Contemporary Malaysian Indians is a book with an agenda

OUTSPOKEN: It is a collection of 29 articles sandwiched between an overview of their content by Professor K S Nathan and a conclusion focused on their policy implications by Dr Denison Jayasooria. Both Nathan and Jayasooria are academics at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, which is also the publisher of the book.

The authors include numerous Ph.D. holding academics.

Two of the authors, Professor R K Jain (global doyen of Indian diaspora studies) and M Marimuthu, are based in India. Three of them are from the Malay community, while one is from the Chinese community.

The contributors include Professor Edmund Terence Gomez – whose chapter is titled “Development models, public policies and new inequities in Malaysia” – and Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid (author of The Colour of Inequality), whose chapter is titled “Inclusive Development and Malaysian Indians.”

Also included are leaders of NGOs such as My Skills Foundation and EWRF which diagnose and address Indian issues through ground level interventions and through policy advocacy. Even the Johor Indian Business Association (JIBA) contributed a chapter.

The 31 articles over 640 pages are placed in seven sections, which I’ll describe briefly.

The history and development section has good summaries of the forgotten history of Indians in Malaysia. It also contains excellent introductions to (1) the South Indian Labour Fund which began as a means to bring Indian labourers to Malaya, evolved into a means for caring for poor Indians and then was snuffed out; and (2) the role played by the Chettiar community in funding the economic growth of the Chinese community – and as importers of labour and as beneficiaries of the toddy industry.

The contemporary concerns section asserts that 15% of Indian households fall within the bottom 40% whose household income in 2009 was less than RM 2,300 per month. It calls out media stereotyping of Indians. It points out that while Indians were once to be found in estates around the nation, 71% of them are now to be found in 15 districts in 7 states, though they are outnumbered by foreigners. (Disclosure: I contributed the chapter on population statistics.)

The section on law, citizenship and religion shows how the colonists used law and other formalities to construct race. It demonstrates how socio-legal inequalities led to the creation of coalitions across classes to mobilize people and give expression to grievances. It discusses the obstacles faced by those who seek to alleviate the difficulties of Malaysian-born Indians who are unable to obtain the documents necessary to prove their citizenship. It speaks of the impact of Islamisation policies and the wrenching effect of the introduction in 1988 of Article 121(1A) into the Federal Constitution: an act which curtailed the rights of non-Muslims. The Hindraf protest of 2007 is recognized as a turning point in Malaysian history.

The section on inclusive development and urban poverty points out that extension of affirmative action has been done through the creation of claimed Bumiputra identities to secure incentives – at the expense of Malaysian Indians. It notes that the unemployment rate amongst Indian youths is alarmingly high – 1 of 4 Malaysian Indian youths aged 15-19 years is unemployed, vs. 1 in 10 for Chinese in the same age group. It reports learnings from neighbourhood-based social service programs – what works and what doesn’t, and provides an overview of assistance programs under the Government Transformation Program.

The section on Education, Underachievers, Skills Training and Youth Civic-Political Participation outlines the INVESTMENTS in Tamil schools since 2009 and highlights changes such as improved UPSR outcomes and 45 % of teachers with undergraduate degrees or better – also the 30% fail rate for the Malay subject. One chapter is devoted to systemic issues with remove classes; another chapter is devoted to a description of skills training opportunities in government institutes. The chapter on At Risk Youths analyses why students become dropouts, and describes tested approaches to ‘recover’ them. The section ends with the results of a survey of civic-political participation by youths: 1 in 5 respondents were members of a political party, while 1 in 2 often did community service.

The section on Empowerment through Entrepreneurship calls out institutionalised discrimination in the granting of business loans and permits as well as award of government contracts. It provides an overview of the goals, results and shortcomings of the government’s SEED (Secretariat for the Empowerment of Indian Entrepreneurs) initiative: it shows some striking increases in loans to Malaysian Indians post 2012. The chapter on the informal sector is data rich; it points out that for every 4 Malaysian Indians employed in this sector, there are 10 foreigners! The chapter on Malaysian Indian Women Entrepreneurs surveys the history of Malaysian Indian women standing up for their rights in the colonial period right up to operating e-businesses.

The chapter on Issues and Challenges of sub-Ethnic Indian Minorities is a welcome inclusion in the book – which would otherwise have been about Tamils only. It discusses concerns of the Telugu and Sikh communities. What even many Malaysian Indians don’t recognize is that Telugus are Vaishnavite Hindus while Tamils are Saivite Hindus. I need hardly add that Sikhs are not Hindus!

The content of Contemporary Malaysian Indians is varied. Some of the authors are academics; some work in the Prime Minister’s Department; some work in NGOs. None are “opposition politicians.” The book is one of the products of a systematic effort by Denison Jayasooria to gather policy recommendations for the 11th Malaysia Plan. It’s a book with an agenda.

The agenda was to go beyond describing or exposing the problems of the Indian community – to go beyond what the movie Jagat did. The agenda was to produce a compilation of data, analysis, initiatives and recommendations to make things better.

The book has some gaps. For example, it does not discuss (1) how Hindu thought has contributed to the present status of Malaysian Indians; (2) the fractiousness of the Indian community as expressed through multiple Tamil newspapers and political parties; (3) “Malaysian” and “Indian” identity – both of which are contested.

The book is a good introduction to Contemporary Malaysian Indians. It will likely be referred to a great deal in project and policy proposals, and be a go-to source for anyone who wants to speak about the Malaysian Indian community in the 21st century.

Priced at RM 130 per copy, the book is available at UKM bookstore and at Gerakbudaya.

An engineer by training, Rama Ramanathan was Quality Leader (Asia Pacific) in two US-based multinationals over the last two decades. Tired of travel, he now mostly stays put in KL and focuses on being a thoughtful neighbour and citizen.-The Ant Daily

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