Malaysia's leader vowed on Sunday to reduce poverty among minority ethnic Indians, who have become increasingly vocal with claims that they are marginalized in this multiracial country.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, speaking at a rally of more than 10,000 ethnic Indians, said poverty exists in all of Malaysia's ethnic communities - not just among Indians.
"We want to eradicate poverty among all races by 2010," he told the rally, organized by the Malaysian Indian Congress or MIC, the third largest party in Abdullah's ruling National Front coalition. He said he would form a panel to draw up anti-poverty measures for all races. He did not elaborate on the plan.
"We will ensure that not one race is left behind. That's my promise to you. We want to see everybody be successful," Abdullah said.
Abdullah is widely expected to hold snap general elections in March, a year before they are required. The National Front - which has been in power since Malaysia's independence from Britain in 1957 - is easily expected to return to power, even with the MIC facing widespread anger from its constituents.
Ethnic Indians, who make up 8 per cent of Malaysia's 27 million people, claim that the MIC has become corrupt and has not done enough to improve the situation for Indians, who remain at the bottom of Malaysia's economic and political hierarchy. Ethnic Malays, make up 60 per cent of the population, control the government and all state-owned enterprises. Ethnic Chinese, at 25 per cent of the population, dominate private business. "We don't trust the MIC. Now that (Abdullah) has promised to help us, we will wait and see," said Muthu Kumar, 41, a taxi driver.
Frustrated by years of feeling that they have been marginalized, about 20,000 ethnic Indians held an unprecedented anti-government rally on November 25.
The Indians, who are mostly Hindus, also complain that their temples are being destroyed by authorities in this Muslim-majority country. MIC chief Samy Vellu has denied that Indians are discriminated against, pointing out that they are free to practice their language and religion and run their own schools. In his speech on Sunday, Abdullah received the loudest applause when he announced an annual public holiday for the Indian religious festival of Thaipusam, which will be marked on Wednesday. The festival is already a holiday in some states with large Indian populations. The holiday will now be extended to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's main city, and to the administrative capital of Putrajaya, Abdullah said.