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No more glossing over racial tensions as Malaysia’s ethnic Indian community “revolts”

Updated On: Dec 02, 2007

After a “teary” and “tense” weekend of protest by some 20,000 Indians to demand equal rights, Malaysia can no longer ignore the racial tensions within its society.

This mass protest also came two weeks after the biggest political demonstration of about 40,000 people calling for an overhaul of Malaysia's allegedly corrupt electoral commission in Kuala Lumpur.  Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s government may want to dismiss both protests as merely opposition ploy to discredit the ruing government ahead of the country’s general elections, widely expected to be held early next year, analysts however warned that the unprecedented street protests my ethnic Indians have opened up a new racial faultline in Malaysia.

Spearheaded by the influential NGO, the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), the demonstration outside the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur was meant to highlight how racial discrimination has caused Malaysia's ethnic Indian minority to remain “largely poor under both British colonial rule” and the present bumiputra dominance. It is said that the country’s Indians –some 8% of Malaysia’s 27 million people –are fed up with the lack of job opportunities in the government or the private sector, absence of business licenses or places in university, also angered by the recent demolitions of Hindu temples.

While Malays control the political power in Malaysia, and the Chinese population is dominant in business, the ethnic Indians complained that they have been neglected and marginalized and lag behind in wealth, education and opportunities because of the discriminatory practices.  Analysts said that although they had long been a silent minority, many ethnic Indians have become radicalized by the increasing “Islamisation” of Malaysia, which minorities see as undermining their rights. The destruction of many Hindu temples in recent years, sometimes with bulldozers moving in as devotees were praying, has also caused intense anger.

Although PM Abdullah Badawi condemned the rally as illegal (the police denied HINDRAF a demonstration permit) and warned the people against taking part, some 20,000 Indians “braved tear gas, water cannons and police batons to protest alleged official discrimination and demand a fairer share of the national wealth”. The rally before the British embassy was also to lend weight to the HINDRAF suit against the British government. It filed a US$4 trillion (€2.7 trillion) lawsuit at the Royal Courts of Justice in London in August demanding British compensation for exploiting Malaysian Indian forebears as “indentured labourers”. The suit is equivalent to US$1million (RM3.4mil) for every Indian in Malaysia.  

This demonstration has opened up deeper rifts in Malaysian society. Already rent by racial and religious disharmony, the eruption of the latest demands not only makes things difficult for the government; more worryingly, it also creates factions within the Indian community. Political observer Zainon Ahmad said this protest would “severely challenge” the standing of the Malaysian Indian community's establishment party, the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). The MIC is also a member of the ruling coalition –Barisan Nasional (BN).

Already, Federal Territory MIC chairman and national information chief Datuk M. Saravanan denounced HINDRAF as being a troublemaker and a stooge of the opposition. He said, “Contrary to its claim that it is independent, it has finally come out in the open that HINDRAF is only a tool of the opposition and wooing votes for the coming general election by stirring up the people's emotions and racial sentiments. The MIC will continue to safeguard the interests of the Indian community at all times. HINDRAF is only poisoning the young minds and making use of them for its own political agenda.” He further declared that “the Indian community would continue to respect the country's rule of law and had placed its faith and future with the MIC and the BN government”. Other Indian groups had also urged Malaysian Indians not to join the protest march.

MIC leader S. Samy Vellu, who is also Works Minister, denied impending trouble. He maintained that his party represented the Indian community and would “remain so”. He also said that people should use existing forums to voice their problems and not resort to street protests. Nonetheless, his unease regarding the racial inequality showed as he added, “There is still a lot to be done for the Indians and we will continue with our struggle.”

Whatever it is, the HINDRAF has indeed raised its profile and achieved part of its aim. The Malaysian government is more aware than ever it must tread carefully for Malaysia’s socio-political well-being if it does not want racial tensions to erupt at a greater frequency and intensity. This is crucial as the next general elections loom overhead and Malaysians are worried about the economy, safety and corruption.

Perhaps some sensitivity is being shown now especially when the general sentiment among Malaysia’s Indians is that the rally served its purpose. Law student Sivamalar Ganapathy said to the AFP, “In my opinion the protest achieved its objective. We got the world to focus on us and the government can no longer ignore our concerns.”

Therefore, although the police will take action against the leaders, organisers and participants of HINDRAF’s illegal gathering in the city, and that PM Abdullah defends the use of teargas and security forces to break up the demonstration, the fact that the sedition charges against the 3 HINDRAF members have been promptly dropped a day after the rally must mean something. (26 November 2007)

Sources:

Malaysia government will not bow to political pressure from protestors (Channel News Asia, 26 November 2007)

Malaysian Indian protests open new racial faultine: analysts (Straits Times online, 26 November 2007)

Economy, safety, graft: Malaysians' top concerns (Straits Times, 26 November 2007)

Malaysia drops sedition charges against activists(AFP, 26 November 2007)

No need for street protests (Star, 26 November 2007)

Police to go after assembly leaders (Star, 26 November 2007)

Indian protest rocks Malaysia ahead of polls (Reuters, 25 November 2007)

Don't challenge us, protesters warned (NST, 25 November 2007)

Three charged under the Sedition Act (Star, 24 November 2007)

Cancel march, urge Indian groups (Star, 24 November 2007)

Cops serve court order on rally organisers, warn public to stay away (Star, 24 November 2007)