Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Population

RIGHTS-MALAYSIA: Ethnic Indians Demand Fair Share of Prosperity

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 17 2005 (IPS) - More then 150 years after arriving here to work British-owned rubber plantations, Malaysia’s minority Indian community is drifting aimlessly and with little to call their own in their adopted land.

Once again the plight of this minority community is being hotly debated and once again there is deep division over what the causes are and what the remedies might be.

The travel and tourism lines of a Malaysia that is ‘Truly Asia’ are just that-intended to project the image of a contented, plural society living in prosperity while the reality is that there is simmering resentment particularly among Indians of Tamil origin.

After 150 years of labouring in rubber and oil palm plantations and in the Public Work Department (PWD) building every kind of infra-structure, Malaysian Indians, own less then 2% of the national wealth, economists told a public forum on the future of Malaysian Indians last week.

Psychologically, Malaysian Indians, who form about 8 percent of the population of 25 million people-the third largest group after native Malays who form the majority and immigrant Chinese – have yet to discover their inherent talents or find adequate expression for their culture or assert their selfhood.

In 2004, minority Indians accounted for a disproportionate 15 percent of juvenile delinquents, committed 40 percent of all violent crime and made up nearly 50 percent of all convicts in prisons -presenting the typical profile of a helpless underclass.

Malays constitute nearly 60 percent of the population, while the economically dominant ethnic Chinese who control business make up a quarter. The rest are mainly smaller indigenous groups.

”We arrived here with a few cooking pots and pans and three or four generations later most of us are still no better off,” said A. V. Kathiah, a former trade unionist. ”Some Indians don’t even have thatàthey have become beggars.”

”We are marginalised and forgotten not just by the state but also by our own Indian leaders,” he told IPS. ”We have no say on how policies are formulated and our future is really bleak.”

These arguments are familiar and have been heard, argued and written about for many decades.

Despite the grievances some Indians have done well and have on their own footing, clambered up the education ladder out of poverty and today count as successful doctors, engineers and accountants and even businessmen.

But experts say the majority of the Malaysian Indians are trapped in a life of quiet desperation.

Last week, the government’s top economic planner gave a briefing to 500 Indian intellectuals arguing how the government takes the future of Indians into consideration when formulating policies.

He asked for a show of hands of people who are happy with the measures taken by the government. ”Not one of us raised our hands,” said a university lecturer who attended the briefing.

Mustapha Mohamad, who heads the government’s Economic Planning Unit then asked who was not satisfied. ”All of us put our hands up,” the lecturer told IPS. ”We told him in no uncertain terms that government has done little or nothing.”

The problem however is not just official neglect, experts say. While the Malay-dominated government openly favours native Malays and actively helps them get a head start in everyway possible way-scholarships, business loans, employment, industrial training-the same government has refused minority Indian demands for an affirmative action policy that would give them a helping hand.

”We’re not asking for handouts,” said Denison Jayasooria, executive director of the Social Strategic Foundation, a private think tank for ethnic Indian concerns.

”There are government policies in place to help Indians, but implementation has been weak,” Jayasooria said recently. ”If this is not addressed, there will be a lot of discontent.”

Government authorities should recruit more Indians in the civil sector, ensure more places for them in public universities and increase business loans for Indians, he said

Outside an affirmative policy, the government has helped through a quota system under which Indians get 5 to 10 percent of university places and scholarship and some minimal employment in the civil service.

A small elite within the community has used these resources to climb out of poverty but for most there are no such doors to escape.

Some experts also blame the deep division within the community along caste, class and ethnic lines. These are historical factors created by British colonialism that artificially created a structured Indian community with better off, upper caste Malayalees (from Kerala) and Jaffna Tamils at the top and lower caste Tamils, who form about 80 percent of the community, at the bottom.

While the Malayalees and Jaffna Tamils benefited from the close proximity to the British masters and exploited the modernising economy to accumulate wealth and advance economically, the Tamil labouring masses remained trapped in rubber plantations living a miserable existence enclosed by a green jungle impenetrable to any modern influence.

Also, like the Chinese who maintained or built new networks on the mainland, the Malayalees and Jaffna Tamils had networks to fall back on in their native lands and had options to move back or move on to other climes.

In contrast, the Tamil labourers had turned their backs on the villages in India, they came from, and the ignorance and apathy born out of poverty in the plantations resulted in many of them not getting citizenship even in Malaysia. This prevented them from getting jobs or accessing benefits.

The plantation Tamils suffered a major blow when rubber and oil palm plantations were converted to golf ranges, housing and new township as the country experienced an economic boom in the 1990s.

Many Tamils were uprooted and ended up as unskilled workers living in urban slums, an ideal breeding ground for crime, drug and gangsterism.

”But those who move to urban centres sometimes have it worse, finding themselves in squalid, crime-ridden settlements and working as low-paid labourers because they lacked sufficient education and skills,” said social activist S. Arulchelvam.

The arrival of several million foreign workers made Tamil labour irrelevant to the economy further marginalizing the community and pushing some of its youths to a life of crime.

Unlike other Indian ethnic groups, the Tamils could not fully exploit education as an escape tool. Tamil schools were neglected not only by the state but also by the community itself. Until lately education did not figure highly in the Tamil labourer’s scheme of things.

The Tamil-dominated Malaysian Indian Congress or MIC did try various schemes to give the Tamil masses a stake in the economy-from forming cooperatives to setting up a solely Indian-owned corporation. These schemes failed not just because of bad management but also due to pilfering by the very people entrusted with the hard earned cash.

The MIC political leadership and vision is also stagnant, feudal and lacking in clout. Although a partner in government, the MIC, led by Samy Vellu, since 1979, it has not been able to pressure the government into improving the fortunes of the Tamil masses.

”He (Samy Vellu) runs the party like a feudal zamindar and makes all the decisions and hangs on to power and will probably die in office,” said an academic.

Being a minority, the Indians lack the numerical strength to either exert any political influence or make a significant contribution to the national economy.

The plight of the Tamil masses stems first from their own apathy and by the effects of systematic exploitation by colonial capital and, now, neglect by independent Malaysia.

Despite dozens of seminars and scores of learned papers neither the community’s leaders nor the MIC have come up with a systemic plan that the government might use to help the Tamil masses, leaving them rudderless and adrift.

The neglect has given rise to a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction and anger in the community-an anger that calls for urgent attention.

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