Indians in Malaysia: An Alienated Community

One of the largest overseas Indian community in the world, Indian Malaysians, have not quite fit in.

It’s late Saturday afternoon in Kuala Lumpur. In an upmarket suburban condo, two Indian couples are huddled before a television set watching a Bollywood film. There are drinks, plenty of Indian snacks to go around, and a great deal of bonhomie.

If there is something off key here, it is that while one couple is Indian, the other is mixed. Nishant Upadhyay, 30, an instructional designer, is married to his compatriot Vinita Upadhyay, 32, while Amit Mishra (name altered to protect identity), 27, an IT professional, is with his live-in Malaysian Chinese girlfriend, Sharon Hu, 25 (name altered). Meet the new face of the Indian Diaspora in Malaysia.

But there is another face of Malaysian Indians, far away from this affluent life. Their ancestors came several generations ago from southern India. They toil for a pittance in Malaysia’s rubber plantations, just as their ancestors did.

Together – the new and the old – they comprise Malaysia’s 1.8 million Indian population, representing almost 8 percent of the total of 22 million. Until it was displaced by Indian Americans a few years ago, it is the largest Indian community in the world. Nearly 90 percent of Malaysian Indians are of South Indian origin, principally Tamilians, Malayalis and Telugus.

Today, the Indian community in Malaysia, once largely a community of plantation workers, has become diversified with a sprinkling of entrepreneurs, intellectuals and technical professionals. Though the vast majority of Indians in Malaysia still lag behind Malays and Chinese in socio-economic terms, the new immigrants are slowly affecting change. The new Indian immigrants, (mostly technology professionals, and the strides made by the tiny Malaysian Indian middle class have given Indians in Malaysia a facelift.

Malaysian Hindu devotees walk with their body pierced to the Batu caves  temple during the Thaipusam festival in Kuala Lumpur. Devotees subject themselves to painful rituals in a demonstartion of faith and penace

But perceptions toward Indians have not changed dramatically. Malaysia’s survey of race relations, released in March last year, paints an unflattering, stereotypical image of Indians in Malaysia. Mantras like “the Malays are lazy, the Chinese are greedy and the Indians are cheats” are still a part of Malaysian lore.

The reasons for the socio-economic backwardness of Indians in Malaysia can be traced to their immigration history.

Migratory birds

The migration of Indians, mainly Tamils and Telugus, to Malaysia started in the second half of the 19th century, primarily as indentured laborers, who were brought by the British to work on plantations, roads, railway lines and ports.

The second wave of Indians came as auxiliaries, mostly from North India, as part of the police force and security services. About the same time also came Indians from Kerala and Sri Lankan Tamils from Jaffna to work as clerks and subordinate civil servants. The third stream of immigrants came as traders, most predominant among these were the Chettiars, a South Indian moneylending caste.

The latest wave of Indian immigration started toward the end of the last century when Malaysia, like its neighbor Singapore, began looking at India as a source for knowledge economy professionals. Starting in the 1970s, Malaysia began a transition to an industrialised economy, aided by its petroleum boom. In later decades, as the world economy globalized, Malaysia sought to become a services hub and develop a knowledge-based economy. Indians in the IT sector were especially sought after. Malaysia even formally signed a Memorandum of Understanding with India on manpower recruitment on a contract basis in March 2005.

Upadhyay and Mishra are just two examples among the thousands of Indian knowledge economy workers who work in Kuala Lumpur’s IT district, Cyberjaya.

Sarala Sukumaran as a child (left) in her mother’s lap, her father standing behind her mother

“I was actually planning to immigrate to New Zealand, but when I got an opportunity to work in Malaysia, I jumped at the offer,” says Upadhyay, an engineer-MBA who works with an instructional design firm. He was working in Delhi with a multinational company before moving to Malaysia three years ago. He lives in a condo, drives a second hand car and leads a comfortable life.

Mishra who works for an Indian call centre as a hardware support engineer also came around the same time as Upadhyay. They met at Cyberjaya and became friends in an alien country. Mishra shares a condo and a newly bought car with his Malaysian Chinese girlfriend. “I was looking for an overseas posting and my company transferred me to Malaysia. It was a cool offer and I took it,” he says cheerfully.

