The world of Malaysian middle class Tamils is curiously free of much of the complexity that marks the life of diaspora. There is barely any trace of the cultural chaos that qualifies a lot of immigrants elsewhere, as Malaysian Tamils, whether ‘Madrasi’ or Ceylonese, betray little nostalgia for the legendary homeland or the green coconut trees there. While Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed’s vision of ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ (a united Malaysian nation) by 2020 CE may be a long way from becoming a reality, Malaysian Tamils already have more in common with their Malay neighbours in Petaling Jaya or Brickfields than with their extended families in Madras or Vavuniya. And, while they do face a cultural predicament, it is one that has little to do with their relationship with ‘home’.
The cultural divide in this case has more to do with such fine points as the use of coconut turmeric gravy versus sambar in the delicious puttu mayam. And the debate still rages on whether appam tastes better when made with hot coconut milk or a mix of cold coconut milk and flour. The strain is between the two overlapping, yet distinct groups that constitute the fledgling middle class Tamil diaspora in Malaysia: Tamils of mainland Indian origin and Tamils of north Ceylonese origin, each with its own culture, class, and home-grown recipe for traditional Tamil cuisine. The Ceylonese have sought to distance themselves from the Indian Tamils along class lines and the Indians, in turn, detest their one-time close association with the British colonisers, leading to pejorative jokes, chides and cultural prejudices within the community. Since the Sri Lankan Eelam war in 1983, there has been some sense of a unifying cause, but the old differences continue to fester.
But in spite of this tussle, there is a striking similarity in the way the middle classes of both groups come together to maintain a careful, calculated distance from the teeming masses of working class Tamils, almost all of Indian origin, who constitute the overwhelming majority of the Tamil community in Malaysia. A large number of them are still employed as rubber tappers and palm oil plantation labour. They continue to demand fixed minimum wages, basic human dignity and equal opportunities on par with other Malaysian citizens, even as their adopted country moves on with the ‘can do’ chant of “Malaysia Boleh” (Malaysia can).
Arguably, all Tamils – Ceylonese or Indian – are of the Indian diaspora since all of them migrated at one time or the other from India, but the Ceylonese rarely see themselves as such. A minuscule professional class, they are loath to come under the common label ‘Indians’; in Malaysia, where this grouping serves as a racial tag, all South Asian immigrants were clubbed together as Indians in colonial times. Now, officially at least, the Ceylonese come under the label ‘Others’.
Migration to Malaysia began in the wake of the British acquisition of the Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca, Singapore) in the late 18th century, with colonial officers actively encouraging immigration into Malaya. It intensified with the extension of British rule over the remainder of the Malay peninsula, particularly because the expansion of plantation agriculture resulted in an increased demand for cheap labour. And continued till the outbreak of the second world war, giving rise to an extraordinarily diverse colonial society where immigrants and indigenous people constituted near equal numbers.
Most first generation immigrants from Ceylon migrated in the early 20th century to fill up posts in British administrations all over the empire. Many came to Malaya, their English education enabling them to serve the British alongside others from India and China. Over a period of time, many of them climbed the ladder to command senior positions in the government services. In contrast, most Indian Tamils were brought to Malaya by the British as indentured labour and subjected to low wages, long working hours and unenviable living conditions in the shacks on British estates. Indentured labourers were largely drawn from the ranks of socially deprived ‘Madrasi’ Hindus (mainly Tamil, but also Telugu and Malayali), generally belonging to the lower castes. The disadvantages of such a start were compounded by a lack of emphasis on education so that the generations that followed the first were unable to lift themselves out of their blue-collar environment. The financial standing of the working class Indian Tamils, never good, was only aggravated with the passage of time, and they gradually emerged as the poorest section of Malaysian society.
Today, the Indian Tamil community is seen as a marginal minority, most members of which are still working in the plantations. It is weak in terms of political and economic clout, afflicted with all kinds of social problems and worst of all, it is a community prone to social violence and urban criminality. To cite a typical example, when Letchumi Venkataram started tapping rubber in Negeri Sembilan in the 1960s, she was paid 250 ringgits a month: 30-odd years later she had earned a pay hike of just 50 ringgits. The 60-year-old widow lost her job in 1993 after her employer sold the estate to a property developer. Although the plantation companies by law have to provide alternative housing for workers when they close down plantations, Letchumi has not yet been allotted a new home. “I am old but I will fight until I get that house I was promised”, she says defiantly. The fledgling middle class of Indian Tamils is too caught up in its own ambitions to rally behind the less-fortunate members of the community.
