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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

My Article in The New Indian Express

This appeared today on page 8 of The New Indian Express.

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The Malaysian Apartheid
By Sharanya Manivannan

In August this year, I was given the opportunity to travel to Indonesia to participate in a literary festival that counted among its highlights a performance at the Borobudur temple. The deepest impression that the most populous Muslim nation in the world left on me was the co-existence of its rich pre-Islamic history with its current faith: the Ramayana is almost as Indonesian as it is Indian, a Muslim writer friend is named Laksmi, and the glorious 11th century Buddhist Borobudur and 9th century Hindu Prambanan temples inspired, alongside awe and reverence, a deep sadness at how temples in neighbouring Malaysia were being treated.


In just over a month from then I would return to India from Malaysia, where I had lived for nearly seventeen years, frustrated and fearful about the rising ethnic tensions and increasingly blatant discriminations practiced there. No proof, no locus standii whatsoever, of having lived there for so long – no permanent residency, no citizenship, nothing but a frequently-renewed tourist visa when my student one expired and the scars of the ensuing repeated interrogations at immigration. It was a painful departure, but I left with a certain instinctual anticipation of disaster to come. I had been following the spate of illegal and unethical demolitions of Hindu temples in Malaysia for a year and a half, and while a media blackout persisted, a sense that the loss of those profoundly symbolic markers of identity was radicalizing several forces in society, both egalitarian and otherwise, was quite evident to me.

Last week, the simmering resentments of a nation under a formal apartheid exploded. The constitution of Malaysia explicitly privileges the Malay Muslim majority’s access to opportunity, and indeed claim to the nation itself, and the inherent racism of this sentiment is one that trickles down through all sectors of society. The superficial image of multicultural harmony that it had somehow managed to convince the world of has begun to fray in no uncertain terms.

By now, the mass protests highlighting the plight of Malaysians of Indian origin are common knowledge. But perspective on the broad issues of race, class and religion in Malaysia remains distorted not only because this is the first time that open acknowledgement of the reality that is Malaysia is happening on a global front, but also because of what seem to be various internal agendas. That Malaysia has reached a catalystic moment is beyond doubt, but what happens now remains to be seen.

At present, the issue is presented in an almost clear-cut Tamil Hindu vs Malay dichotomy. But this is a fundamentally flawed picture: there are three major races in Malaysia (the Chinese included) and many smaller minority groups. Sub-racially, too, Tamil Hindus do not make up the entire population of Indian origin; significant Malayali, Punjabi and other communities exist, with the usual smorgasbord of religious denominations also. The entire bureaucratic system of Malaysia privileges the Malay above all of these groups.

Historically, Malaysians of Indian origin have been at the lowest rungs of the race/class ladder because of how they migrated there in the first place, usually in the servitude of the British empire. Post-colonial Malaysia did not only keep the divide-and-conquer system intact, it augmented it, making race essentially the be-all and end-all of everything. And yes, the Indian minority does have it worst – socially, economically and politically. But under a political system that thrives on division and uses the threat of discord as a means of ensuring silent acquiescence, everybody suffers. To different degrees, admittedly, and a few, maybe not at all. But by and large, living in a society that judges, rewards and punishes on purely race-based motives takes it toll. To live conscious of inequality makes one a participant, willing or not, victim or not.

So for Hindraf, the organization behind the rally of thousands seen on TV screens all over the world last week, to portray the issue as a Tamil Hindu one only not only detracts from the big picture, but further polarizes communities. For them to also sue Britain and demand compensation amounting to a total of USD$14 trillion is regressive. The point of decolonization is to free oneself from the shackles of foreign rule. Pinning the blame on the former colonizer instead of admitting that the problem is internal and has persisted for fifty years after independence because of internal factors is just evading the heart of the problem.

While a mass demonstration of that sort and scale of drama could help change Malaysia for the better, I do not think that the manner of execution and the lack of follow-up will help anything at all, except perhaps the pre-existing status quo and commonly-held stereotypes that Indians are violent, emotionally volatile and deserving of mockery.

The plight of Malaysians under their deliberately divisive government is both real and needs urgent rectification, and it would be a shame for the sudden international awareness and ire raised to go to waste because of a lack of vision. And yes, the plight of Malaysians per se, not just those who are of a certain origin.

So what is in store for Malaysia? When I consider what a good solution might be, I think of dialogue and debate, of the population willing to speak out, of the fear of the government’s draconian laws toward dissent and criticism dissipating. When I try to imagine an ideal situation, an eventuality I might hope for for Malaysia, I am brought back again to temples. Once more, the sheer symbolism of them, of what they represent, comes to mind.

Once more, I think back to the hijab-ed women selling fiberglass replicas of the Prambanan temple in Indonesia. Purely commercial perhaps, I know I ought to assume in this cynical, globalized world, but I don’t really think so. Something about that co-existence, that acceptance, understanding and perhaps even pride – Muslim women in a Muslim country at the foot of a relic to a faith of a different time for that location, making their living literally under its auspices – gives me hope.

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