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Malay Majoritarianism and Marginalised Indians

In 2007, the minority Indian Hindu groups in Malaysia accused the government of discriminating against them on religious, political and economic grounds. This article examines whether the minority Indian Hindus in Malaysia have been marginalised.


Malay Majoritarianism and Marginalised Indians government of practising deliberate economic marginalisation of ethnic Indians in Malaysia, religious persecution against the Indian Hindus, denial of political
rights, and ethnic cleansing.
These developments raise various
Vibhanshu Shekhar questions regarding the political and

In 2007, the minority Indian Hindu groups in Malaysia accused the government of discriminating against them on religious, political and economic grounds. This article examines whether the minority Indian Hindus in Malaysia have been marginalised.

Vibhanshu Shekhar ( is at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

s Malaysia began to approach its 50th year of independence, the country witnessed two parallel political trends – majoritarian pressure and minority assertion – which bring out the dilemma facing multicultural and multi-ethnic Malaysia today. During the annual meeting of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the largest Malay political party, in November 2006, delegates called upon the majority Muslim population of the country to protect their racial and religious identity against the minority Chinese and Indians. Much to the chagrin of ethnic Chinese and Indian leaders, the deputy prime minister, Nazib Tun Razak, declared in July 2007 that “Islam is the official religion and Malaysia is an Islamic state”.1 As Malaysia was celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2007, the country experienced one of the largest public protests by the minority Indian Hindus in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. On November 25, 2007, the Hindu Rights Action Front (HINDRAF), an umbrella organisation of more than 50 Hindu groups, staged a mass demonstration in Kuala Lumpur, accusing the Malaysian socio-economic status of minority ethnic Indians in Malaysia. Are the minority Indians marginalised in Malaysia? If yes, is their marginalisation an outcome of the nature of Malaysian polity and the manner in which the politics has been carried out in the country? Why are they not being represented in the political processes of the country? Why have the decades of economic development not benefited minority ethnic Indians? Why is it that even after 50 years, the minority Indian Hindus claim to suffer from religious persecution? Is there an antagonistic relationship developing between the majority Malays and minority Indians or between Muslim majority and non-Muslim mino rity communities? In order to understand these questions, it is important to understand the nature and dynamics of Malaysian politics as it has evolved over the last 50 years.

Consociational Politics

The post-independent Malaysian polity has been identified as a consociational structure, in which the government represents a grand coalition of political elites of different ethnic groups based on the

february 23, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly



principles of proportional representation and ethnic autonomy. This ethno-centric and elite-based coalition has ruled Malaysia in different avatars ever since its independence. The grand coalition comprises of three major ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese and Indians, who have been represented in the political processes by their ethno-centric political parties – UMNO, Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).2

The UMNO+MCA+MIC patchwork, which was cobbled together at the time of independence by the political elites, relied on three key principles. First, representation in the coalition would be based on ethnicity and each ethnic group would select their representatives on their own. Second, each ethnic group will have proportional representation in the coalition and therefore, in the government. In other words, the number of seats allocated to each ethnic group in the government would be decided on the basis of their numerical strength in the country. The idea of proportional representation facilitated Malay dominance over the political and economic discourses in the country given their overwhelming numerical majority. Finally, only the leaders of each community will have a say in the decision-making process. While the common masses could select their leaders, they would have no say in the functioning of the coalition. In other words, the coalition framework that developed was ethno-centric and elite-based. The primordial differences between these three groups have been much more pronounced due to the cumulative effect of racial, religious and linguistic differences. The Malays are Polynesians and Muslims, the Chinese are Mongoloid and Christians and the Indians are Dravidians and Hindus. At the same time, the elite-based politics made the entire process of nationbuilding vulnerable to political mobilisation along ethno-religious lines and the coalition, as a result, has often fallen victim to opportunistic politics and instrumentalist exploitation.

Towards Majoritarian Politics

The interplay of these three elements of consociational framework in combination with forces external to the coalition has given birth to the politics of majoritarianism, which, in turn, has led to politicoeconomic marginalisation of minority ethnic Indians and greater impoverishment of already poor Indians. The concern for impoverished and marginalised majority gradually began to be transformed into majoritarianism as the coalition government embarked on the process of nationbuilding and began encountering various ethnic, political and economic challenges.

In the name of stable polity and economic development, the coalition government found it politically expedient to cater to the demands of majority community, leaving in the process marginalised and economically backward Indians. The majoritarian politics has been pursued by the Barisan National (BN)-led coalition government at two levels – empowering the Malay Bumiputeras and upholding the Islamic values in the country.

