THE MALAYSIAN INDIAN IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM:
KEY NOTE ADDRESS BY
PROF. DATO DR. C.P. RAMACHANDRAN
Ladies and Gentlemen.
Welcome to the Millennium Conference for Malaysian Indians.
The theme of the Conference as you would have no doubt noted is 'Rebuilding
More than a year ago a few of us were discussing the incident in Kampong
Medan and were deliberating the big question of how marginalised Malaysian
Indians had become.
And after some discussion we felt that part of the cause for the dire
straits of the Malaysia Indians has been the relative non-involvement
of the middle class Indian in the effort to help the impoverished and
marginalised Indians in the country.
That a wide chasm exists today between the middle class Malaysian Indian
and the working class Malaysian Indian is an undeniable fact. It is
also a reality deeply rooted in the history of Indian migration to Malaysia,
euphemistically referred to as "labour" and "non-labour"
migrations. The former category primarily refers to the bulk of migrants
brought under the dreaded Colonial indentured system succinctly encapsulated
in the Colonial administrator Sir Thomas Hyslop's famous phrase:
"We want Indians as indentured labourers not free men"
The non-labour migrants refer to the "literate" Indians brought
in to man the administrative and clerical and security services. K.S.Sandhu
in his seminal work on Indian migration to Malaya, best describes the
genesis of the middle class - working class chasm as follows:
"Once this movement of literate Indians to Malaya began, many more
emigrated from the same localities, and found employment on plantations
and in other private enterprises where the employers found them invaluable
assistants in dealing with Indian labour"
"Invaluable assistants in dealing with Indian labour" is the
operative phrase. Herein lay the roots of the mindset of the middle
class Malaysian Indian of today. A mindset steeped in sublime ignorance
and blind arrogance, even to the point of denying the very roots of
our common genetic and ethnic heritage. A mindset that readily identified
with the ruling class to subjugate and lord-over our downtrodden brethren.
This same mindset persists today in the way we view ourselves. However
there is a big gap in the way others view us. It is of no consequence
to other Malaysians that we have Dravidian, Aryan or any other esoteric
roots; or that we come in many shades of colour. To them - we are just
In this beautiful multiethnic nation of ours, we have been and are,
either the object of envy or the subject of denigration- more often
than not, the latter. The microscopic minority that has achieved the
riches desired by all and sundry, remains miniscule and withdrawn from
the mainstream of daily problems faced by the toiling underclass majority.
In between we have the not so significant middle class that wallows
in its illusion of grandeur and is equally divorced from the problems
of the vast majority. All this is rooted in history. We need to understand
everything in the historical context before we can even begin to comprehend
the enormity of the challenges that we have to address if we are to
remain a meaningful component of the Malaysian polity in the new millennium.
A SENSE OF HISTORY
Without a sense of history any community is condemned to a time warp
of ignorance and inaction.
The saga of the Malaysian Indian is steeped in centuries of civilisational
hegemony - from the 1st to the 13th century as socio-cultural and religious
"rulers" and in the 19th and 20th centuries as the politically
and economically "ruled".
The Indian provided the civilisational foundation during the early centuries
of the first millennium for all ASEAN member nations, except Vietnam
and Philippines. Thus the historians reference to "Indianised States
of South-East Asia" or "Greater India". Lest it be forgotten,
it is the Indian civilization that provided the political, social, religious,
cultural and administrative leadership for this region. Historians Rawlinson
and Winstedt described this era as India's all but total cultural contribution
to Southeast Asia, from the first to the fifteenth century. After a
lapse of a thousand years these contacts were resumed but in less creditable
form. Indians did not return to Malaya as representatives of a prosperous
maritime nation but as indentured labourers from a land subject to alien
rule. (C.Kondapi: Indians Overseas, 1951)
It is a historical fact that the successors of Greater India transitioned
into the "cannon fodder" of the Colonial powers in the 19th
century. In Colonial Malaya they were the economic slaves of the British,
be it in the plantations or the administrative urban centers.
This position was somewhat maintained in post-Independence Malaya and
Malaysia. Whilst there was some upward mobility to professional and
middle-class ranks, this was largely confined to sub-ethnic groups that
had the initial advantage of English education and that, which placed
a high premium on education.
The majority of the Malaysian Indian has been mired in a proletarian
under-class status. In 1957 almost 70.4 percent of the Indian labour
force was in the rural plantation and mining sectors, 24.2 percent were
employed in government agencies mainly as labourers, 3.6 percent in
transport services and 1.8 percent in manufacturing. In 2000, 15.1 percent
remain in the agriculture sector whilst 62 percent are in the manufacturing
and services sectors. This fundamental shift from primarily rural work
"tapping rubber" to the urban work of "soldering chips"
and "driving lorries" is a reality that needs to be recognized.
Is there really a difference between the fetid, unending estate environment
and the inhuman squalor of the urban squatter colony?
THE PROBLEM STATED
The socio-economic problems faced by the production-service worker of
the 21st century are not much different from that experienced by the
indentured labourer of the 19th and 20th centuries. The setting has
changed but the problems have not.
