“Sadly, I see myself as an Indian.” This is what Naren, a Malaysian Indian, said when I asked him if he saw himself primarily as a Malaysian or an Indian.
Indians have been living in Malaysia since the 11th Century. The majority of Indians in Malaysia, though, migrated there during the British colonization of Malaya mostly as plantation workers, and also as traders, policemen and sepoys. Today they comprise about 8 percent of Malaysia’s population (Wikipedia makes everything nice and concise, doesn’t it?).
Naren’s reply is not unfounded. State-sponsored racial discrimination is rampant in Malaysia. Your race decides almost everything, including the opportunities you get for education and the careers you can choose. For example, educational loans provided by the government have to be returned with interest by Indian and Chinese students. Malay students have to return only 10 percent of the loan amount. Politics and government service are unthinkable careers for most Indians. Naren does not believe he will see an Indian Prime Minister in Malaysia in his lifetime. Tamil schools receive far less funds than they need. It is common knowledge that the press is controlled, making any awareness difficult.
“I wish I belonged somewhere else,” says Punnya, who makes valuable contributions to her country but still feels highly oppressed. Coming from India, a country that gives extra importance to minorities, it seems very natural to me that a community that has been residing in a country for several generations, that has made this country its home, that has added to its rich heritage and that continues to contribute to its growth, must receive equal treatment from the government and must, at the very least, have the freedom to voice grievances fearlessly.
The New Economic Policy or NEP is usually blamed for the sad state of affairs. It is based on the per capita income of the three dominant races. By this measure, the Chinese are the richest, followed by the Indians and then the Malays. However, such data, as this article shows, can be misleading. There is no telling what the intentions behind such policies might have been, but they have resulted in a large number of Indian and Chinese poor not receiving any benefits purely due to their race.
Most of the people I talked to would not, given a choice, shift to India. The most frequently cited objections were corruption and overpopulation (About this, Ashish, an expat who works at a restaurant, commented, “What do they know?” I find myself agreeing). These are people who would like to be called just Malaysian and who see Malaysia as their own country. But they have been relegated to the status of second-class citizens simply because they are not “bumiputras” or sons of the soil. Remarkably, they have few problems with the bumiputras (Malays) themselves. The communal harmony is as near to perfect as one can expect. Their main complaints are against the government. You know there is serious discontent when people start talking about discrimination even before you ask them about it. Some have pinned all their hopes on the next elections. There have also been protests, reportedly peaceful, that were efficiently crushed. Others believe it is best to sing along to survive. “There is nothing anyone can do about this country. It would be a waste of time. People have tried and failed,” Punnya says. I asked her if the situation was in any way comparable to apartheid. “You made me think,” she said. I never did get my answer, but I find it very disturbing that she did not say no.
No democracy is perfect. But a government that calls itself democratic before the world, in the face of such seething discontent, is expected to do more than just acknowledge that something needs to be done for the Indians.
(All names in this article have been changed on request. People cited faraway prisons and mysterious disappearances as reasons for this secrecy, all reportedly managed by the state.)
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