Interview on the Malaysian Situation in Today's DNA
Most of the interview was conducted via email (with a phone call to clarify things after). As a journo myself, I understand the pressure of deadlines and word limits, which usually results in a different take than originally expected.
But fortunately, since I have the transcript of the email interview, I thought I'd share that too:
Hindraf and other ethnic indian groups claim that they are being treated as second-class citizens in
Second-class would be an upgrade, in fact: the absence of economic clout, which the Chinese for instance arguably possess, puts ethnic Indians in an even more disadvantaged state. To make one thing clear, Article 153 of the Malaysian Constitution explicitly privileges Malay Muslims above all other ethnicities. Indians happen to have gotten the shortest end of the stick due to a number of different historical forces, including how large groups of them came to British Malaya in the first place – as coolies, in servitude. Malaysia became independent on August 31 1957, just over 50 years ago. Under the new Malay leadership, the divisions that existed in the colonial era only continued to thrive. To this day, the UMNO party calls on the concept of "Ketuanan Melayu" (Malay Supremacy) as a means of upholding racial harmony. That so absurd a concept as racial supremacy, and the expectation of kowtowing to a certain race so as to maintain general peace and order, can exist in the modern world is perplexing.
Like all widespread discrimination, it is difficult to pick a single anecdote that defines it. It is not enough to say, for instance, that the derogatory word keling is still widely used to describe Indians. It is not enough to say, for example, how the Tamil language and Indian accents are mocked so commonly that it's a part of pop culture. It is not enough to talk about the stereotypes of violence and alcoholism associated with the community. It is not enough to talk about the recent body snatching cases, in which the corpses of Hindu men have been taken away from their families by authorities and given Muslim last rites based on hearsay. It is not enough to tell you how I have been harassed and interrogated at immigration checkpoints while always traveling legally. It is not enough to tell you about how my grandfather had a passport thrown at his face and was shouted at by a Malay officer at a Malaysian consulate in Chennai. It is not even enough to begin to speak about the superiority complex many Malaysian Indians I have met have over Indians from India, a superiority complex borne out of insecurity, envy and self-loathing. But it's hard to accept that one's own country is a dystopia, it's hard to accept that one is essentially an outsider in one's own home. So I do see where a mentality like that comes from.
How does the Bhumiputra policy/ other policies of the government work to perpetuate ethnic divisions? Since when did these come about?
I am no expert on Malaysian history, and my observations are much more empirical in nature. But from what I understand, the Bumiputera policy was invoked when independence was declared. It seems to be a misconception that it was a residue of the colonial era – the Reid Commission was set up to oversee the liberation of Malaya, and there was some debate on how to reconcile the desire of the future Malay leaders to protect Malay interests with the rights of the minorities. In the end, the first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, decided that Malay privilege was the way to go.
The policy allows Malays a large, purely race-based quota to enter universities, discounts when buying land or property, and other quotas including civil service jobs and contracts. Officially, I believe the bumiputera policy is supposed to protect indigenous minorities also. But being non-Muslim is a setback in terms of actualizing this privilege.
I find that blaming the British for the state of Malaysia today is regressive. The point of decolonization is to move on, to shake off the sense of being subjects. Fact is that the Malaysian governments of the past five decades and the people who continue to keep them in power are responsible for the current situation.
I've always found it richly ironic, and in fact have a poem to that effect which I never dared to perform in Malaysia, that the words bumi (earth) and putera (prince) are Sanskrit terms. As Indian as I am. As Indian as my passport, the one which after seventeen years of living in Malaysia bore not a single shred of claim to the nation where I spent the largest chunk of my life but a feeble tourist visa, renewable after extensive questioning once a month.
"Temple demolitions have emerged as a critical point in the mobilisation of ethnic Indians." This is a very astute observation. Something about the loss of these temples has been a catalyst for very old aches and resentments. There's something (quite literally) concrete about them, you know? Concrete and symbolic. And to have them demolished is an affront not just on a personal level, as might be a racial slur or a rejection from a university, but taps into some deep collective psyche.
As for the image of Malaysia in the outside world – it's about time for things to be set straight, I think. What is happening in Malaysia is nothing less than formal apartheid. The fact that its Tourism Board promotes a postcard-perfect, multi-culti impression of it is rather audacious in perspective. You have to understand that I say all this as a person who loves Malaysia, but who was forced to leave.