Despite Malaysia’s brilliant economic success in recent years, working class Tamils have limited access to housing, education and jobs. About 54 percent of Malaysian Indians, mostly Tamils, work on plantations or as urban labour, and their wages have not kept up with the times. A Malaysian Indian scholar terms them the “new underclass of Malaysia”. There is little doubt that the Tamil working class is the underside of Mahathir’s Malaysia. Even within its own community, it faces unconcern and even a degree of scorn from the small circle of Tamil professionals, Indian and Ceylonese, who have been in a position to take advantage of better education and the Asian economic boom. After more than a 100 years in Malaysian plantations and factories, the majority of Malaysian Tamils remains poor, patronised and marginalised in its own country, one that boasts one of the highest per capita incomes in Asia and markets itself as “Truly Asia”.
The race for class
A society of two or more elements of social orders which live side by side without mingling into one political unit is a plural one (JS Furnivall, Colonial Policy and Practice, 1956). Malaysia was a classic example of such a plural society, and the issue of ‘pluralism’ has prompted keen debate among scholars and commentators within as well as outside the country. In the conventional view, the most important divisions in the country today are between the ‘indigenous’ Malays, who monopolise political power, the ‘immigrant’ Chinese, who control the economy, and the Indians, who constitute the working class. The different ethnic groups still live side by side in their separate enclaves and are involved in different economic activities but rarely interact with each other except, literally, at the marketplace.
The plural society is, by and large, a colonial construction. In Malaysia, it came into being after the British imported indentured labour in the late 19th century from south China and south India. Today, almost half a century since the end of colonialism, of course, the description ‘multiethnic’ has replaced ‘plural society’ in a Malaysia where for a significant part ethnicity drives class identities and determines roles in the marketplace. And, although an aerial view may still throw up images of each ethnic group as having a homogenous identity, a closer examination of contemporary Malaysia reveals that the reality is not quite so simple.
The economic growth promoted by the New Economic Policy, introduced in 1970, and its corresponding socio-political development, has led to the emergence of a new system of social stratification in the country. With the slow breakdown of cultural divisions and economic specialisations, there appears to be an interplay of ethnicity and class in politics and society. The current way of understanding the new stratification is to imagine a set of vertical lines representing ethnic divisions, across which run a set of horizontal lines representing class divisions creating neat little ‘identity’ boxes. Most Malaysian experts have begun to see the necessity of hyphenating ethnicity and class, and this stratification explains to a large extent the internal differences within the Tamil diaspora which for long had its ethnic aspect in the beam of public light while its class aspect remained in shadow.
This new stratification is marked by obvious trends of convergence and contestation among the three major ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese and Indian. The best example of this is the popular medan selera (food court) in the Malaysian malls and supermarkets, including the well known Petronas Towers at the Kuala Lumpur City Centre. Spread over almost the entire floor of the mall, the medan selera offers a smorgasbord of aroma and delicious spicy food that Malaysians so love to eat any time of the day. At first sight, the stalls seem to be selling three distinct kinds of food: Malay, Chinese and Indian. But a closer look reveals that much of the food is of mixed variety. An Indian stall sells fish samba) (a Malay red chilli paste) or the Malaysian favourite nasi lemak; a Malay stall will serve prawns curried in mustard paste in distinctly Indian style; the Chinese will have stir-fried bhindi seasoned in south Indian style with curry leaves. If there is constant inter-ethnic cleaving and convergence anywhere in Malaysia, it is at the medan selera. The sight of an upper class Malay Muslim woman in a baju kurung and head scarf sharing a platter of seafood with a group of assorted non-Malays at a Chinese wedding is no longer surprising, as is not the fact that the Chinese will ensure that the food served at festivites is halal. At the International Islamic University on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, all female staff and students regardless of their religion or ethnicity are required to cover their heads and yet, traditionally attired Malay Muslim men serve alcohol in the many bars in Malaysia.
