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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2609

Malaysia’s Ethnic Indians Want Justice

By Atul-Rama - Syndicate Features

Malaysia is often referred to as one of the Asian ‘tigers’, a prosperous, democratic and moderate Islamic nation in South-east Asia. But lately that image has looked more hyped than real even though the US-influenced West finds it inconvenient to accept the changing realities. There have been protests by a former deputy prime minister and opposition parties to demand ‘free and fair’ polls in Malaysia but the chant hardly reached Washington or London.

The ethnic Chinese have often been at the receiving end of Malay violence. After a particularly nasty spell of harassment of Chinese tourists, especially women, relations between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing had reached a stage that it required a visit by a Malaysian minister to the Chinese capital to calm down the angry Chinese.

The treatment of Indians is no better. About a year ago, a group of Indian IT professionals who had gone to Malaysia on valid documents were rounded up without any apparent provocation. Such cases of harassment might not have been isolated.

The ethnic Indians are now expressing their anger by coming on to the streets. The Indians constitute about 8 percent of the population and after the Chinese are the third largest group in Malaysia, which like India, was once a British colony in the east. The late November demonstration by the Malaysian Indians in Kuala Lumpur was one of the largest by them. The authorities had declared the demonstration illegal because they said it would inflame ‘racial tensions’. And the police dispersed the marchers with teargas shells and baton charge, leaving some of them injured.

Waytha Moorthy Ponnuswamy, chairman of the Hindu Rights Action Group and two others who had organised the march were arrested and charged with making ‘seditious’ comments that could get them a three-year jail sentence.

The ostensible reason for the march was to hand over to the British High Commissioner a petition to demand a $4 trillion damage for sending the forefathers of the two million ethnic Indians to the Malay peninsula over a century back as indentured labour. The real reason, as everyone seemed to believe, was to highlight the fact that the Indian minority is seriously discriminated against in Malaysia as a result of which the community lags behind in education and faces shrinking job opportunities.

The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), which is a part of the ruling coalition, has distanced itself from the agitation. MIC leader and Federal Minister for Works, Sammy Vellu, said neither the government nor his party supported the demonstration. ‘The MIC has been working within the system and it has proven to be successful,’ he said. Being a part of the ruling dispensation he cannot be expected to support the agitation.

But going by events of the past few years, it would appear that Malaysia is no longer the tolerant and liberal society that it once was. Islamisation is creeping slowly but surely. Ethnic Malays (about 60 % of population) are in a mood to assert their religious identity. The demand for declaring Malaysia an Islamic state and governed by Sharia is the official agenda of Pas, a group that broke off from the ruling United Malay Nationalist Organisation.

The trend towards Islamisation began in the 1980s and 1990s when both the ruling and opposition parties found it expedient to establish their Islamic credentials to win power. As prime minister, Malaysia’s most famous politician of recent years, Mohatir Mohammed guided policies to establish a new identity for the nation by stressing its Islamic character and forging new links with the wider Muslim world. These polices, while establishing the Islamic pre-eminence of the nation, bred a xenophobia which was unknown to Malaysia.

The authorities saw nothing wrong in the development. For example a member of the ruling party did not invite even a gentle reprimand after he had used choicest racial epithets while calling for the decimation of the ethnic Indians. The affirmative policies of Malaysia have propelled the ethnic Malays into a position of privilege in education and government jobs at the cost of Indian Malays. The justification for this reversal of fortunes is that the ethnic Malaysians deserved preference over ‘aliens’ if they have to jump up the ladder.

Frankly, the movement did not stop at getting preferential treatment in the job market or institutions of higher learning. Some of the official diktats derive their strength from the wishes of the orthodox. Owning dogs is banned or restricted in some of the Malaysian territories because the majority population thinks dogs are unclean. At their annual parade all women constables have to wear a headscarf.

There are doubts among the minorities about fair judicial hearing as disputes with the majority community are decided in an Islamic court. The demands that such matters be referred to a ‘neutral’ court have been turned down.

Recently when a famous mountaineer of Malaysia, M. Moorthy, died his wife’s claim to the body for performing the last rights was rejected on the ground that he had ‘secretly’ converted to Islam. The civil courts refused to interfere saying they had no jurisdiction over a religious matter. Last summer, religious minorities who felt they were being treated as ‘aliens’ had called a meeting in support of their demand. It was broken up by a hostile mob. Two ancient temples, one 107-year old and the other equally old standing at a site just a few kilometres out of Kuala Lumpur, were pulled down by the authorities because no permission had been given for building them. Another temple belonging to a cult was also razed to the ground.

The authorities find it easy to selectively target religious places for unauthorised construction. But the ground looks suspicious because these are buildings that pre-date land records. The minorities, however, point out that mosques illegally built without permission are not touched. In many cases the local authorities provide generous assistance for their construction with money and material.

The ethnic Indian Malays expect the soft-spoken Prime Minister Abdul Ahmed Badawi to arrest rapid slide towards radicalisation because Malaysia’s future lies in remaining a multi-cultural and tolerant society. He must restore the fine balance between majority and minority communities and deal with the right wing ethno nationalism before things go out of control.

- Syndicate Features -

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