Though IT professionals like Upadhyay and Mishra lead isolated lives, mostly among the expat community, some of them have been attracted to local Chinese women.

“When cupid strikes it does not see the color of your skin,” says Vinita Upadhyay, who is close to the couple.

So, will Mishra tie the knot with his girlfriend? “They are committed but Amit’s family might have problems,” says Vinita.

Like Mishra, Satish Shetty, 34,a Maharashtrian R&D manager with a Malaysian IT company, too has a local girlfriend. “I was working with an IT firm in Brunei when I met my Malaysian girlfriend,” says Shetty. “Both of us were in an alien country and loneliness drove us toward each other. We fell in love and I decided to follow her to Malaysia.”

“We plan to get married soon,” he says, a gentle smile playing on his lips.

The achievers and the underclass

Nishant Upadhyay with his wife Vinny in their Kuala Lumpur flat

It is not just the new Indian professionals who are doing well in Malaysia. Most top lawyers and doctors in Malaysia are Indians and many Indians have succeeded in other fields. Ananda Krishnan (worth $4.6 billion in Forbes’ list of Malaysian billionaires) is the second richest tycoon in Malaysia. He owns Malaysian pay TV operator Astro All Asia Networks and telecom major Maxis, among other businesses. Tony Fernandes, CEO of Air Asia, is one of Malaysia’s most successful entrepreneurs. Born in Kuala Lumpur of Indian descent, Fernandes revolutionized budget air travel in Asia and has earned the nickname of the “Asian Branson.”

In politics, Dr Samy Vellu, a Malaysian politician of Indian descent, champions the cause of Indians in Malaysia and is chairman of Malayan Indian Congress. Karpal Singh is a well-known human rights activist, lawyer and opposition member of parliament. V David, who died in 2005, was a popular politician and a leading trade unionist. The Indian community produced many leaders who led the cause of Indians, such as John A Thivy, Budh Singh, K Ramanathan, K L Devaser and V T Sambanthan.

English novelist and playwright K S Maniam is one of the finest prose writers of his generation and there are many young Indian voices emerging in Malaysian literary circles.

Sharanya Mannivanan, extreme left, with other Malaysian writers

Sharanya Mannivanan, 22, is one such literary voice. The daughter of a Sri Lankan father and an Indian mother, she is an active member of Kuala Lumpur’s literary circle. Still a student, her first book of poems, Iyari, is just out. “Many Indian writers are doing interesting work in Malaysia, but the problem is that they are discarding their roots,” she says.

Mannivanan, who writes in English, says: “I feel more comfortable in English, it gives me a global audience, and through it, I feel a part of the vast Indian writing in English community.”

The other segment of Indian diaspora is not as confident, nor as successful. Some of the poorest laborers in Malaysia are Indians, living a hand to mouth existence. In 2000, TimeAsia reported that Indians have the lowest share of the nation’s corporate wealth: 1.5%, compared to 19.4% for the Malays and 38.5% for the Chinese. The highest rate of suicide of any community is among Indians. Gangsterism and violent crime is largely associated with Indians. In 1994, 128 of the 377 murders committed in Malaysia were by Indians. Some 15% of the Indians in the capital are squatters.

In 2003, Indians comprised, according to The Economist, “14 percent of juvenile delinquents, 20 percent of (Malaysia’s) wife and child (abusers) and 14 percent of its beggars. They (also comprised) less than 5 percent of successful university applicants.”

Most experts see the seeds of this backwardness in Malaysia’s official racial policies. Race is the big divide in Malaysia. During his 20 years as prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad sought to uplift Malays, guaranteeing them a large percentage of business opportunities. The Chinese, the biggest minority group in Malaysia, were supposed to lose their disproportionate share of the country’s economy. But the real losers were Indians.

Due to the colonial legacy of Indians, generally seen as providers of cheap labor in plantations and construction sites, their political and social mobility has been thwarted. While Malays benefited from state patronage and the Chinese, stronger in numbers than Indians, exploited their business and social networks, the Indians became a disadvantaged group.