This, of course, is not to say that ethnicity has lost its salience in public life. In fact, it is a defining factor in politics and public policy formulation. The importance of Malaysian multiculturalism can be gauged from the ethnic mix of the Malaysian population, which in 1998 was 22.2 million (including 1.6 million non-citizens). The majority is made up by the bumiputera (literally, sons of the soil), who constitute 57.8 percent (Malays 49 percent, other bumiputera 8.8 percent) of the population. They are followed by the Chinese at 24.9 percent, Indians 7 percent, Others (including the Ceylonese Tamils) 3.1 percent, while non-citizens or aliens, mostly Indonesian migrant workers, constitute the remaining 7.2 percent.
When Malaya obtained its independence from the British in 1957, the main ethnic groups in the new state were only from Malaya or what is now West Malaysia: Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians and minority bumiputera, such as the tribal Orang Asli. With the inclusion of the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia in 1963, Malaysian multiculturalism was extended to incorporate the predominantly non-Muslim bumiputera groups from the region, such as the Kadazan Dusuns, Iban, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu and others, into the circle of its citizenship. (Singapore also joined the confederate state in 1963, but opted out in 1965.) The Malays and other bumiputera groups taken together are considered the indigenous people of the country. The nonbumiputera Chinese and Indians who migrated to Malaya for the most part only after the second half of the 19th century have however, with time, become an integral part of Malaysian society, contributing immensely to the country’s economy and development.
The transnational migration during the colonial era and in recent decades of workers has been a major factor in the making of modern Malaysian society. Its multiculturalism today can be seen to be characterised by the existence of, as a Malaysian Indian scholar commented, “the Malay-Chinese-Indian trinity in everything, from skin colour to religion, schools, dress and public policies”. This rings true as one detects that there are, indeed, three distinct ‘types’ of Malaysians: the ‘polite, respectful, laidback’ Malay, the ‘aggressive, efficient, and money-minded’ Chinese and the ‘talkative, lazy, mischievous’ Indian! Stereotypes, good-humoured racial jokes and mimicked accents abound in Malaysia, and the talk of each ethnic community about the others is at times not above either thinly disguised racism or patronising condescension.
The official political tradition in Malaysia has been to protect the bumiputera, privileging them as the rightful owners of land, and to treat the Indians and Chinese as ‘transients’ or second-class citizens preoccupied with making money. That the three major ethnic groups, or races as they are called in Malaysia – Malay, Chinese and Indians – survived the colonial period insulated within their own social and cultural spheres was the result of British divide-and-rule policy. Administration, education, land and labour policies were all formulated to ensure that ethnic divisions persisted and survived. By and large, the British were able to maintain a peaceful society through coercion.
The horrifying experience of the second world war and the Japanese occupation (1942) disrupted the calm and forced the locals to think of their future in new and different ways. The pro-indigenous nationalist policy of the Japanese allowed a section of Malays access to limited political power and space, and allowed the targeting of the Chinese as their principal opponents by singling them out as communists. The Japanese occupation had a major impact on inter-ethnic relations. After the Japanese surrender, the British imposed military rule until 1960, first as the British Military Administration and then with the emergency of 1948-60 when the communist insurgency was ruthlessly suppressed. Between 1945 and 1960, politics and society underwent a change such that after much bargaining among ethnic groups under Tunku Abdur Rahman, who called himself the prime minister of “the happiest country in the world”, the policy shift was made from ‘pluralism’ to ‘multiethnicism’. The central pillar of the ‘ethnic bargaining’ process was modern electoral politics, where ethnicbased parties were allowed to function and contest in elections, but only as coalition partners. The subsequent successful adoption of the constitution of postcolonial Malaysia was perhaps the most significant outcome of the bargain.
The constitution has since then been periodically adjusted to suit bumiputera – which by virtue of relative demographic strength translates into mainly Malay – interests, as well as to protect Malay political supremacy. Nowhere is this clearer than in Malay special rights in politics, education, employment and issues involving Islam and the Bahasa Melayu language guaranteed in the constitution and institutionalised in the New Economic Policy (NEP). In his much-quoted book, The Malay Dilemma, Mahathir Mohammed, the prime minister of Malaysia since 1980, writes, “In Malaysia, there can be no denying that the status of the Malays differs from the non-Malays. The Malays and the Red Indians of America are more or less in the same category. Malays are accepted as the indigenous people of the country, but the country is no longer exclusively theirs. However, in order to protect and preserve their status, certain laws are necessary”.