They are very real- the low educational achievement, the social inequities
and the lack of political or economic clout. This is best seen in the
high dropout rate, the high crime rate and the dependence on political
and economic handouts.
Indians feature highest in all of the negative statistics.
" The second highest infant mortality rates.
" The lowest life expectancy rates- 67.3 years compared to national
average of 71.2.
" The highest school drop out rates best seen in the data that
only 5.0 percent of Indians reach the tertiary level compared to the
national average of 7.5 percent. [And to top it all, just recently we
have openly declared to the world that our students cannot make the
cut under the newly introduced system of meritocracy for tertiary intake!]
" The highest incidence of alcoholism, that cuts across all classes.
Alcohol it seems is the greatest leveler of class distinctions.
" The highest incidence of drug addiction in proportion to population.
" The highest number of prisoners in proportion to population.
" And we are told that the largest number of gangs is now Indian
gang and that 60 percent of serious crimes are committed by Indians.
These are depressing statistics. But is it all bad news? Not really.
Indians constitute 15.5 percent of professionals in the country. This
includes doctors (28.4%), lawyers (26.8%), dentists (21%), veterinary
surgeons (28.5%), engineers (6.4%), accountants (5.8%), surveyors (3.0%)and
architects (1.5%) and Scientists. There are also an increasing number
of businessmen in the Indian community. The Sindhis, Gujeratis and Punjabis
have been formidable businessmen, as are the Indian Muslims.
There are Indian contractors, road builders, oil and gas suppliers and
contractors and we are all aware of the Indian who built up a telecommunications,
media and gaming empire and the Indian who built one of the fastest
growing ports in the country, as well as Scientists and Doctors who
has reached highest positions.
Then again these high achievers are more than likely to be the descendants
of the "non-labour" migrants of yore.
INDIAN CONTRIBUTION TO NATION BUILDING
It is undeniable fact that Indians have contributed to the building
of this country since the 19th century. This is sometimes forgotten.
Indian labour opened up the country. Indian labour opened up the forests,
established the rubber plantations, built the roads, railways, set up
the transmission lines, built the ports and airports.
Indian civil servants formed the core of the civil service and the medical
service. Indian veterinarians looked after animal husbandry. Indian
teachers formed the backbone with the missionaries of the teaching service.
Indians pioneered private education in the country. (e.g. my father)
But this was at a high and often untold cost to human rights and dignity.
Hundreds of thousands of Indians died because of disease and hardship.
In the building of Port Klang alone more than 500 thousand Indians died
of malaria. The 1957 Federation of Malaya Census Report succinctly summarises
this point as follows:
"The important characteristics to note about Indian migration to
Malaya are that, firstly, the great bulk of this movement has been of
an ephemeral character, with approximately 4 million entering and 2.8
million leaving the country between 1860 and 1957. Secondly, much of
the 1.2 million net immigration appears to have been wiped out by disease,
snake-bites, exhaustion and malnutrition, for the Indian population
of Malaya in 1957 numbered only 858,615 of which 62.1 percent was local
The invaluable contribution of the Indians appears to have been forgotten.
But some have remembered. In 1975 a local born Indian known by his initials
SAJ wrote this unpublished Ode to the Indian Working Class and I quote:
"We tapped the rubber that beautified your homes,
We built the roads that produced your bountiful economy,
And now we live in non-descript squalor.
You pass us by and snigger at our sub-human status,
Not in the least realizing how our blood, sweat and tears,
Contributed to the comfort and the opulence,
You now enjoy!"
Whilst others may choose to forget, Indians should not forget. Indians
also played a role in the fight for Independence and in the fight against
the communists. It is sad therefore to contemplate the dire straits
the community is in today. The object of this conference is to bring
all Malaysian Indians, irrespective of language or location from India
into a common forum to discuss the Malaysian Indian dilemma and to examine
what role we can each play in helping the community at large. As our
numbers continue to decline, in a relative sense, we appear to become
less and less relevant. In 1957 we constituted almost 12 percent of
the population. It is forecasted that in the year 2020 Indians will
only form 6.4 percent. The implications from the political, social and
economic dimensions are self-evident. Perhaps in the Census of the year
2050, we may even be classified as "Others"! ( A real possibility)
ROLE OF THE MIDDLE CLASS
In a society where race determines opportunity the Indian is at a severe
disadvantage. All Indians must now become involved. The problem of the
Malaysian Indian community is our problem as well. We must acknowledge
it. It is our problem because the displaced, alienated Malaysian Indian
working class individual that gets embroiled in crime and other socially
unacceptable practices is not going to discriminate on the basis of
ethnicity in targeting his next victim. He is just as likely to rob
our homes or kill us as he would others. Why should he discriminate
in our favour when we have not done him or his family any favours?
We cannot like the proverbial ostrich pretend that it is someone else's
problem. It is ours and ours alone. This is precisely why we need to
build the bridges of social inclusion.
We are all Indians. Whatever the precise shade of our complexions or
shape of our noses, those outside the community perceive us, as Indians.
We should not be ashamed of belonging to the Indian community. We have
a common value system born in the cradle of the Indian civilization.
