Hindraf and the Pluralisation of the Malaysian-Indian Community

By Farish A. Noor

Since it came to the public stage of Malaysian politics the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) of Malaysia has been cast as a troubling phenomenon, but to whom? Predictably the reaction of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and its leadership has been to respond to Hindraf’s demands by stating that it is a troublesome organisation that is bent on dividing (and consequently weakening) the Indian community. Hindraf however has defended its actions on the basis that the MIC has singularly failed to defend the interests of the Hindus of Malaysia, and that the leadership of the MIC is entirely beholden to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition instead. The vernacular Malay press in turn has attacked Hindraf on the grounds that it was seen and cast as being ‘anti-Malay’; though Hindraf in turn has proclaimed its loyalty to the concept of Malaysia as a universal idea while rejecting the notion of Malay cultural and ethnic supremacy.

Needless to say, these manifold configurations and postures has made it difficult to locate Hindraf on the Malaysian political landscape; but it has also expanded that very same political landscape to include a new range of disaffected and marginalised political actors. What many critics have failed to recognise is that despite the verbal pyrotechnics employed by Hindraf, it has actually contributed to the pluralisation and complexification of the Indian minority, and by doing so has rendered the simplistic mode of race-based politics in Malaysia more and more difficult.

While Hindraf’s appeal to the Indian minority in Malaysia is primarily communal and sectarian it has also introduce a cleavage – both political and ontological – in the Malaysian-Indian community itself. Hindraf’s sustained efforts to highlight the marginalisation, alienation and discrimination in all walks of life did not merely challenge the staid rhetoric of the Malaysian state whose brand of multiculturalism dates back to the mode of race-relations first developed during the colonial era, but more importantly rendered hollow the MIC’s claim to be the main representative, patron and protector of the Malaysian-Indian community.

Many of the accusations levelled by the leaders of Hindraf towards the leadership of the MIC and its President Samy Vellu in particular were based on long-held grouses that were nurtured over Samy Vellu’s long stewardship of the party: During the time of Samy Vellu the MIC expanded its patronage machinery and used its educational outreach unit, the Maju Institute of Educational Development (MIED) to sponsor the education of more than 10,000 Tamil schoolchildren. In 1982 Maika Holdings was created by the MIC to help pool together the economic resources of the Indian minority so that they could collectively invest in Malaysia’s economic development. Maika however was criticised by some as a patronage arm of the MIC, despite the fact that it was built from the collected sum of RM 106 million that was raised by many poor Tamil families. Following a succession of mismanagement scandals, Maika faced serious losses and many of the Tamil families could not recover their investments. In the face of growing criticism of his leadership Samy Vellu maintained a strong grip on the MIC: S. Subramaniam, who was brought into the MIC during the time of former MIC President Manickavasagam, was one of the strongest opponents of Samy Vellu, and accused the latter of mismanagement of the party. Nonetheless Subramaniam was defeated at the MIC Annual General Meeting of 2006, shoring up Samy Vellu’s position in the party even further.

When Hindraf began mobilising its supporters in 2006 in defence of the Hindu temples that were being demolished all over the country, much of its criticism was directed towards Samy Vellu and the senior leadership of the MIC who they accused of betraying the Indian minority and not being able to stand up to the demands of the UMNO party that leads the ruling BN coalition. Linked to the Hindu temples issue were other complaints related to the MIC’s finances, its alleged failure to uplift the economic condition of the Hindus; its failure to defend Hindu culture, language and identity, etc.

As a result of these complaints being aired in public, Hindraf had inadvertently exposed the class divisions that now exist within the membership of the MIC and the gulf of power, wealth and influence between the MIC leadership and the rest of the Indian minority community. This is ironic considering the fact that the MIC was originally set up by Indian activists like John Thivy, K. Ramanathan and Budh Singh in 1946 to defend the interests of the Indian working class and to struggle for economic and social equality in the first place. By emphasising the weakness and marginalisation of ordinary Malaysian-Indians and contrasting their lot to the opulence and luxury of those who claimed to be their leaders and spokesmen, Hindraf has actually introduced the fault-line of class difference within the Indian community itself, thereby rendering any simplistic attempts to homogenise the Malaysian-Indians as a singular political constituency more problematic.