The constitution of 1957, most Malaysia watchers believe, struck a bargain between the two big ethnic groups, the Malays and the Chinese, where Chinese predominance in the economy was conceded in return for a Malay preponderance in politics and other state matters. The Indians, who did not constitute a majority in even a single electoral constituency in Malaysia, were too small a population to be considered in the bargain. Thus, while the constitution accorded the bumiputeras a series of special rights, and the Chinese a special dominance in the Malaysian businesses and enterprises, the Indians were the only ethnic group to leave the bargaining table without any gain. With an institutionalised differential incorporation of Malaysian citizens, they became second class citizens, surrounded by poverty in working class conditions, and felt caught in a vicious cycle from which they saw no way out.
This frustration is particularly marked among members of the younger generation who feel bitterly discriminated against in all fields, from education to employment, and enjoy none of the economic confidence and comfort that enables the Malaysian Chinese to mostly take this discrimination in their stride. Some scholars accuse the Malaysian state of practising racial policies in taking affirmative action on behalf of the majority Malays that put disadvantaged communities in an even more disadvantageous situation. But Mahathir Mohammed defends his laws by saying, “Clearly, unless special provisions are made, the chances are that the Malays will never go beyond an elementary education, and will never obtain jobs other than those of the lowest grade in this country”.
The minority partners of the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) in the ruling multiparty coalition the Barisan Nasional (National Front), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), continue to accept their subordinate position within the political formation in which the UMNO is undoubtedly the dominant partner. Although these two parties have succeeded, from time to time, in protecting non-Malay interests threatened by popular Malay demands, they have done little to advance non- Malay causes. They are seen as ‘patronage machines’ that give members of the non-Malay middle class access to the Malay dominated government and bureaucracy but offer little benefit to constituents from lower levels of the class hierarchy. “Racial inequality continues despite the law”, admits the prime minister, “but it is an inequality that can only be aggravated by removing the laws. The unfortunate position of the Malays which prompted the laws in the first place, has not been completely corrected … and certainly, without these laws the Malays will slide back into worse situations and increase existing inequalities” (The Malay Dilemma).
Thus, in Kuala Lumpur, the chances are that the taxi driver at the dazzling Sentral Station, or the salesgirl at Petrosains, the waitress at a restaurant, the sweepers at the public toilets, the youngsters distributing handouts of peri peri chicken to passers by at Imbi Plaza and the porters at the busy Pudu Raya bus station will be Indian.
Not Mahathir’s Malaysians
The teeming masses of Malaysia’s Indian Tamil population are certainly far from being Mahathir’s Malaysians. Though they form only 7 percent of Malaysia’s total population, they account for 63 percent of those arrested under the emergency ordinance (1969) for violent crimes. They also constitute 41 percent of beggars and 20 percent of child abusers in a long list of alarming statistics, which indicate social and economic marginalisation. Indians rank the lowest in national elementary school examinations and about one in every 12 Indian children does not attend primary school. “With the strong push for bumiputera economic development, the minorities were neglected”, writes a prominent social scientist from Kuala Lumpur. “Indians used to be well represented in the civil services but their numbers dropped in the wake of the New Economic Policy quotas for bumiputeras. Unlike the Chinese, the Indians did not have the economic clout to counter the NEP’s impact; they were also too few in number to wield much political influence. The result today is a nation divided as much along race lines as along class lines”.
Some blame the violence in Indian films for its adverse impact on the psyche of the youth, others blame what they feel is ‘racism in development policies’, and yet others say that the youth feel marginalised and trapped in poverty, and deprived of a caring and sharing government. The overwhelming feeling within the community is one of exclusion — from schools, institutions, enforcement agencies, government and the corporate world. The youth tend to seek a defence mechanism to overcome their problems; organising themselves into gangs or groups provide the Indian youth a sense of belonging, particularly if they are able to develop links with forces of power and money and so promote and protect themselves.
