When activists with the Hindu Rights Action Front (Hindraf) marched on the streets of Kuala Lumpur on 25 November 2007, hoping to highlight the plight of the poorer sections of the Malaysian Indian community, little did they realise that their actions were to act as a catalyst that would change the course of Malaysia’s political landscape. Their call for makkal sakthi (people’s power) – fuelled perhaps by similar events in Pakistan, Burma and the buzzword of ‘change’ in the run-up to the US presidential elections – seems to have had a striking impact on the 12th Malaysian general elections, held on 8 March.
Since independence in 1957, Malaysians have been governed by an ethnicity-based tripartite coalition comprised of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC). This alliance, now known as the Barisan Nasional, was formed in 1955 to contest Malaysia’s first general election. In formulating the country’s new Constitution in 1957, however, the leaders of the latter two parties conceded a handful of crucial issues to the UMNO: Islam as the official religion; Malay as the national language; and the privileged position to the Malay and indigenous peoples of Malaysia, as well as the special positions allotted to Malay rulers. Under the Malaysian Constitution, the king has the responsibility of safeguarding the rights and privileges of the Malay and other indigenous peoples of Malaysia, with regard to reservations for positions in the public sector, scholarships and the like.
Moreover, under the ‘social contract’ formed at the time, the three parties agreed to share power according to the population ratios of each ethnic group. Due to its small numbers, around 8-10 percent of the total population since 1957, the Indian community subsequently had the weakest political voice. These built-in political constraints and the resulting submissiveness were to mark all future relations between the three parties in the Barisan Nasional, resulting in the MIC being seen as becoming increasingly ineffective in addressing issues of particular importance to the Indian community.
Against this background, Malaysians woke up on 9 March 2008 to an extraordinary political scenario. The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition had failed to obtain a two-thirds majority in Parliament, though it had won a simple majority, enough to precariously hold on to its right to form the new government. Meanwhile, the loss of five states and Kuala Lumpur to a loosely constructed coalition named the Barisan Alternatif – consisting of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or People’s Justice Party, led by led by the charismatic former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim), and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS, or Islamic Party of Malaysia) – was an unprecedented occurrence in Malaysian politics. The results were seen as a crushing indictment of the Barisan Nasional.
These entirely unforeseen results left both Malaysia’s citizens and its leadership reeling, particularly regarding their impact on the 50-year-old politics of ethnicity that has flourished in Malaysia. While the Indian vote was crucial in routing the MIC and, in effect, the Barisan Nasional, what cannot be ruled out is that there was a significant shift in the way that the Chinese and certain sections of Malays voted, as well. Looking back at the transformed political scenario, it is appropriate to ask whether the swing in the Indian and other votes were influenced by the massive Hindraf protest of last November. The answer must be sought in a more thorough examination of the Indian presence in Malaysia.
Peoples from the Subcontinent came to the Malay peninsula as traders starting around 400 AD, and with time began settling there permanently. During the 19th century, the British began to import labour for the Malayan plantations, especially from Tamil Nadu, but also smaller groups from Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. This resulted in a predominance of people of Dravidian origin in Malaya (since 1963 known as Malaysia).
This complex mix of peoples from the Subcontinent was further complicated by the arrival of different ethnic groups from Ceylon and North India. The evolving Indian community was marked by its heterogeneity, divided by class, ethnicity, language, culture, religion and vast distances in the Subcontinent. However, due to the Tamils being in the majority, the term Indian became conflated with Tamil in Malaysia, a misnomer that exists even today. Perhaps because of these differences, the Indian communities remained largely divided, and never became a united force in the political arena. Malaysian politics thus evolved as a power-sharing arrangement primarily between two ethnicities, the politically dominant Malays and the economically powerful Chinese. Some semblance of political leadership for the fragmented Indian community was provided by the MIC; but due to small numbers and low socio-economic profile, Indians were not regarded as a political or economic force with which to be reckoned.
The position of the Indians in Malaysian society was further weakened in the aftermath of the infamous 13 May 1969 race riots, which occurred when the DAP won a majority of seats in Parliament due to the desertion of the MCA by Chinese voters. (The separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965, following a clash between Lee Kuan Yew’s Peoples Action Party’s ideology of a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ and Tunku Abdul Rahman’s ‘Malay Malaysia’ was perhaps responsible for this reaction.) This was a turning point in Malaysia’s history, as it led to the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971, a 20-year affirmative-action programme (targeted to end in 1990 but eventually extended) aimed at eradicating poverty and restructuring society.
