The Malaysian government’s decision to set up a ‘special committee’ to probe the demands of the ethnic Indian minority and resolve the community’s alleged ‘marginalisation’ is welcome. Recent demonstrations by ethnic Indians denouncing alleged racial discrimination had forced law enforcement authorities to use tear gas and water cannons against protestors. This only served to strengthen allegations that human rights were being violated. Not surprisingly, the flap prompted New Delhi to make guarded statements about being “concerned” over the plight of Indians in Malaysia.
Of course, Kuala Lumpur’s angry reaction to this perceived “meddling” in its “internal affairs” is understandable, considering no citizen of any State can be above its law. But then that is the big question these protests raise: is there really a lack of educational and job opportunities for ethnic Indians in Malaysia? After all, successive administrations in Kuala Lumpur were known to adopt an affirmative-action policy in favour of the majority ethnic Malays. It is an open secret that racial politics still prevail in Malaysia despite being ruled by a coalition of political parties of the three main races — Malays, Chinese and Indians — since the country’s independence. This is borne out by the fact that few multi-racial parties ever made any headway in Malaysian politics, which has led to perpetual coalition rule of the major race-based parties. Whenever the political leadership tried to forge a Malaysian identity, the Malays in the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) — the predominant party in the coalition — saw to it that the effort was thwarted. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi himself admitted this when he described the worsening relationship between the Muslim Malays and the minority ethnic Chinese and Indian communities as a “disease” that had to be tackled quickly.
With rising fundamental overtones of Islam feeding the insecurity among minority groups, it is not difficult to see why racial polarisation in Malaysia is a disturbing fact. Hopefully, Kuala Lumpur has reckoned with these issues in its bid to to resolve the current crisis.