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Ending racism needs united front

Minorities must fight for an end to discrimination for all marginalized people

  • Joachim Francis Xavier, Kuala Lumpur
  • Malaysia
  • March 21, 2012
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In conjunction with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on March 21, the chairperson of HINDRAF (Hindu Rights Action Force) is leading a delegation to submit an anti-discrimination memorandum to Ban Ki Moon during the UN Secretary General’s visit to Malaysia.

The memo highlights among other things discrimination faced by the Indian community in Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957. It paints a dire picture for the future of the Indian community, which currently makes up 7.7 percent of the Malaysian population.

But is the situation in Malaysia so critical that it warrants foreign intervention, or is this something that the Indian community itself should begin to do something about?

No Indian Malaysian would argue with a clear conscience that there is no race-based discrimination in the country. Discrimination against the Indian community is probably most apparent in three main areas – opportunities in civil service, development programmes and education.

It was revealed in Parliament that as of September 2009, Indians made up 4.1 percent of the total civil service work force, a drop from 5.12 percent in 2005 and 17.4 percent in 1971.

In so far as government-initiated development projects are concerned, there is an abundance of them, most of which are geared towards poverty eradication, but they almost exclusively benefit the majority Malay community.

Education is no doubt an important leverage for eradicating poverty, but governmental budget allocations appear to be color-coded.

Tamil schools are only partially aided, resulting in an almost crumbling system that looks as old as it really is. This is in contrast to annual governmental budget allocations that have resulted in over 42 fully residential elite schools costing at an estimated RM100 million each. These are reserved almost exclusively for Malay students.

Compare this to the recent announcement by Prime Minister Najib Razak that the government had since 2009 made one-off allocations of RM440 million “in aid of” over 400 Tamil schools throughout the country.

Entrance into public universities is also a lot harder for Indians. According to Malaysian Nanban, a popular Tamil daily, only 2.6 percent of seats available in public universities were given to Indians for the 2011/12 academic year.

The political party that claims to be the custodian of the interests of the Indian community, the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC),  is a member of the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (National Front). MIC has over the years trumpeted its efforts to improve the Indian lot. However, the results are simply telling of its efficacy, or rather the lack of it. Not surprisingly the party was almost wiped out in the 2008 general elections.

Numerous reports and studies concerning the plight of the Indian community have been compiled and published by political parties, civil society and academics from as far back as the 1960s. Task forces have been enthusiastically formed and lavishly funded. All these reports, studies and findings say more or less what every Indian Malaysian already knows – things are looking bleak for them. But has the government taken real notice?

If nothing got the government’s attention, a rally organized in November 2007 by HINDRAF certainly did, at least for a while. The rally saw over 50,000 angry Indians taking to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, demanding that they be reckoned with. The rally turned violent and the police put it down with brutal force. Five HINDRAF leaders were arrested and placed under the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), denying them the right to a free and fair trial.

Being a 4th generation Indian Malaysian myself, I have always wondered why the Indian community has been left on the backburners.

Some have argued that because we lack the numbers, we do not possess the economies of scale to pull ourselves out of the doldrums or to ward off discrimination. I find this hard to accept.

The mere fact that a community is a minority does not seem to sufficiently explain why it is left behind. Chinese Malaysians, making up 26 percent of the total population, also face the same discrimination – in development, educational or civil service opportunities. Yet no one will dispute that the Chinese community is the most progressive and wealthy in the country. They are clearly ahead of the rest in economic and educational achievements.

At the risk of sounding unsophisticated, could it be both the collective attitude of the community and individual attitudes of its constituent members that form the cornerstone for the success or failure of that community?

I am also convinced that part of the reason why the Indian community has failed to progress has to do with our lack of unity. There are currently at least six political parties and countless NGOs claiming they are fighting for the rights of the Indian community but are actually fighting amongst themselves.

If the points on attitude and unity are to be accepted, then I am of the view that the Indian community should stop looking outside for solutions. Enough whining, complaining and blaming for our troubles, and certainly enough of begging for handouts or for interventions, especially a foreign one.

Each Indian Malaysian needs to take a good look at himself and ask what attitudes he can change to better himself. As an Indian myself, I shall ask how much longer I will continue to wait for that elusive scholarship, loan, contract, pubic university seat or low-cost housing.

It would be far better if I took stock of whatever resources I have access to in me and around me, channel that to a worthy goal with a determined dose of sheer hard work, while at the same time doing all that I possibly can to capitalize on a globalized world brimming with information. Wouldn’t that make something out of me and my community? At the very least, it sure beats complaining.

Next, its time the Indian community starts to think as Malaysians. Malaysia has changed. We need to shatter the racial lenses through which we view poverty and begin to see that there are also in our midst poor Malays, poor Chinese and poor indigenous people. Instead of rallying as Indians fighting for Indians, would not our country be far more beautiful if we rallied passionately for all poor and marginalized Malaysians?

An ethnic-centered struggle not only bolsters the outdated idea of race-based politics, but also surreptitiously draws us into the narrow and egocentric world view of “we versus them,” thereby sowing the seeds of division that the next generation would unfortunately but surely reap.

The effort of HINDRAF in raising international awareness is commendable and praiseworthy. However, it is time that the leaders of HINDRAF and other similar outfits wake up and recognize a new Malaysia emerging.

No longer will the generation of today wait for improvement to be made for them by others, let alone by foreigners. The generation of today will boldly take things into their hands and carve out a future for themselves, and they will do this first and foremost as Malaysians.

Joachim Francis Xavier is a legally trained social activist who has served the Catholic Diocese of Penang for over 10 years. He is now chairperson of the Malaysian bishops’ Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants.
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