Here lies the paradox that Hindraf itself has introduced into the equation of Malaysian politics: On the one hand it is a communitarian and sectarian organisation that seeks to mobilise and consolidate the Indian minority in Malaysia on the basis of an exclusive racial and religious identity; but on the other hand it has succeeded in doing so by adopting the rhetoric and discourse of betrayal and neglect of the community by some of its own; namely the leaders of the MIC. Hindraf has therefore contributed to the problematisation of the category of ‘Indian-ness’ itself, making it consequently more difficult for both the MIC and the ruling National Front to maintain its divisive form of communal sectarian politics that has always relied upon the instrumental fiction of neatly divided and compartmentalised racial groupings. What Hindraf has done via its street demonstrations and campaigns to discredit the MIC leadership is to demonstrate that the Indian community is not a singular bloc that can be reduced to one essentialised stereotype or compartmentalised within neatly-defined and hermetically sealed borders.

The responsibility, therefore, falls on the shoulders of the parties of the ruling National Front that have for so long maintained the culture and norms of divisive race and religion-based politics in the country. Malaysia is in need of a new politics that transcends racial and ethnic divisions, or at least one that recognises the complexity of the plural communities that reside in this country. One thing however is certain for now: Hindraf’s very presence on the political stage signals that some sections of the Malaysian-Indian community no longer see the MIC as the sole patron and protector of the Malaysian-Indians of Malaysia.

*Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.

  1. #1 by k1980 on Saturday, 16 February 2008 - 9:18 am

    The reason why PM won’t accept Hindraf’s 200 roses

  2. #2 by jfl on Saturday, 16 February 2008 - 9:35 am

    To the Indian community,I take my hats off for the display of unity and strength to show the world how the BN government has marginalized your rights.
    We have all been forced to believe under the BN rule that this kind of “unruliness” of street protests were wrong and up till now it has been used by the streamline BN media to tarnish the image of the opposition in order to scare the people more into submission.
    However with the community nowadays being more internet savvy,we are more exposed to information and thus we do not have to blindly believe what the BN media wants us to believe.
    Hindraf has shown the BN that they have failed the Indian community. MIC has failed the Indian community as the MCA and Gerakan failed the Chinese community.
    The use of force by the police to arrest Hindraf members in the Batu Caves Temple is deplorable and that shows the insensitivity of the BN rulers.
    The call for freshs election so soon in order to deny Anwar Ibrahim to contest is one of the many big mistakes our sleepy Pak lah has committed. Not to forget how he tried to deceive the Malaysians by saying the parliament is not dissolved,then U turning his statement the next day and blaming our Agong for it.
    Let us all unite and vote for the OPPOSITION. Let is be DAP, PKR or PAS. It doesn’t matter. Chinese voters also have to change their mindset that if the opposition candidate is PAS, better give to BN. No! This time round, this mind set must change!
    Good luck DAP, PKR and PAS!

  3. #3 by k1980 on Saturday, 16 February 2008 - 12:12 pm

    Are these $$figures$$ plucked from the air?
    Apparently, the average Chinese Malaysian household income in 2004 was RM4,437. The corresponding figures for the Indian and Bumiputra households were RM3,456 and RM 2,711, respectively.

    I am sure most Indian and Bumiputra households in Malaysia would be shocked at these figures. If half the Indian households in this country received RM3,456 per month, they would not have joined the Hindraf rally!

  4. #4 by Joshua Tan Kok Hauw on Saturday, 16 February 2008 - 2:39 pm

    Not only indian is marginalised but also aborigines(orang asli).

    Abdullah not only forgot DSAI but also the poor, the marginalised, and the exploited.

    Indian,orang asli,chinese as well as Malay communities seriously need our concern.

    Who really benefit from the growth of Malaysia? It is the elites of ruling political parties,BN.

