Like people, no nation would like anything to spoil its birthday party — and Malaysia is no exception. It’s unfortunate that the unrest in the country happens at a time when it celebrates 50 years of independence. The ethnic Indian community staged its biggest anti-government protest last Sunday, thousands of protesters braving tear gas and water cannons to raise their voice against alleged racial discrimination. From all accounts, the demonstrators — mostly ethnic Tamils, the descendants of 19th-century indentured labourers from India who worked for British colonists — tried to march to the British High Commission to submit a memorandum for the British Queen. They wanted her intervention in a legal case filed by the Malaysia-based Hindu Rights Action Force against the British government, demanding $ 4 trillion in damages from Britain for what they call “150 years of exploitation” of ethnic Indians by their colonial masters.
Although the trigger for such an outpouring of popular anger is not clear, it’s possible that the recent demolitions of Hindu temples could have brought the growing frustration of ethnic Indians over the lack of job opportunities in the country to a boil. It is no secret that the rise in extremist Islamic overtones has created insecurity among Chinese and Indians there. This adds a dangerous dimension to issues like economic disparity, and the lack of educational and job opportunities, and pushes people out on the street. The irony is that while Malaysia prospers, Malaysian Indians, who make up about 7 per cent of the population, feel marginalised. This is reflected in the growing number of ethnic Indians being held in prisons and detention centres.
It is imperative for the government to address this sense of alienation. After all, would Malaysia be the prosperous society it is today but for the contribution of these people to its rubber boom and its civil service? It will be a sad day for all Malaysians if the country loses its credentials as a stable State that takes pride in its ethnically harmonious society.