Wednesday, 14 November 2007

The Neglected Indian Minority

by Michael Backman

Religious insensitivity deepens an ethnic divide in long-neglected Indian minority.

ETHNIC rivalry in Malaysia is usually portrayed as rivalry between the majority Malay population and the large Chinese minority. But sandwiched between the two are Malaysia's 2 million Indians. They make up about 8 per cent of the population, but according to some estimates account for only about 2 per cent of the nation's corporate wealth. The disparity is leading to rising tensions from a group that the authorities take for granted.

The Indian community is split into Muslims and Hindus. The Muslims, known as the "Mamak", blend in more easily with the dominant Malays — both groups being Muslim means intermarriage is not uncommon. The Hindus are far more marginalised. Politically weak, they are largely ignored by the Government.

Many are poor. But despite this, as non-Malays and non-Muslims, they do not qualify for Bumiputera status, which gives Malays preferred access to university places, government share distributions and other privileges. Some of the poorest work as rubber tappers. In the northern state of Kedah, the poverty and physical condition of the rubber tappers is unbelievable, particularly as Malaysia is not a poor country.

Malaysia's Indians are among those that suffer the greatest displacement from the million or more legal and illegal Indonesian migrants in Malaysia. Sporadic ethnic unrest now breaks out between the Indians and Indonesians.

Growing resentment also derives from the demolition of Hindu temples by state governments. Dozens have been destroyed in the past few years. The authorities who enforce the demolition orders are invariably Malay and Muslim, giving the demolitions unfortunate overtones of religious rivalry. Sometimes the idols are smashed before worshippers can remove them, action which is insensitive at best and a deliberate provocation at worst.

In another perceived slight, the most important Indian festival, Deepavali, falls tomorrow during the week-long annual general assembly of the ruling United Malay National Organisation, which is not pausing for Deepavali even though the festival is a public holiday.

Many better educated Indians are migrating. Those who stay are becoming more strident politically.

On August 12, about 2000 Malaysian Indians protested outside the prime minister's office to demand better treatment. The protest might have been bigger but organisers claim police blocked up to 15 buses carrying Indians on the basis that the bus drivers did not have valid driving licences.

On August 30, activists filed a class action in London against the British Government for bringing indentured labourers from India during the colonial era and failing to "protect" them thereafter including during the 50 years since Malaysia's independence. The suit will go nowhere but it is an attempt to embarrass the Malaysian Government internationally and force it to better look after the Indian minority. A petition with what activists claim will have 100,000 signatures will be presented to the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur on November 25 in support of the legal action.

But what of the Indians' political leaders?

Critics claim Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) leader and Public Works Minister Samy Vellu runs the congress almost along feudal lines.

He was the subject of a major scandal in the 1990s when the government allocated 10 million shares in Malaysia's national phone company to Maika, an Indian co-operative company the MIC set up. Maika accepted one million shares. The rest were given to three companies which Vellu described as MIC-linked, but which his critics said were linked to his relatives. The three companies made millions of dollars in capital gains on the shares. Meanwhile, Maika became almost insolvent.

When asked why he didn't sack Vellu from his cabinet given this and other scandals, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said he had no control over the MIC and that he was obliged to have the MIC leader in the cabinet. To be fair, Mahathir once said Vellu had an appalling job, given the politics in the Indian community. But essentially, Vellu is part of the wider malaise of political leadership in Malaysia.

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