  5. #5 by kosmoalpha on Saturday, 16 February 2008 - 4:02 pm

    many of my friends n myself are nonpartisan,we do not belong to any political party;but for the upcoming election,we would definitely vote for PAS in our constituency against BN,we are going to walk our talk..even though we’re non-muslim!!enough is enough,50 years of rubbish from the racist,corrupted umno/BN is enough!!it is time for change,a change that might show us “the light at the end of the tunnel” for a better malaysia,a future for our daughters n sons,a more livable place under the sun where nobody shall be marginalised based on “kulitfication” being treated as equal human being!!!

  6. #6 by k1980 on Saturday, 16 February 2008 - 4:25 pm

    Ppsst, any of you lost a C4 bomb along Jalan Raja Muda Abdul Aziz opposite the Celcom Tower?


  7. #7 by ktteokt on Saturday, 16 February 2008 - 10:53 pm

    This GE, vote anything except BN (Brutal & Nasty)!!!!!

  8. #8 by theerga on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 12:11 am

    My fervent wish for the Tamil- Hindu community
    For Malaysian Indians and especially the Tamils, the politically charged, paradoxical events of the past few months must seem almost surreal. TWO BROTHERS at odds, one allegedly, and irrevocably mired in corruption at the very heart of judiciary and the government, the other driven to despairing ‘madness’ and ultimate denouncement of his sibling. It epitomizes the dissolute self serving avariciousness that knows no bounds. Here, is a nexus, long developed and deeply embedded; corrupting members of judiciary, the government and judicial processes; methods of appointments based not on any criteria but on proximity to those vested with the power to appoint.
    Yet, we have TWO OTHER BROTHERS, battling and circumventing, the many inequities of this discredited judicial system, seeking redress for its treatment of a minority community. They have burst upon the Tamil community’s consciousness and have tapped into that deep vein of despairing anger and hurt of the Indian community; long neglected. Whilst many of us may have empathized with the plight of poor Tamils, we have been fatalistic and contend that we are powerless. We often even blame the victims.
    It had required an enormous leap of faith, not withstanding the immense courage that Uthyakumar and his cohorts have demonstrated, that the PESSIMISM of INTELLECT, can juxtapose the OPTIMISM of WILL. They have in a short space of time delivered the deepest, most devoted, most unalterable kind of optimism; the optimism that can look despair in the face and keep on hoping.
    The exemplary possibilities they propose – To seek JUSTICE; social, economic and political, LIBERTY; of expression, belief, faith and worship, EQUALITY; of status and of opportunity to assure the dignity of the Hindu community – have captured hearts and minds.

    Now, the elections are on, I write to urge one and all to remain focussed and resolute and not to be swayed by pre election promises. Post elections, it is highly probable (despite tantalizing visions of change in Government) that the very same cabal will be in power. The need to keep the global participants engaged will be ever more important. The British and India government need to be kept on board. It will require a concerted effort by these countries to press the Malaysian government to engage the Hindu community. Meaningful change in the lives of Malaysian Tamil poor will not take place if the UMNO led government does not allow it. There is a strong moral and cogent argument for the British to help. Gordon Brown on his latest visit to India promised the country 800 million pounds in foreign aid. He should also be reminded of the descendents of Indian indenture labourers in Malaysia, who contributed to the massive development & wealth of Britain are in dire need of help restructure their lives. There is no need for bashfulness or reticence. The leverage both Britain and India can apply is crucial without which, the Tamil community will neither be ‘heard’ nor ’seen’ by the UMNO led government. The UMNO elite like to project Malaysia as powerful and influential nation on the international stage. They should be reminded that power and influence comes with responsibilities, and that includes how it treats it minorities. Conditions of many Tamils are far more acute, than even many in the Indian community understand it to be. It is a generational crisis; decades, of children being taught in schools, where both structure and substance are in terminal decay, poorly equipped and offering a 3rd rate education to the young socially disadvantage Tamil poor. Many of the school staff need better training or even retraining. For the children, it does not get better when they enter secondary schools; the cries of victimization by Muslim pupils, teachers and the education system in general are getting ever louder. These poorly educated Tamils turned out by such institutions are often unemployable and some are driven to crime and when caught, victims of a biased criminal justice system.
    Then, there are those who struggle to set up small business, often have to pay exorbitant fees to operate under Muslim licences. Poor housing and healthcare further compounds their wretched lives. The Indian Government and that of Tamilnadu some years ago mooted the possibility of help with implementing training strategies in Tamil schools in Malaysia; this should initiated and encouraged as a matter of URGENCY! India‘s educational and economic development are surging ahead. Their educational institutions, especially the IT sectors are on par with the West. Further, both India and Britain should help Tamil children with bursaries to pursue higher education, here in Malaysia or abroad. There is also a need for structured vocational training and apprentices to help many others.
    Beyond rhetoric there desperate need for action and this ‘wish List’, I hope will come be realized.
    At the heart of all these concerns is a desperate need for constitutional amendments to the ‘Social Contract’ to officially recognize the rights of the Hindu/Tamil minority. Whichever way one may look at it, the status of Hindus in Malaysia is truly is in the hands of the Muslim majority – whether Malaysia becomes ‘Pseudo’ Arabia or truly Asia is of paramount importance to the future of it minority communities.


