The turbulent relationship between Malaysia and India looks all set to take a turn for the worse after reports that the former has suspended recruitment of Indian workers. Though the Malaysian Minister for Works, S Samy Vellu, has denied that such a policy has been made official, his assertion that Indian workers were welcome ‘when needed’ is not exactly encouraging. Whether or not such a ban has official sanction, people are bound to link it with the recent stir over allegations of discrimination against people of Indian origin in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur has not been accommodative to the demands from ethnic Indians that they be given equal rights as other communities. India had expressed its disquiet at the developments in Malaysia at that time and the alleged ban will be seen as Malaysia’s way of hitting back. Earlier too, Malaysia had detained Indian IT professionals and let them off only after pressure from New Delhi. Now every country has a right to deny entry to foreign workers but Malaysia must realise that in a globalising world, it does not make either economic or political sense to raise barriers against the movement of labour.
For a start, with India’s economic growth in overdrive, Malaysia has been looking to do more business here. The Malaysian delegation now here for the sixth Pravasi Bharatiya Divas has been discussing business opportunities in India. India’s IT proficiency has proved very useful to Malaysia and so it is puzzling that it should target such people. Though the ethnic unrest has now simmered down, a ban on Indian workers could reopen old wounds. Indians comprise 8 per cent of the two million foreign workers in the country and are employed in crucial sectors like construction, IT and financial services. Malaysia’s policy of discrimination will only harm itself in the long-run and affect its reputation as a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society. Other South-east Asian countries have assiduously cultivated better relations with India with an eye on its vast and expanding market. If Malaysia does not take corrective action, it could well lose out on many economic opportunities. Given the number of ethnic Indians in the country, there should be a natural affinity between the Asian giants. It should learn from China, which has put aside its historic differences with India and actively expanded trade links.
The West has always been wary of Malaysia on several counts, ranging from its growing Islamisation to its lack of democratic rights. In this context, it makes sense to strengthen ties with its Asian counterparts, the biggest of which is India.