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Malaysian Indian identity as source for discrimination, denigration

Malaysian Indian identity as source for discrimination, denigration

Author: Anuja Prashar
Publication: Theindianstar.com
Date: December 15, 2008
URL: http://www.theindianstar.com/index.php?uan=9182

When we think of Malaysia, most of us would invoke visions of a travel destination for beautiful beach holidays, affordable glamorous shopping, spicy culinary splendour and with a reasonably effective democracy.

However, the House of Lords briefing, hosted by Rt.Hon.Baroness Sandip Verma on "Ethnic Minority Malaysian Indian Issues" invoked many other types of images. The facts on the degree of segregation and exclusion from civil society of the majority of Malaysian Indians are startling.

The two-hour briefing was conducted as a panel presentation by four International guests - Mr. K. Kabilan, Editor of Malaysiakini.com; Ms.Tricia Yeoh, Director for the Centre for Public Policy Studies - Malaysia; Ms. Ishani Chowdhury, Director of Public Policy for Hindu American Foundation - USA and Mr. Waytha Moorthy, Chairman of Humans Right group in Malaysia.

The presentation started with a video on the living and working conditions of Indian rubber plantation workers, accompanied with a brief history of Indian migration to Malaysia. Mr. Kabilan told the audience, that in 1901 the British colonial masters started to take Indians to Malaysia, as bonded/indentured labour, to work on rubber plantations. They were deemed to be suitable for this task, because of their hardworking and docile cultural characteristics. In 1910, three quarters of all plantation workers were of Indian origin; by 1957, 88% of all rubber plantation workers were of Indian origin.

The video demonstrated that living and working conditions on rubber plantations have not improved for Indian labourers and their families, since the time of their ancestors. The Indian plantation workers live in dire poverty, in accommodations with little or no sanitation and in segregated spaces away from other sections of the labour force. Both men and women have to work in order to sustain themselves and their families.

There are no medical, educational or social facilities provided for plantation workers on the rubber estates. If a plantation worker leaves the estate - for medical treatment such as maternity care or snakes bites - they lose their wages. In other words, plantation workers and their families live without basic social amenities and remain enslaved to the estate for their whole lives, in order to earn a living.

A recent case study of two Indian bonded slaves - Avadiar and Rosamah - highlighted the dilemma faced by Indian plantation workers today. Avadiar and Rosamah have five children and have been working for the same contractor since 1992. They told the Malaysiakini researchers, when one of them does anything wrong the whole family is punished. They and their children are stateless (not registered as citizens) and remain as servants on the estate at all times. In 2006 the whole family together earned £15.00 per month working on the estate.

In 2002, YSS a Malaysian Think Tank carried out a study that brought these problems to public attention. In 2006 another study was carried out to assess the position of Indian Ethnic Minority in Malaysia. In 2008 the Human Rights Minister of Malaysia, Dr. S. Suburmaniam resourced a sample survey, of 1408 rubber plantations, that employed 15,201 Indian workers contracted by 1,066 Contractors, controlled by 9 companies supplying workers to estates.

Key findings from all these studies tell us that - 30% of Malaysian Indians do not own their own home; There are currently 300,000 displaced Indian people in urban centres; 40,000 Indian children were found to have no registration and are declared stateless in the 2008 sample survey of plantations - this figure would increase dramatically if you add the adult population of Indian plantation workers. The number is alarming if you consider that Malaysian Indians make up 7% of the total population. Despite having migrated to Malaysia over a century ago, the majority of Malaysian Indians do not have citizen status or citizens rights.

During the 2006 - 2008 Malaysian elections, campaigns were conducted on promises that housing would be made available to Indian minorities, however Kabilan states that, "On paper everything looks right, but in reality things are very wrong. With no citizenship rights, investment for education and skills development, 80% of Malaysian Indians cannot help themselves change their own circumstances". The alienation of Malaysian Indian youth is rapidly becoming a critical problem in urban centres.

Tricia Yeoh, presented some possible reasons for the evolution of the magnitude of this problem. Ms. Yeoh suggested that structural institutional problems are the source of uneven development of ethnic minorities in Malaysia. The population is made of 60% Islamic "Bhumiputra"(sons of the soil), with the remaining 40% made up of Chinese, Indians and some others indigenous tribes. The state structures are exclusionary in nature according to Ms.Yeoh. In Article 153 of the Malaysian constitution the Bhumiputra, E. Malaysians and "tribal others of the land" are the only people recognised as 'legitimate' communities, with a social contract entitled to full citizenship rights.

Historically, Yeoh explains, labour was divided according to ethnicity. ie. Indians assigned to plantations, Chinese into Business and Trade and Malays into government bureaucracy. In 1980, with the advent of Industrialisation, plantation land was acquired for development of manufacturing and 300,000 Indian plantation workers became displaced over time. Their stateless condition has left them dis-empowered and disengaged from public life, largely within urban squatter settlements.

In 2006, representation of Indians within the civil service was 7.2% and today it is 2.8%. Less than 5 % of Indian Malaysians go to university. Corporate equity ownership is measured according to ethnicity, and supersedes the measure of poverty. Thus, according to official Malaysian statistics, Indian Malaysian wealth is high, relative to their percentage population - this is based upon corporate ownership of a few Indian Malaysian business houses.
Yeoh described the constitution of Malaysia as defining the term "Malay" as a Muslim and commonly refers to the "Bhumiputra" section of society. According to Ishani Chaudhry, although Malaysia has been viewed as a religiously harmonious country, , there has been a recent shift where by the two court system has given over increasing jurisdiction to Sherya Law Courts - "These Laws do not recognise the Religious Rights for Death, Marriages and Family for non-Islamic religions". Chaudhry gave two examples where cremation was denied to a Indian Hindu Malaysian on his death and Hindu mother who may lose custody of her child, because her husband recently converted to Islam.

Ms. Chaudhry was also clear on how the Law is biased towards the majority Muslim Malays (Bhumiputras) who benefit from an affirmative action policy for education, housing, government jobs etc. The Law also is biased in economics and business, where 30% of Bhumiputra corporate ownership is required for all corporations registering on the Malaysian Stock Exchange.

Ms. Yeoh explained later that although there had been several attempts to forge an National Inter-Faith Council, but the Muslims would not attend and the project has been abandoned. According to Ms. Yeoh, Muslims also never attend the annual multicultural event held in Kuala Lampur.

Ms. Chaudhry presented the facts on rapidly deteriorating state of religious relations within Malaysia today. According to recent monitoring, 76 Hindu Temples were demolished in 2006 alone. In the past couple of years thousands of Indian Malaysian families have fought the authorities to save 100 to 200 year old temples and shrines built by their ancestors. They were unable to save any of them.

Mr. Moorthy told the subdued audience, while they watched a video of a Hindu Temple being demolished as Lawyers and Indian families were man handled by Malaysian police, that in the most recent incident on 25th November saw five members of HINDRAF detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for organising a protest against the many years of discrimination, neglect and denigration.

According to THE OBSERVATORY (Swiss based Human Rights organisation) review of the ISA shows this to be a draconian Act, that does not provide adequate provisions for the detainees, as mandated by International Law and the Declaration of Human Rights. The reduction of Human Rights jurisdiction in any country is lamentable and should be completely unacceptable when it goes on generation after generation after generation.

In a globalising world, where Indian Identities are most often associated with democratic secularism, religious peaceful co-existence and hardworking achievement, the Malaysian story gives us great pause for thought. Baroness Sandip Verma concluded that "Trouble does not take long to travel and so it is up to the worldwide Indian community and her leaders, to stand up and say unequivocally - Enough is Enough."

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