The trappings were similar but the approach was different as Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out on Sunday to the Indian diaspora in Malaysia, describing them as the “living bonds of friendship” between the two countries.
For one, Modi chose to speak in English – largely because many members of the diaspora have their roots in southern India and aren’t familiar with Hindi.
He also quoted from Tamil icons of the past and present – poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar and former President APJ Abdul Kalam – for a greater connect with the audience of about 15,000 at the Malaysia International Exhibition and Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur.
The event, billed as “Malaysia Welcomes Modi”, was similar in other aspects to the elaborate shows organised in other countries with a large Indian-origin population that the Prime Minister has visited in recent months.
Musical performances primed the audience before Modi arrived at the venue from the suburb of Petaling Jaya, where he unveiled a statue of Swami Vivekananda at the Ramakrishna Mission. Even before he stepped on the stage, the air was rent with cries of “Har Har Modi”, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and “Jai Hind”.
Modi began his speech with “Vanakkam”, a greeting in Tamil, drawing loud roars from the crowd comprising people of Indian origin – who account for almost 8% of Malaysia’s population – and Indian expatriates, who number about 130,000.
“As I stand before you, I am reminded of the words of the great Tamil saint Thiruvalluvar: ‘Friendship is not just a smile on the face. It is what is felt deep within a smiling heart’,” Modi said, standing on the arena’s large stage, bathed in lights that would not be out of place at a rock concert and flanked by massive screens that beamed huge images of the Prime Minister.
“The saint’s words on friendship capture the feeling that I get each time I come to Malaysia.”
Modi recalled the Malaysian-Indian community’s role in World War II and the freedom movement led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
“Thousands of your forefathers came forward to join Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army...Today I pay special tribute to Puan Sri Capt Janaky Athi Nahappan, who served as deputy to Capt Lakshmi Sehgal,” he said, adding the Indian government would name its cultural centre in Kuala Lumpur after Bose.
Paying tribute to the countless Indian soldiers who died in the battlefields of Malaysia in World War II, he said India is prepared to work with the Malaysian government to build a war memorial at the site of Battle of Kampar in Perak.
Modi also announced measures to strengthen the connection with the diaspora, saying his government would give an additional $1 million to a trust fund set up in 1954 to give financial aid to Malaysian-Indian children who lack the means for education.
India had merged the OCI and PIO cards and made visas for the diaspora life-long, he said. “Besides, Indian origin up to fourth generation is enough to register for OCI now. This is especially helpful for people like (Malaysian) Indians, whose ancestors came here generations ago,” he added.
Minor children who are foreign nationals and foreign spouses too can get OCI-status and India has introduced e-visas to make travel simpler. Modi said he also intended to take up with his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak the need for both countries to recognise each other’s educational degrees.
The Prime Minister ended his speech with a quote from APJ Abdul Kalam, describing him as a “great son of India” and a “symbol of humanity”. He said Kalam had once stated his message, especially to young people, is “to have courage to think differently, courage to invent, to travel the unexplored path, courage to discover the impossible, and to conquer the problems and succeed”.