Opinions differ on how to solve the ‘Indian’ problem. The community does not consider the petty schemes that are handed out by the MIC and its associated wings sufficient. But most feel that the current gap between the working class and the educated and influential Indian middle classes must first be bridged if there is to be a change in the socio-economic conditions of the community. It is believed that the beleaguered working class needs role models to emulate and draw lessons from.
Recently, the leading English newspaper of Malaysia, The Star, published a news report on a questionnaire that was forwarded to a cross-section of private firms in Malaysia. When asked if they would employ an Indian, most said they would do so only after first considering a person from the ‘Others’ category. When asked if they would award promotions to an Indian, they admitted it was a not a priority. When asked why Indians were usually unsuccessful in getting jobs, the corporations claimed that during job interviews, Indians presented themselves poorly. Most social activists felt that one reason for these responses was that so far, the lower class Indians have been mingling only amongst themselves and that individuals from the higher classes should play a role in helping to develop their community. This involvement was more important and would yield better results than demanding development projects from the government or the MIC.
A first step in this direction seemed to have been taken in June 2002, when the middle class gave up two days of World Cup football to attend ‘The Malaysian Indian in the New Millennium’ conference in Kuala Lumpur at their own expense and stayed on throughout! A quick sampling of the 500 or so participants showed up teachers, lawyers, students, retired civil servants, social activists and entrepreneurs. It was possibly the biggest show of middle class support that the Indian community has seen in recent history. The critical question is, why now? Perhaps the rising criminality that threatens the entire community is a reason. The New Sunday Times reported on 9 June 2002: “The new and notable middle class involvement brings with it a psyche that demands respect and recognition because it is Indian and not despite it”. Whatever the reason for this sudden solidarity, hopefully it portends well for Malaysia’s Indian working classes.
After the first wave of indentured labour, subsequent immigration was largely clan-based, with a higher proportion of women and families than single men, and tended to be socially variegated. Thus, it was more likely to include people from the higher castes. A later wave brought the Chettiars, a Tamil merchant caste. Although only a small number of Chettiars migrated to Malaya, they exercised a disproportionate influence in the development of its commerce and economy, and even in the establishment of Agamic ‘great tradition’ Hinduism. Nattukottai Chettiars, who worshipped Murukan as a clan deva, built and maintained many Murukan temples in Malaysia and Singapore, imported Brahmin kurrukals and Brahmin orthodoxy, advised on the proper practices associated with Murukan worship and the conduct of Murukan festivals, and have underwritten many Malaysian religious activities. There were also some professional and clerical migrants, mainly well-educated Dravidians, largely of Tamil origin but also a large number of Malayalis from Kerala. Most of them sought employment in Malaya through the 1920s and 1930s, and many became involved in the post-war Tamil revival in Malaysia and Singapore. Clearly, middle class Indians have significant influence in their milieu, and have the potential to similarly inspire the community.
The recent unprecedented move of the middle class and professional crowd in willing to let go of the status quo and be together with ‘a different sort of crowd’ has redefined the prospects for the Indian community. Paradoxically, the conference of Malaysian Indians also brought into the open another problematic issue: it failed to come up with a standard definition of the term ‘Malaysian Indian’.
‘Who is the Malaysian Indian? What is his or her language, colour, religion?’ were questions that kept coming up but drew no clear answer. Several Punjabis and Bengalis refused to call themselves Indian, as this term has been almost completely monopolised by the Tamil-speaking population. So much so that the words ‘Indian’ and ‘Tamil’ have become synonymous in Malaysia and Singapore, much to the chagrin of the tiny non-Tamil Indian middle class population, which feels this issue must be addressed urgently along with other working class issues.
Perhaps the greatest challenge before Mahathir Mohammed as he begins to think of his legacy is the creation of an united Malaysian nation, or Bangsa Malaysia, in which different ethnic groups should be able to share a common ‘national identity’, maintain a high level of ethnic toleration and march towards greater economic success. But the rate of political liberalisation has not kept up with the pace of economic growth, and this may be the biggest hurdle in the path to that professed goal. Industrialisation and rapidly changing market forces driven by state-led modernisation over the last few decades have resulted in both material and ideational changes. And yet, Malaysian politics and public policies continue to be trapped in the outdated parameters of racism and majority reservation. It is not only the Indians, but also the minority bumiputera and other smaller groups that continue to be marginalised in a political system that doles out support to only the majority.
