Why do you recommend reading books to understand each other better?
We need to continually get to know each other better and there are many ways to do this. The best way is to live and work together, but reading can facilitate easier and quicker understanding. When we are better informed, we are less likely to be hoodwinked by anyone, whether politicians, business-people or anyone else.
Here I would like to propose three books that I have found helpful – The Malaysian Indians: History, Problems and Future by Muzafar Desmond Tate; The Chinese Dilemma by Ye Lin-Sheng; and The Malays: Their Problems and Future by Syed Husin Ali. There are many other books that are available in the market, but I suggest these three as a good start. And of course, someday we hope to see a good, balanced book on Malaysians as a whole
i) ‘The Malaysian Indians: History, Problems and Future’ by Muzafar Desmond Tate ISBN: 978-983-3782-54-3
Can you tell us a bit about the book on the Malaysian Indians?
Among the three books I am proposing, this is the most balanced one. Muzafar Desmond Tate was specifically commissioned to write the book to provide a balanced perspective as a distinguished educationist and historian. Unfortunately, Muzafar Desmond Tate passed away before he could see the published work.
It is a good book, very balanced and scholarly yet written in an easy to read manner. We are fortunate to have this book on the Malaysian Indians available to us. It is a wide-ranging view of the background of the Malaysian Indian community, their economic and political contributions, and the divisions and problems that exist among them, many of which have not changed much until today.
The book is most useful in helping us to understand the diverse Malaysian Indian community, including its poor and marginalised sections.
Can you share some important points from the book?
Let’s start from the origins of the Malaysian Indians. The book explains that the Malaysian Indian community had arrived in this land in various batches. The earlier travelers were Buddhist and upper-caste Hindus, very different in character from the Tamils who arrived during the British colonial period. These were from the lowest ranks of Tamil society, recruited under the contract system to be labourers for tin mines, agricultural estates, railway construction and public work departments. To pay off their costs of passage would take them almost their whole term of service.
At the same time, alongside this mass migration of Tamil labourers, there was a small group of upper-class Tamils who came on their own accord as merchants, traders and money-lenders, the Tamil Muslim merchants and Tamil Chettiars among them.
These groups eventually became absorbed into the Malay community. The book also explains in detail about the communities of other Indians, including the Telugu, Malayalee, Sikhs and other Punjabis, and the Bengalis.
The composition of the Malaysian Indian community was highly fragmented in many ways. At one point, there were 150 Indian societies and associations with their own communal and sectarian agenda; most were directly influenced by similar movements in India. Apart from ethnic or political fragmentation, there were fragmentation of religion between the Hindus and Muslims; as well as divisions between social class. To make matters worst, there was very little social mobilisation.
“In a community where, in great contrast to its Chinese counterpart, social mobility hardly existed, Malaysian Indians were, by and large, highly compartmentalized and there was little social interaction between the various categories.”(pg. 25)
The book traces the journey of the Malaysian Indians from different backgrounds at the crossroads during the formative period of Malaya’s political development. Post-Independence, however, the economic and social gulf between the middle class Indians and the working folks remained.
Although there was an obvious need for the Indian community to unite and speak with one voice, this did not happen. It was not because they did not have leadership – according to Tate, there were many “very able and highly articulate” Indian leaders, but,
“The root cause for this failure lay in the still highly fragmented nature of the Indian community; while in the post-war world political circumstances had radically altered, the main characteristics of the Malayan Indian society had not. Indians in Malaya continued to be wracked by differences of race, religion, caste, occupation and language as they always had been, to a degree not found amongst either the Malays or the Chinese.” (pg. 78)
Politically, since Independence there has always been a group of disaffected Indians,
“filling the role of the Indian community’s alter ego – the voice of dissent and protest against corruption and cronyism in high places, the champion of human rights, civil liberties and social justice, the standard bearer of alternative non-communal point of view.” (pg. 112)
This alternative Indian establishment played a role to ask for change in Malaysian politics throughout the first fifty years after Independence.
Between 1957 to 2000, alongside most other Malaysians the Indian vital statistics steadily improved. However, economically and socially, the separation between the Indian middle and upper classes and the working proletariats remained.
“The middle classes, to all appearances, have held their own. Their numbers relative to their own community have remained larger than those of their Malay and Chinese counterparts, and they still appear to dominate certain professions (especially law and medicine) even if Indians of the younger generation face stiffer competition from the other races than their fathers did a generation ago.” (pg. 105)
In the same period, however, the greatest social change to happen was urbanisation. It brought new social problems, most glaringly “the presence of a rootless class of urban squatters, who have come to be associated in the public mind with an upsurge of violence and crime” (pg. 105). This was the new poverty syndrome of the Indians in town, while the problem of poverty in the rural areas and estates still remained.
This large gulf between the segment of middle and upper class Indians and the community of Indians still stuck in the trenches of poverty gives us a clue of why the NEP was not able to help the Malaysian Indian poor out of poverty the same way it helped the Bumiputera. Tate writes,
“What distinguishes the Tamil estate worker from his impoverished counterparts both in the Indian community and amongst the Malays and the Chinese is not so much the degree of his poverty as his difficulty in escaping from it. Though the Malays are by far the largest group affected in Peninsular Malaysia, they have enjoyed the full attention of the government and are also economically and socially much more accessible and amenable to assistance. The Chinese poor, on the other hand, of whom there are a good number, have the benefits of the well-organised and comprehensive social organisation maintained by the Chinese community itself.” (pg. 123)
The primary cause of the rural Tamil poor, however, is historical. It has roots in “the manner of their immigration, employment and settlement during the colonial era, in the physical isolation of their places of work from the mainstream of economic development and growth in the Peninsular, and in the paternalistic fold in which they came to be enveloped.” (pg. 123)
An interesting portion of the book addresses the New Economic Policy and its failure to make headway for the Malaysian Indian community.
The final chapters of the book describe the dilemma faced by the Tamil community in terms of education. While the grassroot Tamils were deeply attached to their language and culture, they faced the dilemma that Tamil-medium education ‘had no economic value’ and would leave the children only to continue in the legacy of being estate labourers, continuing in the cycle of poverty, with little hope of social uplifting. (pg. 172)
In his conclusion, Tate states that while in the years after independence the Chinese and Malay communities have managed to advance their socioeconomic position, for the Indian community, little has changed in terms of their composition, structure, organisation and nature of their problems. A big portion of them are still lagging behind. The book arrives at a crucial conclusion.
“At the time of Merdeka in 1957, the communal approach to politics appeared to be – and probably was – the only practical way to achieve the sense of national identity and purpose necessary to achieve Merdeka. However 50 years and one and half generations later, the social chemistry has changed, and class or special group interests are beginning to replace those of race as the determinants of evolution…It is becoming increasingly obvious that these social problems can only be overcome by a concerted national effort that is not based on race. The Indian community’s socio-economic problems can never be overcome within the present communal mould of Malaysian politics.” (pg.181)
This is just a brief overview of the contents of the book – as can be seen, it reveals many important details about the composition, situation, dilemmas and problems faced by the Malaysian Indian community. It is a good book for all Malaysians to get and read because it provides an accurate and balanced, non-political picture to help us understand our Malaysian Indian brothers and sisters.
End of Part 1
Malaysian Movement for Moderates
Malaysian Movement for Moderates
PART 2 will cover the CHINESE - ‘The Chinese Dilemma’ by Ye Lin-Sheng ISBN:978-097-5164-61-7
Note : This article is taken from my book The Middle Path, chapter 4.