But non-Malay Malaysians increasingly came to regard the NEP as being aimed at enlarging the Malay share in the national wealth. In this scenario, the Indians, ostensibly represented by the MIC, felt even more sidelined, feeling that the lion’s share of the country’s economic cake was being taken by the Malay and economically dominant Chinese. Meanwhile, the MIC was seen as increasingly unable to address the growing grievances of the Indian community. Politically and economically without an anchor, Indian complaints continued to simmer, until they finally boiled over in November 2007, with the massive public demonstration. At that point, tens of thousands of Malaysian Indians (the number is still widely disputed) marched to the centre of Kuala Lumpur, directly beneath the Petronas Towers. This is when the accumulated problems of Malaysia’s Indians burst upon the world stage through television.
The Indian dilemma
At its core, the problem that Malaysia’s Indians face today is that of unequal distribution of wealth in a country that is rapidly moving from an agriculture-based to a manufacturing- and knowledge-based economy. As the rest of Malaysia marches ahead, there has been the emergence a new urban, unskilled underclass made up of Indians. They are the displaced from the rubber plantations, which have been progressively closed down due to lack of demand of rubber. The Indians find themselves economically on a limb, with the Chinese dominating the private sector, the Malays the public sector, and foreign labour all over the manual-labour market. As a result, there is little scope for upward mobility for poorer Indians displaced from the plantations. With limited skills and education but a significant sense of pride – and hungry for greater participation in the economy – a feeling of relative deprivation has built up within this underclass. This is stoked further by the ‘angry young man’ motif that crops up in the popular Tamil movies imported from Madras. The terms and conditions of the 1957 Constitution, to which their India-born forefathers had acceded in return for Malaysian citizenship, do not now appear to have the same sanctity for the locally born third generation as these provisions once did.
Among the new challenges that have emerged over the last few years is the demolition of old Hindu temples and marginalisation of Tamil schools. Alienation has been further compounded by controversial court decisions in cases involving conversion of Hindus to Islam. All of this, coupled with the rising cost of living, further pushed the Indian community to the edge of frustrated helplessness. Concurrent with this was a diminishing faith in the MIC’s ability to solve their problems.
In general, Malaysians first became aware of the Hindraf’s existence when its representatives, a group of lawyers, filed a class-action suit against the British government in August 2007 in London. The symbolic suit, which is ongoing, is based in part on the premise that the deep-seated problems of the Indian community in Malaysia are a consequence of the British colonial government’s importation and exploitation of Indian labour. Indian demands in the case cover myriad issues, including being given a greater voice in Malaysia’s political process and full citizenship rights, as well as the establishment of a minimum wage.
Back in Malaysia, the government and mainstream media chose alternatively to underplay and condemn the November 2007 Hindraf protest. But Indian anger was only further enflamed when five of Hindraf’s top leaders were arrested on 13 December under the dreaded Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for indefinite detention without trial (see Himal January 2008, “Cracks in Project Malaysia”). It was obvious that the issues raised by the Indian community would not go away so easily. Most importantly, the protest signalled the Indian community’s loss of faith in the ‘old style’ political leadership of the previous fifty years by the MIC. The new turn of events highlighted the need for a stronger Indian voice in the country’s political processes.
The Hindraf protest was able to draw a great deal of international attention to the condition of the poorer Malaysian Indians. Soon afterwards, at a mid-December meeting with over a dozen Malaysian-Indian NGOs, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi acknowledged that problems did exist in relation to the Indian community, and that these should be urgently addressed. As a gesture, he instructed the MIC president to list the Hindu temples in the country and identify their problems. The MIC subsequently promised to unveil a series of new measures for the betterment of the Indian community. It also declared that the MIC would be fielding a new generation of young leaders – dubbed “Gen 3”, the third generation Indians – in the March 2008 elections.
The Barisan Nasional government also took it upon itself – “respecting the request of the Indian community and the Hindus in the country” – to extend the official observation of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam to Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya; until then, Thaipusam had only been considered a state holiday in five other states. This was seen as a move to appease the sensitivities of the Indians just before elections. As it turned out, however, such a move was both too little and too late.
When the general elections finally came, on 8 March 2008, the Malaysian Indians chose to cast their lot with the informal multiethnic coalition, the Barisan Alternatif. Despite the fact that there was no ‘Indian’ party in this unwieldy coalition, there was an overwhelming Indian participation in almost all election ceramahs (public speeches) organised by these groups, as both speakers and supporters.