We come from one of the oldest civilizations in the world and this behoves
us to carry ourselves with dignity and distinction.
NEED TO ADOPT THE LEARNING PARADIGM
The adage " knowledge is power "is often used, but what does
it really mean to the individual and the community?
We can only be categorised as mindless robots if we repeat platitudes
but do not attempt to understand the real import! Worse still if we
do not put to use what we acquire as information and internalise it
as knowledge for the betterment of self and the community at large.
Pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge is indeed the domain of
philosophers in the Socratic tradition. Theirs' was a cerebral exercise
- to expand and extend the limits of logical thinking and to postulate
on the intricacies and the vagaries of life. They had their utility
in providing the intellectual tradition for the human civilization.
We can't all be Plato or Aristotle, but we can certainly use the information
available in this wondrous, yet daunting, era of the information society,
to upgrade our knowledge and skills to make ourselves better human beings.
For this, we have to rise above the level of textbook knowledge. We
have to stop gloating that we are educated, we are professionals, what
To be called "educated" one needs to translate the knowledge
acquired to strive for a higher and higher quality of life in the spiritual,
intellectual and of course the material dimensions. It is so very easy
to escape into the world of social snobbery using our so-called professional
-cum-educated status in society. However, deep in our souls we know,
it is certainly most difficult to be recognised as a truly educated
It is not the paper qualifications, but the possession of the mindset
to constantly strive for knowledge and thus a better understanding of
the rapidly changing world, that qualifies one to attain the humble
membership of the society of the educated.
Thus as a community we need to adopt a learning paradigm. Let us cast
aside our false pretences, our flawed assumptions and our predisposition
for myth making. That should be the start to opening up a whole world
of knowledge for the larger good of the community.
In my humble opinion, the Malaysian Indian needs to rediscover the
passion for learning and the thirst for knowledge. Then from a civilisational
perspective, Malaysian Indian community can reconstruct the glory of
past millennia and become meaningful players in the Malaysia of the
The reason for this conference is to establish a coherent framework
of action to guide individuals, groups and institutions to bring to
bear resources, to first resolve the inimical problems and second to
build a spirit of self-reliance.
It is only through a sense of history can the Malaysian Indian see himself
or herself as a person of self-worth and self-reliance. The achievement
of this state of consciousness can only come about if the Malaysian
Indian middle-class, unprecedented as it is, takes the bold step to
actively build bridges to engage the under-class majority. We cannot
afford to continue be polarized along the axis of opposition between
productive, information-rich, affluent groups and impoverished groups
that are economically devalued and socially excluded.
In my view to be socially and economically excluded is unfortunate,
but to be "included" and not do anything about it to benefit
the society we live in, is blatantly criminal. We all have important
and invaluable roles to play. We need to target segments of the population
to bring about "hubs of learning" to facilitate innovation,
creativity and entrepreneurship. Value creation that results from this
will contribute to economic development. Let us do it in small yet meaningful
ways; mini-projects in schools, places of worship, homes, and community
centres. What is required is a total effort by all sectors of society.
Sustainability in implementation of programmes and projects is critical.
Getting people involved in the process of transformation is key. It
must be people-driven. Of course people must want to change. We cannot
afford to subscribe to the view that one NGO's, one political party's
or one government agency's approach is the panacea for all problems.
Blind arrogance should not be allowed to control the way we need to
respond to challenges. History should not be allowed to repeat itself.
Can we not learn some lessons from our chequered history in this land
of milk and honey? Surely as individuals we need to first make the commitment
to life-long learning. Second, we can make someone, somewhere information-rich
by sharing our tacit knowledge, on a daily basis. The true meaning of
prosperity for Malaysian Indian in the new millennium can be an abiding
reality, if we can all make this commitment today. The paths to prosperity
begin with you!
If as a community we do not want to be marginalised to occupy the "exalted"
positions on the periphery of society, we need to make a positive start
by understanding the basis of the real problems and challenges. Then
and only then will our future be secure.
This indeed is a unique moment in history to rise above the petty prejudices
and ignorance and to take actions that will ensure the Malaysian Indian
a rightful place in the Malaysia of the new millennium.
It is battle for the hearts and minds and it must begin with the self-realisation
that it is "our problem", not someone else's. We can mobilize
the resources if we have the vision and the will to change our mindset.
Finally, I hope that cognizant of the aspirations of all other Malaysian
communities, you would conduct your deliberations in a constructive
and objective manner. In this regard, I would like to share with you
the words of wisdom given to us by none other than the late Indian philosopher
par excellence, Dr.S.Radhakrishnan:
" We may become learned and skilled, but if we do not have some
kind of purpose in our life, our lives themselves become blind, blundering
and bitter. For a truly cultured mind, there is a single-mindedness,
a dedication to a single purpose. For the uncultured mind, the whole
life is scattered in many directions. Therefore it is essential that
the education you acquire should give you not merely learning and skill
but endow you with a definite purpose in life. What that purpose is,
you have to define for yourself".
As for today and tomorrow, it is my fervent hope that you would single-mindedly
focus on charting the course for the advancement of the Malaysian Indian
in the new millennium.