The Indian communities in Peninsular Malaysia originated in colonial times, in which they were able to establish themselves socio-economically and become active participant’s in the region’s productivity. However, since Malaysian independence, the Indian community had been suffering from institutionalized discrimination, social segregation, and even violence. As the years pass, Malaysia is becoming more and more hostile towards its Indian population. Many Malaysians hoped that the 2018 general election would change these realities, especially after UMNO – the political party ruling the country throughout its history – lost. Yet, newly re-elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad not only kept discriminatory laws but added new ones.
In 1969, racial tensions erupted in a series of violent countrywide riots in which indigenous Malaysians (Malays) targeted the Indian and Chinese communities, culminating with the deaths of hundreds and suspending the government for two years. In the aftermath, the Malaysian government initiated the New Economic Plan (NEP), which institutionalized affirmative action measures that give Muslim Malays easier access to housing, jobs, medical care, and education. The NEP was intended to minimize the socio-economic gap between the Indian community – characterized at the time as more educated, employed and urban – and the Muslim Malays who were more rural. In practice, the NEP suspended the participation of non-Malays in the economy and prevented newcomers from enjoying upward social mobility.
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 Indians 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.”
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
Despite the country’s veneer of racial harmony and opportunity for all, many in the Indian community have limited access to housing, education and jobs. About 54% of Malaysian Indians work on plantations or as urban laborers, and their wages have not kept up with the times. Nearly half of the 2.6 million Indians in Malaysia are at the bottom of the income ladder, according to Yayasan Pemulihan Social (YPS). Professor KS Nathan of the National University of Malaysia said that urban poverty, inequality, undocumented Indians, and a lack of educational opportunities are among the issues that require serious attention. “Problems arise due to the lack of opportunities, access, recognition and self-esteem,” he said.
Indians lag behind other ethnic groups by almost all measures. Though they form just 7% of the total population, they account for 63% of those arrested under the Emergency Ordinance for violent crimes. They also constitute 41% of beggars and 20% of child abusers. Indians rank lowest in national elementary-school examinations; about one in every 12 Indian children does not even attend primary school. Indians, says political scientist P Ramasamy, have become “the new underclass.”
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Even though the Malaysian constitution states that each person is free to practice the faith of their choosing, the government actively attacks non-Islamic expressions. Over the past few years, Malaysian authorities demolished hundreds of Hindu temples – some of which existed before Malaysian independence. According to Associated Press, a 15-month old child was confiscated from a Muslim who converted to Hinduism. The mother was imprisoned in a religious rehabilitation center for people who “transgressed” against Islam. Malaysia’s rising Islamization has instilled xenophobia in the population, dividing the country along religious lines, resulting in clashes such as the 2001 Kampung Medan riots, as well as protests over racial discrimination and temple demolitions during the 2007 HINDRAF rally. During a protest against the relocation of a Hindu temple to a Muslim-majority neighborhood, around 50 Malays stomped on a cow’s head.
This state of affairs is not going to change, despite promises made by politicians, namely Mahathir. As part of his campaign for re-election and due to constituencies’ pressure, Mahathir pledged to ratify a UN convention against racial discrimination following a backlash from groups who argued that it would dilute privileges Malays have enjoyed for decades, but he reversed his pledge after the election. Malaysia’s Indian community is not stupid. Many realized long ago that they are not welcome in Malaysia and even if they were, they face extreme difficulties in their daily lives, not to mention upward social mobility. For these reasons, nearly half of university graduates emigrate. Mahathir finds various ways to expel the Malaysian Indian community from Malaysia, despite being in the region before Malaysia.