leaders were jailed under a strict security act that allows for indefinite detention without trial. Its chairman, P. Waytha Moorthy, fled the country and now lives in exile in London.

The five Hindraf leaders were arrested in December 2007 under the Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite imprisonment without trial. Newspapers gave wide coverage to the court hearings of 31 Indians charged with attempted murder for a head injury sustained by a policeman during the demonstration. The Indians were denied bail.

In May 2009, Malaysia's government rleased 13 people—including three ethnic Indian activists who organised the huge anti-government demonstration in November 2007—imprisoned without trial under a tough security law. Associated Press reported: “ The three men have been held since December 2007 under the Internal Security Act, which allows the indefinite detention without trial of people considered to be threats to national security. The announcement comes more than a month after new Prime Minister Najib Razak released 13 other detainees. [Source: AP, May 8, 2009]

Malaysia Bans Ethnic Indian Group That Organized the November 2007 Protest

In October 2008, Malaysia banned Hindraf, the ethnic Indian activist group that organized the November 2007 rally, saying it incited racial hatred while the group's leaders said they are only demanding equal rights for minorities. Associated Press reported: “Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar issued the ban order, saying Hindraf was an "extremist group" and "detrimental to public order and security." Hindraf "is clearly using religion as a tool to create disharmony between religions and between races," Syed Hamid told reporters at a news conference. [Source: Associated Press, October 16 2008]

Hindraf had applied last year to become a legally sanctioned group. But the ban, effective immediately, means it no longer has any hope of receiving legal status. Anyone who joins activities associated with the group can be prosecuted and faces up to five years in prison, said N. Surendran, a lawyer who frequently represents Hindraf supporters. "It's a way to criminalize Hindraf... with the aim to stamp out the movement," Surendran said. Syed Hamid said the ban was not a "political move" and defended the order as necessary for public security. "If Hindraf activities are not stopped, public safety and harmony of Malaysia's multiracial society will be put at risk," he said.

In an emailed statement Moorthy said the group would continue fighting for the "downtrodden Malaysian Indians who have been systematically marginalized, suppressed and oppressed." The country's ethnic Indian's will not "wither away with this illegal declaration," Moorthy said. R. Shan, another Hindraf leader in New York, called the ban "a flagrant violation (of) basic human rights" and warned the government "can no longer carry on bullying the minority" Indians.

Hindraf's complaints about discrimination are echoed by many ethnic Chinese as well as academics and intellectuals. But the government, despite its heavy losses in the elections, denies there is widespread disenchantment. Syed Hamid dismissed suggestions that the ban, coming just weeks before the important Hindu festival of Diwali on Oct. 27, will further alienate ethnic Indians. "Hindraf doesn't represent the Indians and doesn't have many supporters," he claimed even though most Indians voted against the government.

In March 2011, Eleven ethnic Indian activists were charged with being members of Hindraf . Associated Press reported: “The charges are an apparent attempt to thwart what authorities consider a threat to multiracial stability in the ethnic Malay Muslim-majority nation. The 11 men pleaded innocent to charges of being members of the Hindu Rights Action Force, said lawyer P. Uthayakumar. They face up to three years in prison if convicted. [Source: Associated Press, March 2, 2011]

Activists associated with the group organized protests in the past month but attracted only a few hundred people. Those charged were involved in protests over the years, but now consider themselves part of a newer group with a different name, Uthayakumar said. “How can a human rights organization be a security threat?” he said. “We are fighting against discrimination.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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