Over the period of a century and a half, the descendants of indentured immigrants from South Asia have emerged as vibrant diaspora communities in different parts of the world. Their experiences in different countries have been different: from being marginalised in Jamaica, being in bitter ethnic confrontation in Guyana and Suriname, to gaining political visibility in Fiji and Canada, and a position of near dominance in Trinidad. With the second or third generation of native-born members of the diaspora growing up amidst an assimilating culture, it is generally seen that the cultural bond between the diaspora and the home country becomes weak enough to be forgotten. What assume greater significance are the factors and forces that shape their differential socio-cultural situation and political-economic position.
The largely Tamil Indian community in Malaysia which was grateful to be granted citizenship in the 1957 constitution – itself an exercise in ‘ethnic balancing’ – is now restless and troubled as it realises that most of Malaysia’s poor today are Indians. While globalisation and economic development have introduced major changes in society and the economy, unchanging ‘ethnic’ arrangements in politics have led not only to the fragmentation of Malaysian society but have also limited career options and growth opportunities for Indian youth. There still exists a discriminatory ethnic division of labour together with what a social activist calls, “a sort of ethnic glass ceiling”. Unable to change a socio-economic environment they did not make and have no power to influence, the youth resort to random acts of violence instead of engaging in the popular politics of mobilisation.
In subscribing to an ‘Asian style democracy’, validated by, certain ‘Asian values’, government leaders such as those in Malaysia and Singapore believe there is nothing universal about democracy and human rights, both of which are deemed to be culturally structured. To them, economic development must take precedence over such rights, and discipline and conformity to group values are more desirable than individuality and freedom. The price of such politics, of course, is paid by many of the minority groups in those countries; the Malaysian Indian working class is a good example of this.
There are Tamils, and there are Tamils
IN KUALA Lumpur, Indians are everywhere. The girls wear prominent bindis, locally called ‘pottu’, with trousers and shirts, while the boy are conspicuous in their gold earrings, knee-length shorts and amazing criss-cross haircuts popularised by African-American television stars. Salzvar-kameezes, locally called ‘Punjabi suit’ are worn without the mandatory dupatta, and a lady wearing a sari to work is goodnaturedly accused of overdressing. But few of the Jaffna Tamils can be seen outside their air-conditioned offices or arty homes, where they are occupied with entertaining Vietnamese delegations, signing software and financial deals. Or else, they are busy delivering memorial lectures on political geography or cultural politics, dining at the posh Madam Kwan’s in KLCC, spending lazy weekends at seaside resorts in Port Dickson, visiting the uptown clubs and driving around in shining Mercedes-Benz cars.
The Ceylonese ‘Jaffna’ Tamils, mostly from the northern parts of erstwhile Ceylon, retained a strong sense of exclusivity until well after independence, refusing to identify themselves with the wider Tamil community. The Ceylonese were drawn overwhelmingly from the dominant Vellalar caste and like the Chettiars practised Agamic ‘great tradition’ Hinduism.
In spite of having a lot in common, the Indian and Ceylonese middle. classes have between them a yawning gap. On the whole, the Jaffna Tamils claim to be more religious, speak a more ‘refined’ version of Tamil, eat the same food but prepare it differently, follow many different rituals and most of all, maintain a certain ‘apartness’. “We kottes are somewhat biased”, admits a software consultant of Ceylonese Tamil origin. Their efforts at maintaining distance are ridiculed by the Indian Tamils, who let no opportunity pass to point out the common roots. “After all, all Tamils are originally Indians, no matter how badly they want to forget the past”, insists an Indian Tamil professor.
The Ceylonese Tamils are also differentiated from their Indian brethren in their widespread practice of dowry. The thriftiness in many Ceylonese Tamil families has pretty much everything to do with the dowry they have to give away with their daughters at marriage. From the moment a girl is born into a family, the element of saving is a natural process. Though the practice of dowry is not as rampant as before, it is still prevalent among the many conservatives.