  9. #9 by damianyeow on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 12:26 am

    If by now majority of Indians don’t unite with the Chinese in DAP, that’s mean UMNO have won the ‘war’ without even trying.
    How can a march of 200 unarmed civillian be called a “threat to peace, can create chaos”…from the TV news looks like the Police & FRU who’s creating the chaos, firing tear gas & chemical-laced
    water cannon….Is this the gomen u want to represent u, intolerant, insensitive, racially-bias, oppressive. The only way to make them listen to you, hear your voice, hear your views is by making them to do so, HOW?, reject all candidates from MIC,MCA, Gerakan, they claim to represent you, but where are they when u get tear-gassed, when u are shot with water-cannon, beaten up by the FRU when defending your temples & homes, where are they when your schools are neglected, when u get 10A’s but cannot get into local U’s. , who can help you? YOU by doing the right thing
    in this election, mark the X at the right column, anything else leave it to the politician to work for u, is that so hard to do?

  10. #10 by Colonel on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 5:39 am

    “At the heart of all these concerns is a desperate need for constitutional amendments to the ‘Social Contract’ to officially recognize the rights of the Hindu/Tamil minority.” Theerga

    How does one amend the ‘social contract’? We can only amend the Constitution. But which part of the Federal Constitution needs an amendment so as “to recognize the rights of the Hindu/Tamil minority??

    Article 8 of the Federal Constitution 1957 says it all. There is nothing wrong with the letter of the law. The legitimate rights of the non-Malays are protected by our Constitution. The problem lies with government policies which have been deliberately skewed to benefit the majority race almost to the exclusion of the minorities.

  11. #11 by Bigjoe on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 8:50 am

    Well, first I have to congratulate Dr. Noor for being appointed a senior fellow at NTU.

    The problems of the Indians are even larger than Dr. Noor said. The Indians have have divided before, several times in fact. Even now PPP is really an Indian party. Even the likes of Nalla is a self-interested splinter. Each time the UMNO have been able to coopt the leaders of the split because there was not many to ‘buy off’ and the Indians had few choices with few resources.

    The difference is this. There is now a larger base of educated Indians that UMNO cannot buy off easily AND they are able to muster resources to resist UMNO ransoming. In addition, the problems are larger touching on religious issues which is what tip the scale towards the Hindraf leaders popularity.

    It is different this time but its a coming together of factors. The problem is that old forces are still at work and BN in particular the PM is still stuck in old ways and have no real systematic plan to address the problem.

    This is called progress.

  12. #12 by DarkHorse on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 9:02 am

    Samy Vellu should be deported to an obscure island in the Indian Sea. MIC should be dissolved and its leaders form another party absorbing all the other Indian parties without having to leave the national coalition.

  13. #13 by DarkHorse on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 9:03 am

    ooops Indian Ocean

  14. #14 by DarkHorse on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 9:05 am

    Leaving the coalition would mean the Indians will not be represented.

  15. #15 by limkamput on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 3:26 pm

    DarkHorse Says: Leaving the coalition would mean the Indians will not be represented.

    See, a typical no brainer talking. Since when Indians’ representation in BN has made any difference to Indians? You still very much harbour the hope that you are able to suck up to those in the BN, don’t you? Why are you here? To help find a way so that all opposition parties including DAP join BN?

