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Home > News > Columnists > Sunanda K Datta-Ray

Diplomacy can put out Malaysian fire

December 13, 2007

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Little did I think when writing about the bleak Diwali Indian Malaysians faced (November 10, 2007) that it would burgeon into a major crisis with 31 demonstrators facing 20-year jail sentences for attempted murder. With bail refused, they will languish in police custody until the trial on January 14.

The supposedly-mild Abdullah Badawi is certainly crushing a fly with a sledgehammer. As for his outraged charge that India is meddling in Malaysia's internal affairs, it is forgotten that as foreign minister, Badawi summoned Myanmar's ambassador on March 10, 1992 for a dressing-down on Myanmarese treatment of Rohingyas.

That was gratuitous interference for the Rohingyas migrated to Myanmar from around Chittagong and have nothing to do with Malaysia or Malays. Presumably, Badawi was speaking then as defender of Islam.

In contrast, Indian Malaysians are of this country's flesh and blood. While their political loyalty is entirely to Malaysia, language, food, dress and customs determine their spiritual linkage. I also recall Beijing [Images] protesting in 1962 when a Calcutta Chinatown Chinese was allegedly manhandled in a bus.

Of course, Indian Malaysians should look only to Kuala Lumpur for redress. But how can they expect justice when Malaysia is an exclusive nation whose Constitution pampers Malay-Muslims (bumiputeras) while treating Indians and Chinese as second class citizens? Bumiputera privileges are also lavished on the non-Malay-Muslim indigenous tribes of Sarawak and Sabah in north Borneo as bribe for joining the Malaysian Federation.  Otherwise, the Chinese and Indians combined (about 35 per cent of the population) would have outnumbered Malay-Muslims.

India cannot abandon ethnic Indians abroad. But to be effective, its expressions of interest must be diplomatic and must balance several factors.

First, Malaysia is an economic partner whose importance will grow if the proposed Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement materialises and as closer ties with ASEAN give a fillip to exports, imports, investment, joint ventures and lines of credit. Thanks to preferential market access, bilateral trade has already increased seven-fold.

Second, though Malaysia was not helpful in India's ASEAN dialogue partnership and East Asia Summit membership, it was solidly supportive during the 1962 and 1965 wars. In fact, Tengku Abdul Rahman was the only Muslim prime minister to support India against Ayub Khan's gambles in Kutch and Kashmir. Pakistan then snapped relations with Malaysia.

Third, India must not be publicly involved in the turf war between the Hindu Rights Action Force and the Malaysian Indian Congress which the controversial S Samy Vellu, Malaysia's public works minister, has controlled since 1979.

The overkill of allegations like 'ethnic cleansing' may damage the sound case for just treatment of Indians who now suffer neglect and discrimination. Hindraf's demands for a non-Malay deputy prime minister or a Chinese finance minister are matters of domestic politics.

But many Indian Malaysians complain that India relies too much on Vellu in deciding where to invest or identifying companies for major contracts. The charge is that his guidance usually benefits the Malaysian government, perhaps some important Malays and, of course, himself and his cronies.

Vellu was involved in a major scandal in the 1990s over the distribution of 10 million shares in the national telephone company that the government allocated to Maika, an Indian cooperative set up by the MIC.

Fourth, though happily the age of gunboat diplomacy is long over, increasing interaction between the two countries offers plenty of scope for making known India's dismay. Avoiding confrontation, India can consider concrete steps to ensure that ethnic Indians benefit from its dealings with Malaysia.

Fifth, just as education is a major grievance, it can also be a major instrument of assistance. While Malaysian Indians find it very difficult to get into a Malaysian university, they complain that many Malaysian Malays study medicine in India, usually on government scholarships.

Since these seats are arranged through inter-governmental negotiations, there is no reason why India should not insist on preference being given to ethnic Indians. A generous and judiciously administered scholarship scheme exclusively for Indian Malaysians to attend medical, engineering and other tertiary education courses would also be appropriate.

Malaysia's race problems will not be solved overnight. But eruptions will continue until they are resolved. Look at the recent record after years of docile submission. About 2,000 Indians (there would have been many more if the police had not stopped 15 busloads of demonstrators) protested outside Badawi's office on August 12. Hindraf filed a $4 trillion lawsuit on August 30. And the balloon went up on November 25.

The worm has turned. It needs help, but gently, discreetly.

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