Indeed, the run-up to the elections saw the unprecedented growth of confidence and leadership within the Indian community – and all this organised for the first time, outside of the MIC umbrella. But the surprising poll result was also due to a heightened sense of political camaraderie amongst Malaysians of all ethnicities. In place of seasoned politicians, the Barisan Alternatif fielded fresh-faced political greenhorns, who spoke of change, reform and of building a ‘different’ Malaysia – one that would look beyond race, and would provide transparent and fair governance. To all who had experienced previous Malaysian general elections, there was something new and vibrant in the air.
There is no denying that the Hindraf protest was the catalyst that linked the ‘Indian’ grievances to the larger issue of ‘Malaysian’ dissatisfaction with the ruling Barisan Nasional government. Regional events during the course of 2007, such as the lawyers’ marches in Pakistan and street protests by defiant Burmese monks, had awakened a new political consciousness in Malaysia, as well. In late 2007, the Malaysian Bar Council marched to the Palace of Justice, demanding a more independent judiciary. Soon afterwards, Bersih (meaning ‘clean’), a movement for transparent, free elections, followed suit with a march in Kuala Lumpur.
But while these incidents helped to set the stage, it was the openly confrontational stance of the Hindraf protesters that removed the final taboo in Malaysian politics: that of non-confrontation with the powers-that-be. This taboo had been in place since the declaration of emergency following the May 1969 racial riots, after which laws such as ISA were enacted. The release of the five Hindraf leaders (still behind bars today) subsequently became the rallying cry for Indians and other disgruntled Malaysians alike. One of the detainees has even been elected in absentia to a parliamentary seat in Kuala Lumpur, and debates are ongoing as to whether he should be allowed to take the oath of office from jail.
Ironically, the changes that Hindraf’s challenge triggered left the Indian community without a strong political organisation to speak for it. The rejection of the MIC meant a loss of political leadership, in the absence of an alternative Indian political party under which to re-assemble. Instead, the leadership now came from a mixed group of Malaysian intellectuals, some of whom were established opposition leaders while others were new voices, including from cyberspace. Indeed, unbridled discussion on the Internet did much to politicise the Malaysian public rhetoric. For the first time in history, it seemed that Malaysian civil society, led by the younger generation, had shed its timidity. In addition, the fact that many of these outspoken intellectuals were prominent members of the three leading opposition parties allowed for a more direct transference of anger into political support when elections came around.
When the change finally came, however, few were actually prepared for it. Peninsular Malaysia almost completely rejected the Barisan Nasional, which was saved from outright defeat only by victories in the east Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. The MIC, on the other hand, which previously had never lost a parliamentary seat and had lost just one state seat, was completely trounced. Only three of the party’s parliamentary candidates won seats, none of whom was part of the top leadership. Likewise, the candidates fielded by the MCA were also rejected wholesale. Malaysia was then faced with an unprecedented political scenario, in which the ruling Barisan Nasional and the opposition Barisan Alternatif stood head-to-head in terms of political power and control.
The real drama has only just begun, as the Malaysian people attempt to make their ways along an uncharted political path. Having received the electorate’s overwhelming mandate, the biggest challenge for the Barisan Alternatif will be to walk the election talk in the five states and Kuala Lumpur where it has been elected to power. (Malaysia, having a federal system of government, allows the states autonomy to elect state governments). There are bound to be challenges, given that the federal government is still run by the Barisan Nasional. But it is equally imperative that a transparent, accountable and fair multi-racial government be established in those states that voted for the opposition coalition.
The Barisan Alternatif also faces the challenge of implementing the New Economic Policy, the affirmative-action programme adopted many decades, in a way that is fair to all Malaysians in the Barisan Alternatif-held states and Kuala Lumpur. Likewise, it will be crucial that the coalition continues to hold together its current united front, and does not devolve into bickering over power-sharing arrangements. All the while, maintaining racial harmony will remain a top priority, a task particularly well suited for Anwar Ibrahim’s multi-racial PKR.
After the initial euphoria settles down, Malaysians and the political leadership, particularly within the Barisan Alternatif, will inevitably face significant obstacles in the new political set-up. The Barisan Nasional, for its part, will have to try to re-invent itself, particularly by reviewing the continued relevance of ethnic-based politics in Malaysia. Meanwhile, Malaysia’s reputation abroad has undoubtedly gained a new shine, with regional investor confidence likely to be buoyed as the country sends a loud and clear message that it has finally evolved into a mature democracy.
Some significant steps forward have indeed been taken in Malaysia via the 8 March elections, and none too soon. But unless the Barisan Alternatif is able to quickly build confidence within the public, it may ultimately take very little to tip the balance back in favour of the Barisan Nasional – and the old Malaysian politics of ethnicity.