  16. #16 by limkamput on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 3:46 pm

    The Great Colonel says: The legitimate rights of the non-Malays are protected by our Constitution. The problem lies with government policies which have been deliberately skewed to benefit the majority race almost to the exclusion of the minorities.

    You and your bunch of wannabes have always talked so loudly and eloquently about the supremacy of constitution and how we must subscribe to the constitution and the laws of the land. What happened now? How can the government deliberately skew the policies to benefit the majority and discriminate the minority? What happened to the sanctity of the constitution and the rights it is supposed to uphold and protect? So are you saying that the constitution is a piece of toilet paper now? This is really new to me you know. Please don’t change your argument like the way you change your underwear, ok.

    Another thing, don’t be too harsh to others when others use the term “Social Contract” loosely to imply that it is the agreement that the founding fathers agreed when this nation was born. There is no need for you to show that only the constitution can be amended. How about I telling you now that I want to renegotiate and amend the social contract? Don’t tell me it can not be done also. How about changing the government? May be to you it can not be done also since BN has been governing this country for 50 year. Is BN government a social contract to you? Please don’t push aside this question. Some may indeed think it is.

  17. #17 by limkamput on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 4:35 pm

    Farish A. Noor says: “The responsibility, therefore, falls on the shoulders of the parties of the ruling National Front that have for so long maintained the culture and norms of divisive race and religion-based politics in the country.
    Hindraf’s very presence on the political stage signals that some sections of the Malaysian-Indian community no longer see the MIC as the sole patron and protector of the Malaysian-Indians of Malaysia”.

    I afraid I can’t agree to your observation that the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the parties of the ruling NF. To me, the responsibility falls solely on UMNO. The rest of the NF parties are mere cosmetics to add favour and to reinforce UMNO hegemony on others. It is not just the Indian community that felt that MIC can no longer protect their interests within the NF coalition. Other communities, the Chinese, Kadazan, Dusun and other natives have also long ago written off their respective parties’ representation within the coalition. The reason why there are still many non-Malay representations in NF is because UMNO and Malays know how to vote the hapless Indians and Chinese to give NF a multiracial image.

    We can not squarely blame on the MIC for the plight of Indians today. Indian leaders, weather from MIC, PPP or IPF are mere token within NF and their leaders are nothing but waiting for the scum to be dished out to them from time to time. The same apply to MCA, Gerakan, SUPP and other parties in Sabah.

    The divisive race and religion-based political system that we see today in full swing is due to UMNO alone. Only UMNO has the substantive power in this country. Only UMNO and the Malays can decide on the direction and the destiny of this country. It is my view that UMNO today wants an Islamic Malay Malaysia while other parties, whether within the coalition or outside, are merely fighting to remain a part of Malaysia. This is how I see the situation today. A substantive change will only come about if UMNO and Malays are willing to have a genuine partnership with others in this country. I don’t see this trend emerging at all. In fact as I grow older, I see the trend increasingly reversed. This is a nation of short term expediency, not of long term sustainability.

  18. #18 by mauriyaII on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 7:39 pm

    The BN is nothing but the UMNO hagemony over all the other component parties. As in ‘Animal Farm’ where the dirty pigs usurp the rights and freedom of all the other animals, the UMNO donkeys have highjacked all the privileges of the minorities.

    The component parties of the BN do not have EQUAL partnership. They do not have any say even how the commutities they represent should be treated.

    If they dare to voice out the grievances of their race, the UMNO morons would say they have broken ranks within the BN. Those representatives would have to apologise immediately to UMNO failing which the reps. would have to face the wrath of racist UMNO.

    The leaders of the component parties are eunuchs. Impotent even to support their own reps. and demand UMNO not to be arrogant.

    As UMNO has sabotaged the MCA, MIC,PPP,IPF and other component parties in Sabah and Sarawak from getting what is their fare share, the dissidents in these parties should in turn campaign for the Oppostion in the coming GE.