At the same time, strange as it may seem, the Indian middle class continues to excel. But the problem is that there is hardly any interaction between the well-to-do Indian middle class and the Indian working underclass. Amarjit Kaur, professor of Economic History, University of New England, Australia, attributes this partly to caste distinctions. He writes in The Encyclopedia of Indian Diaspora: “The underperformance of the Indian working class may be attributed to the fact that Indian workers were drawn from the less favoured caste groups. Thus they continue to be weighed down by the low self-esteem that usually characterises members of groups belonging to the lower castes and is worsened by lack of the interaction between the well-off and the less well-off Indians…. The marginalisation of working-class Indians is hreflected in their poor performance in business, equity ownership and employment in professional sectors and the civil service. The disadvantaged position of the majority in the Indian community has contributed to a sense of dispossession and disadvantage among many Indians in Malaysia.”

Sarala Sukumaran, 40, a Malaysian Indian entrepreneur who runs an IT firm in Cyberjaya, says: “There are two main reasons behind the backwardness of Indians. One is that we are a minority here, and two, the politicians who represent us do not promote our cause.”

Sukumaran is a third generation Malaysian Indian. Her grandfather, Marimuthu, and grandmother, Mariammah, came to Malaysia in the 1930s to work in the plantations in Penang. While her father Joseph E Marimuthu secured a masters in India, she received her education in Bahasa Malaysia. Today she is the general manager of an IT firm.

“Not only that, I feel that we are not aggressive enough as a community in terms of unleashing our entrepreneurial potential. That’s why our evolution has been very slow. Comparatively, look at the Tamils from Sri Lanka. They have a more close-knit community feeling, they help uplift each other and they are certainly doing much better than the Indians.”

Bhumiputra politics

After the racial riots of May 1969, Malaysian leaders emphasised the establishment of a united nation and a national culture transcending ethnic identities. The dominating culture in this set-up is Malay with some elements from other cultures supporting it.

Both the Chinese and Indians feel uncomfortable about “Ketuanan Melayu” (Malay Supremacy). Young Indians struggle over their identity. Where is their home? For example, Mannivanan is not sure where her home is – Malaysia or India? “I am torn between these two countries,” she says.

“I feel like I’m in exile in my own country, the place where I was born, where I grew up, where I studied, where I have all my friends,” she says. Her grandfather was a diplomat and her parents, despite working and living for the most part of their lives were denied permanent residency in Malaysia. Post-retirement, her parents live in India. She lives in Malaysia with her Indian passport.

“I know many Indian families who want to get out of Malaysia,” says Sukumaran. “In the last few months, I have seen at least five Indians families immigrating to Australia from here.”

Even the new Indians, like Upadhyay and Mishra, want to get out of Malaysia. “Being non-bhumiputras in Malaysia, we can never settle down here,” says Upadhyay. “We know that getting a permanent residency here is next to impossible so we are looking at opportunities in countries like Singapore and Australia where we can easily settle down and start a family.”

Many Indian IT professionals have still not gotten over the mistreatment of 300 Indian citizens in March 2003 in Kuala Lumpur, which was widely reported in the Indian press. Security agencies reportedly “interrogated” them rudely in a search for “illegal immigrants,” but all the Indians possessed valid residency documents. Subsequently Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi apologized for the incident.

But there are frequent reports of abuse of Indian workers and Bhoomiputra politics disadvantage Indians in education and work opportunities before Malays. An Indian Malaysian can find it difficult to become a doctor or lawyer in Malaysia. Local university seats and scholarships are all awarded under a racial quota system. Even after getting a degree, many say that discrimination is commonplace. Indian doctors, for instance, complain that they are often excluded from lists of approved doctors whom civil servants or company employees can patronise.

The conversion of rubber plantations to housing estates and golf courses has displaced plantation workers who have drifted to urban centres. As a result, urban Indian ghettos have emerged and crime escalated.

Many Indians blame government policies for their backwardness, a charge rejected by mainstream politicians. Says Malaysian politician Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad. “The Indian community problems are more than just equity. Most of their problems are social problems, such as gangsterism. I admit Indians are among the poorest in this country, but their participation and achievements in many other fields are amazing.”

Indian Malaysians discover themselves in a bind. Most have resigned themselves to their plight while discontent simmers within the community. But how long can Malaysia afford to allow 8 percent of its population to feel alienated?

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