The politics of Bumiputera emerged out of the political measures adopted by the government in the aftermath of the racial riots of 1969 when the Malays attacked ethnic Chinese and Indians in large numbers. The Bumiputera policy called for greater Malay representation in the politico-administrative institutions of the country on the grounds that majority of the Malay population were extremely poor and had very limited participation in the political processes of the country. During the last 37 years of its rule, the BN leadership has been disproportionately dominated by the UMNO leaders at the cost of its other constituent ethnic groups. The UMNO dominance in the BN coalitional framework has, in turn, led to UMNO dominance in the BN-led government. The UMNO has been occupying the two top-most executive positions of prime minister and deputy prime minister, who, generally, happen to



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be the president and vice-president of UMNO [Case 1996]. One of the demands of the HINDRAF was to have a Chinese deputy prime minister. In 2004, more than 70 per cent of ministerial posts were filled by UMNO members. The Malay dominance in the coalition framework forestalled any possibility of a non-Malay influence in the national political and economic discourses and the Chinese and Indian representation in the BN-led government has been dwindling. The Malay dominance has also been manifest in the representation of different ethnic groups in the country’s civil service. While the non-Malay representation in the civil service has been declining over the years, the share of ethnic Indians has witnessed a sharp decline from 9.8 per cent during the 5th Malaysia Plan (1986-90) to 5.2 per cent in 2003.3 The Malay share in the civil service stood at

83.3 per cent in 2003.

The BN-led coalition framework picked up the Islamic card during the late 1970s and 1980s, as the voices of radical Islam began getting stronger and the support base of Mahatir-led government became smaller. In order to woo the vast majority of Muslim population, the Mahatir-led coalition government since 1982 has opened up various Islamic institutions, International Islamic University, Islamic banks, Islamic car and various Islamic programmes aired regularly on television channels and radio stations. Once again, the ethnic Indians did not constitute a component of the government’s pro- Muslim and pro-Malay policy, rather stood at the receiving end since majority of the ethnic Indians were Hindus. In contrast, the ethnic Indians have experienced the large-scale destruction of their temples during the last 10 years in the name of development, which led the HINDRAF to claim that the Malaysian government is resorting to religious persecution against the Hindus. The destruction of a 90-year old temple in October 2007 marred the celebration of Deepawali, which has been often projected as the symbol of Malaysian multiculturalism. Though Islam has been the official religion, the issue of whether Malaysia is an Islamic state or a secular state has been shrouded in controversy and remains, till now, unresolved. The confusion has also provided an opportunity to the ruling elite to project Malaysia as Islamic/secular state, depending on the requirement of politics. It was Mahatir Mohammad, Malaysia’s former prime minister, who, for the first time, declared Malaysia an Islamic state in 2001.

The non-Muslim minority community has also faced the brunt of Islamic radicalism in the realm of their family and social life with the increasing application of sharia in the legal and social affairs of the country. Over the years, the Islamic sharia laws have begun to gain prominence over the civil jurisdictions, especially in the realm of family laws. The Article 121 (1A) of the Malaysian constitution clearly states that the civil courts including the federal court will have no jurisdictions on the matter falling under the sharia court. The sharia laws, earlier applicable only in three provinces, are now applicable in all 13 provinces of Malaysia. Interestingly, the HINDRAF was formed in January 2006, when the widow of M Moorthy was denied performing Hindu last rites. The federal court even refused to deliberate on the matter on the grounds that the deceased M Moorthy had “secretly” converted to Islam when he was in a coma and therefore, the matter pertaining to this fell within the jurisdiction of the sharia court. While the conversion from Islam to another religion is considered a punishable offence, the conversion to Islam brings the rest of the non-Muslim family members within the ambit of shariah law regarding issues such as divorce, inheritance, and religion of minors.

Ethnic-Indian Political Elite

While the Malay majoritarianism has led to the political marginalisation of ethnic Indians, the large-scale infighting within the ethnic-Indian elite has prevented the articulation and presentation of demands and concerns of common ethnic Indians at the coalition level. The ethnic-Indian elite have, for years, pursued the policy of appeasement and avoided an aggressive campaigning of Indian issues at the national coalition level. Consequently, the prospect of collective bargaining of Indians could not materialise. The two most prominent Indian organisations – National Union of Plantation Workers and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC)

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Economic & Political Weekly


remained mired in factional fighting. The MIC leadership remained non-Tamil in nature till mid-1950s despite Tamil labourers constituting one of the largest segments of the ethnic Indian population in Malaysia. When the MIC leadership passed into the hands of Tamil Indians, they denied any greater role for non-Tamil Indians in the process of decisionmaking and demand articulation.

Besides the nominal importance of the MIC in the Malay-dominated coalition government, another factor that has contributed substantially to the political marginalisation of ethnic Indians is sheer negligence among the MIC leadership regarding the grievances of ethnic Indians. Over the years, the MIC has emerged as an elitist organisation, with no grassroots representation, forcing many ethnic Indians to shift towards the Chinese-led Democratic Action Party. The MIC is reported to have been divided along ethnic, religious, regional, caste, linguistic, economic background, and so on. Disillusioned with the inefficiency of the MIC, several splinter groups have emerged during the last seven years claiming to represent different segments of ethnic Indians. The rise of HINDRAF needs to be located in the context of the socially uprooted faction-ridden and non-performing MIC. The tussle for MIC leadership between Samy Velu and his deputy Pandithan is a standard example in this case. After being ousted from MIC, Pandithan formed the Indian Progressive Front and claimed to represent the dalit section of ethnic Indian community in Malaysia.

