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The continued marginalization of Malaysian Indians

Indians are among the country’s poorest and lack a strong, widely accepted community leader
Hindu devotees with their backs pierced with hooks as they walk towards the Batu Caves temple to make offerings during the Thaipusam festival in Batu Caves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 7, 2020. The Hindu festival is celebrated by some two million ethnic Indians in Malaysia and Singapore.

Hindu devotees with their backs pierced with hooks walk towards the Batu Caves temple to make offerings during the Thaipusam festival in Batu Caves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 7, 2020. The Hindu festival is celebrated by some two million ethnic Indians in Malaysia and Singapore. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 27, 2024 11:18 AM GMT
Updated: May 27, 2024 11:36 AM GMT

In the run-up to the 2022 general election, ethnic Indians in Malaysia looked to Anwar Ibrahim as the leader who would do what their own community leaders had failed to do — create a robust, structured national plan for their development.

They had pinned their hopes on Anwar, who danced to Tamil songs and rattled a few words in their native tongue during his public rallies. According to political analyst Bridget Welsh, this is why Anwar’s coalition got almost 83 percent of Indian votes. These votes were crucial in seats where ethnic Indians were the tiebreakers.

But more than a year later, their hopes have been dashed.

At a college question-and-answer session last August, an ethnic Indian student asked him when the racial quota system for university entrance would be abolished and meritocracy be instituted. Anwar’s response came across as harsh. He was criticized for it. And it was not just the Indians who were livid.

It then dawned on his supporters, mainly non-Malays, that the special preference for Malays or Bumiputera, which in Malay means son of the soil, would continue to dictate his government decisions, just as it had been with the previous administrations.

Then there was the use of the derogatory term for Indians keling by Anwar, and his telling Indians not to be “angry and jealous” of the government programs for Malays when asked about his plans to uplift Indians as promised.

Indian politicians used all these as fodder to sow discontent in the run-up to a May 11 by-election in Kuala Kubu Baharu, claiming Anwar had rescinded his promises and vision of a multiracial Malaysia.

The by-election was for the Selangor state legislative seat and the outcome was inconsequential regarding state government selection. It did not matter who won, but the Indian vote was crucial to give Anwar’s coalition candidate a win against the conservative Muslim candidate.

The aggressive social media campaigns and fiery statements by present and former Indian politicians who had once supported Anwar, gave the impression that this little by-election would trigger a political tsunami.

Indians in the Kuala Kubu Baharu constituency were told to either abstain or vote for the opposition as a sign of protest. For a moment, Anwar’s government no longer had the unwavering support of the Indians, and his candidate would lose.

That did not happen. The Indians decided to vote against the Muslim candidate and one of the reasons was not to allow the conservatives to gain political ground.

Now that the by-election is over, Indian issues have returned to the backburner.

Ten years earlier, the bulk of Indian support went to the National Front (Barisan Nasional in Malay), which helped the coalition stay in power for 60 years until 2018.

One of the reasons for the shift in Indian support was the surfacing of alleged corruption cases since the 1990s that were linked to the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), which was part of the National Front.

MIC leaders were de facto community leaders who steered the community effectively from the grassroots level.

The mother of all MIC scandals involved Maika Holdings, a special-purpose vehicle set up in 1983 by the party to use funds from Indians for investment purposes. Within a year, it collected about RM106 million (US$46 million in 1984), and overnight, it became one of the wealthiest companies in the country.

There were more than 66,000 investors, of which 70 percent were low-wage earners. This investment scheme was touted as the plan to elevate the socioeconomic standing of the Indians and reduce poverty and a response to the government's sidelining of the community.

Things went south when the profits from Maika were allegedly channeled elsewhere. The government did not investigate this scandal or compel MIC to compensate the thousands of investors, leaving many disappointed and frustrated.

Adding to this were claims that government allocations for Indians either did not reach them or did so only partially. The government distanced itself from these claims, which infuriated the community further.

Most Indians in Malaysia are descendants of Tamils who left their native country to serve as labor for the British administration, which needed them to build the infrastructure in then-Malaya. Many remain trapped in generational poverty with little opportunity for elevation and live in shanty towns and plantations.

However, there is a small group of professionals and businesspeople, made up of Tamils and other Indian groups, who are independent of government support.

In 2007, came the now-defunct Hindu Rights Action Force or Hindraf, the coalition of Indian NGOs, that came together to oppose the demolition of Hindu temples in Kuala Lumpur. It later took on bigger community issues like socioeconomic inequality and discrimination.

They organized a mega rally in Kuala Lumpur, which brought thousands of Indians to the streets and was the first of the mega rallies. The government used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the protesters and arrested and charged hundreds of them.

This rare collective display of anger and frustration from Indians triggered a string of other mega rallies in the next 11 years when Malaysians of all ethnic groups took to the streets.

From the time of the Hindraf rally to the fall of the Barisan Nasional government in 2018 and thereafter, there have been specific government initiatives to address issues affecting Indians. But these too were riddled with allegations of abuse.

A workable national plan to address socio-economic disparities, promote educational and employment opportunities, and empower Indian entrepreneurs remained absent.

Indians are the third largest ethnic group after Malays and Chinese. In the 1980s, they made up more than 10 percent of the population. Last year’s figures show that they are now at 6.6 percent.

Of the 1.3 million households that earn less than RM3,000 (US$640) a month, Indian households make up 7.4 percent. Ethnic income inequality has improved over the years, and fewer Indians live in poverty or abject poverty.

However, Indians do not have much political power, and they do not form a solid consumer base. They have one thing going for them: their votes are crucial in many seats.

The problem is that they have never had a strong and widely accepted community leader who can use this as a bargaining tool.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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