  19. #19 by undergrad2 on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 9:08 pm


    I believe you’re making several important points here but the message unfortunately is drowned by the noise generated by the personal insults you’re throwing. I wish you’d stop the name calling. Your comments do not do justice to the blog. Readers here are mostly serious and mature. They can think for themselves and do not need ‘persuasion’ especially when that ‘persuasion’ involves not much more than the use of words like “BN dog” and “moron” – words that add nothing to the debate. Being abrasive and confrontational has nothing to do with straight talking.

    Remember there are critics of YB Kit who’d relish the thought of being to able to point to your comments as being representative of many in the DAP i.e. given to petty squabbles, disunited and in disarray, and ineffective to be able to provide a united front, to be able to work with the other opposition parties PKR and PAS. This is not true, of course, but politics is about perception as many here have rightly pointed out.

    Voters who are undecided which way to cast their votes after reading your comments may feel that the strategic alliance between DAP-PKR-PAS is not going to work. They may then stay at home rather than vote. Worse they may go on to vote for the BN believing that the national coalition despite all their shortcomings, they are at least united.

    Readers after reading your comments on this thread and on the others, may feel DAP members and their supporters generally are no better than the bigots they accuse BN MPs of having become over the years and whom they seek to replace – immature, irrational, self-interested, and preoccupied with launching tirades against others to make good representatives of the people. Of course, this is not true of DAP candidates being nominated by the party leadership, who are very motivated ideologically, dedicated and true to the principles their party stand for, and inspiring when giving speeches and not given to bouts of disguised racism. It takes many Barack Obamas to unite peoples of different backgrounds. But it only takes one Pat Buchanan to undo the work of many.

    DAP needs money to pay its campaign staff. Besides contributing money to the DAP Election Fund, you may want to consider working for the party without pay. If nothing else it provides an outlet for your enthusiasm.

    Remember, football hooliganism among supporters has never been known to raise the standard of football.

  20. #20 by limkamput on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 9:47 pm

    Undergrad2, very good, tell this darkhorse, blackeye, colonel and dracula. You address the wrong guy, my friend, unless you are also one of them or unless you are blind.

  21. #21 by undergrad2 on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 10:23 pm

    I will if I find them guilty of the same excesses. But what do you think of my suggestion earlier?

    “DAP needs money to pay its campaign staff. Besides contributing money to the DAP Election Fund, you may want to consider working for the party without pay. If nothing else it provides an outlet for your enthusiasm.”

  22. #22 by limkamput on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 10:56 pm

    You are a very clever lawyer, undergrad2. “If I find them guilty of the same excesses”, so you are saying you have not found them guilty yet. I will never agree to that. Usually I am provoked beyond my tolerant level and you know that.

    With regard to your suggestion, I wish I can do more or tell you more, but I can’t my friend. But you are a nice mature person as I gradually get to read more of your postings. I wish I have some of your qualities. I better not say more because your good friends may start to use this to ridicule me again.

  23. #23 by undergrad2 on Sunday, 17 February 2008 - 11:10 pm

    Like I said earlier. You’re capable of making some really good inputs to this blog. Keep to the issues and you’ll do fine.

  24. #24 by BlackEye on Monday, 18 February 2008 - 1:13 am

    Yes, that’s what I thought. Talk is cheap! When it becomes to putting his money where his mouth he fails miserably! And now to undergrad’s proposal of working for the party as an unpaid volunteer, he says “..I wish I can do more..”


  25. #25 by BlackEye on Monday, 18 February 2008 - 1:14 am

    correction ‘comes’

  26. #26 by limkamput on Monday, 18 February 2008 - 2:26 am

    What i was saying was i wish i could be the unpaid volunteer, but i can’t and there are reasons for it (and I can’t tell you the reasons). Please don’t keep accusing me for being a liar. I am not. Blackeye, to settle this right now. Ok, i don’t want to know whether you have contributed or not. You do as you please. Free country.

  27. #27 by BoDo Singh on Monday, 18 February 2008 - 3:20 am

    Even my brother Karpal Singh can work in his wheel chair, why can’t you do the same? Are you wheel chair bound?

    “..but i can’t and there are reasons for it” limkamput

    What possible reasons can there be for somebody so vocal? Take the walk, and not just talk about the walk!

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