How do ethnic Indian Muslims respond to a campaign that appears to centre around the temple demolition protests? Do they also empathise with Hindus because they too feel economically disempowered? Or does their Islamic identity override their Indian identity?
I don't know enough to answer this question, but I can provide just a little background. There are many Indian Muslims in Malaysia who campaign to be legally recognized as Malays, because becoming Bumiputeras frees them from economic disenfranchisement. On how they feel about a campaign that takes as its catalyst the temple demolitions, I simply am not qualified to comment. But I can say this much – it may be judicious to look at the racial issues of Malaysia on a bigger platform than via the Indian Hindu voice alone, and perhaps this is something that dissident groups in future may consider.
In your estimation, has the Malaysian Indian Congress failed in representing the interests of the Indian community? How do its leaders continue to get elected?
The MIC has certainly failed, as evidenced by the plight of Indians in Malaysia today. This is pretty unambiguous. Truth is that while living in Malaysia, I never thought about the MIC's actions or politics. Probably because they are simply not relevant, I think, not as relevant as they should be. For an ineffective party to still be around and still officially be the leaders of a community is probably in the best interests of the ruling majority, and this may be one of the reasons why they have continued to survive in present form.
Could you kindly trace the evolution of Hindraf? How do you account for its rise - and huge popularity? Where does it gets its support from? Does it have any solidarity in other countries –
I do not know enough about Hindraf to comment on this, and in fact only came to know about them through my research into and desire to spread awareness about the temple demolitions. On this note, you asked me to comment about my own involvement via my blog on this issue. When I first began blogging in April 2006, I chanced upon a report about a temple demolition, and began to keep an eye out for more. And more came. What I did for some time was to basically round up such articles and post them online, for others like me who were curious, particularly because there was a media blackout within Malaysia itself. Things came to a head when I decided to write to the Indian PM, my PM, about the issue – calling him out on the Indian government's silence on an issue of clear religious and ethnic discrimination, particularly since it had responded to the Danish cartoons, for example. At this time I was still a student in Kuala Lumpur. For the most part of this year, because I had needed to live in Malaysia on a tourist visa by then, I lay low on the issue. My return to India at the beginning of October gives me that freedom of expression again.
How do you, as an erstwhile ethnic Indian in
I am being cautious about aligning myself in any direction. Agendas abound in all quarters, and it is difficult to make statements without them being interpreted one way or another. Someone told me that the memorandum which the protestors attempted to hand over was blatantly racist. I don't think reverse racism is justifiable in official terms, in the terms of a memorandum. But it's tricky – how can one write about one's suffering in a way that isn't reactionary?
I support Hindraf when it comes to the reason for their protests, but not necessarily in their method of execution.
You've frequently said that temple demolitions aren't just about religion. Could you kindly elaborate what other things they stand for...
And then there is the claim of ethnic Indians to the nation, today. I have ethnic Indian friends who are fifth or six-generation Malaysian. They are not Indian; Malaysia is their country, and ought to be their home. One occasionally hears bigoted statements along the lines of "the Indians can/should go back to India". Such statements are exactly the same as telling African-Americans to return to Africa. This is not a new diaspora, and indeed it is a diaspora of similar history and struggle. Not all Malaysian Indians are Hindus, of course – but it is impossible to attack churches without rousing ire from quarters more prepared to fight back, and attacking mosques seems a bit self-defeatist for those who carry these attacks out. I'll note here that to my knowledge, one indigenous church and one Taoist temple were also demolished unethically. But otherwise, it has been Hindu temples throughout.
It isn't just about the fact that these temples are going down in dozens – it is also about how it happens. Temples are stormed into in the middle of prayer sessions, devotees are attacked, statues of deities are smashed to smithereens. Is such violence necessary? If authorities are only seeing the law across, taking back squatter land as is claimed, why bring physical wounding, humiliation and emotional trauma into the picture? All of these things say: the ways of your people are not welcome in this land.
Like all things about a Hindu temple – its structure, its statues, its times and types of prayers and its very mythology – the destruction of one is symbolic, too. To demolish these temples is a message of unequivocal intolerance to the Indian, whether or not s/he is a practising Hindu. A message that says, no matter how long you have been here, no matter how much you or your ancestors contributed, you can and will always remain subjugated.