Poor Indians Become Poorer

The coalition government launched a 20year new economic policy (NEP) in 1970 to bring down the level of poverty to 16 per cent in the peninsular Malaysia and raise the Bumiputera ownership in public equity to 30 per cent by 1990 and reduce the income inequality between the Bumiputeras and non-Bumiputeras. With these two objectives, the NEP adopted policies to uplift the Bumiputeras, which have come to be known as positive discrimination policies. These policies of positive discrimination have continued since then in different forms.4 As claimed by the government, the level of poverty came down to 16.5 per cent

Economic & Political Weekly

february 23, 2008

by 1990 but the ownership of Bumiputeras in share capital could increase from 1.5 per cent in 1969 to only 18.5 per cent in 1990. However, government data has been slammed for large-scale under-reporting in the case of Malay ownership of share capital and various non-governmental studies have reported that the 30 the per cent target was achieved at least 10 years ago [Beng 2007]. Ironically, the government has used the target of 30 per cent Malay share in the public equity as a pretext to retain the Malay-centric positive discrimination policy.

However, the large number of poor ethnic Indians has remained outside the ambit of ethno-centric economic policy and the share of ethnic Indians in public equity increased marginally from 0.9 per cent in 1969 to 1.5 per cent in 2005 [Jomo 2004]. While Malaysia has grown, the ethnic Indians have not only lost their economic opportunities but also become further impoverished. The percentage share of ethnic Indians in different sectors of employment has reduced considerably between 1970 and 2000. In the professional and technical employment sectors, the share of ethnic Indians came down from 10.8 per cent in 1970 to 7.6 per cent in 2000 and the share of ethnic Indians in the clerical jobs came down from 17.2 per cent in 1970 to 8.6 per cent in 2000 [Chakravarty and Roslan 2005].

The trend towards negative economic growth of Indians becomes more so obvious when the income growth of Indians is compared to national income growth. The average monthly household income of Indians had increased from RM 2,140 in 1995 to RM 2,896 in 1997, registering average annual growth rate of more than 12 per cent. This high level of growth can be attributed to the non-discriminatory atmosphere in the wake of economic crisis in south-east Asia and greater integration between Indian community and global capital. The pace of economic growth of Indians has slowed down considerably during the early years of 21st century. While the mean monthly gross household income of Indians of RM 2,702 stood higher than the national average of RM 2,472 in 1999, the mean monthly gross household income of Indians of RM 3,044 stood very close to that of national average of RM 3,011 in 2002, indicating stagnation in the income growth of ethnic Indians.5 The ethnic Indians have reported largest numbers of suicidal deaths, rampant alcoholism and thefts.


Out of the majoritarian politics, there has emerged dispossessed, impoverished, illiterate and politically marginalised Indians, somewhat sandwiched between politically powerful Malays and economically powerful Chinese. The insulated, fragmented and inefficient Indian leadership has forced minority Indians to be the silent victims of the state’s Malay-centric policies. The current crisis is not episodic or short-term in nature, rather symptomatic of much deeper malaise, rooted in the nature of country’s ethno-centric and elite-based consociational political structure, which has given birth to and further sustained a politics of convenience. There has developed a vicious cycle within multicultural Malaysian bodypolitik where a highly divisive politics has forced the state to resort to authoritarian measures, which, in turn, have further widened the existing politico-cultural divide between different communities.


1 Clarence Fernandez, ‘Islamic State Label Sparks Controversy in Malaysia’, Reuters News Agency, July 25, 2007, email/idUSKLR232935.

2 The grand coalition also consists of several other political parties. The parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), the main opposition party of Malaysia was part of the ruling coalition before it opted out of the alliance in 1978.

3 ‘Only 16.7 per cent non-Malays in Civil Service’, The Sun, December 4, 2004, accessed from http://

4 The New Economic Policy of 1970 was replaced by the New Development Policy in 1990, which was replaced in 2000 by New Vision Policy.

5 Mid-term review of Eighth Malaysia Plan.


Beng, Ooi Kee (2007): ‘Malaysia: Abdullah Does It His Own Vague Way’ in Daljit Singh and C Salazar Lorraine (eds), Southeast Asian Affairs, ISEAS, Singapore.

Case, William (1996): ‘UMNO Paramountcy: A Report on Single-party Dominance in Malaysia’, Party Politics, Vol 2, No 1, pp 115-27

Chakravarty, Shanti P and Abdul-Hakim Roslan (2005): ‘Ethnic Nationalism and Income Distribution in Malaysia’, The European Journal of Develop ment Research, Vol 17, No 2.

Jomo, K S (2004): ‘The New Economic Policy and Interethnic Relations in Malaysia’, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Paper No 7, September.

Mid-term Review of the Eighth Malaysia Plan (200105): ‘Economic Planning Unit’, Prime Minister’s department, Malaysia.

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