The Indian diaspora has emerged as one of the largest in today’s globalized world. There are more than 20 million persons of Indian origin (PIOs) and some 6 million Non-Resident Indians (NRI) spread over 136 countries. The Indian diaspora constitutes more than 40 per cent of the population in Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad, Guyana and Surinam. Every Southeast Asian country has either PIOs or NRIs, but Malaysia occupies an important position in this regard as it houses the largest number of the Indian expatriates in Southeast Asia – 7.3 per cent of its population. Nearly 80 per cent of the Indians are engaged in manual work, both as unskilled and semi-skilled labourers. Only 6 per cent are in the administrative, professional or managerial categories and, according to the Indian Diaspora Report 2001, the Indian population in Malaysia owns only 1.5 per cent of that country’s wealth.
Though diasporas have emerged as powerful factors in developing relations between nation-states, it seems to have, worked in the opposite direction in the case of India-Malaysia relations, and several unfortunate incidents have taken place in Malaysia involving the Indian community. Divided along racial lines, reinforced by religion, culture, language, and occupation, Malaysian society faces a constant threat of ethnic violence. Following racial riots in May 1969, nearly 60,000 Indians returned to India during 1969-70.
After the 9 March 2003 incident, when nearly 300 Indian citizens, mostly IT professionals in Kuala Lumpur, were ‘maltreated’ and ‘interrogated’ by the Malaysian authorities, the Indian government reacted sharply and warned them that any repeat of such incidents would affect bilateral ties. The Government of India indicated that it would reexamine bilateral agreements and other trade related concessions given to Malaysia. Foreign Regional Registration offices (FRROs), including the one in Bangalore, were ordered to verify the credentials of Malaysian nationals registered here. India also expressed its inability to host Malaysian Health Minister towards the end of March 2003. Earlier in the month, during the visit of the Malaysian Entrepreneur Development Minister, his talks with Indian ministers were confined to the harassment of Indian IT professionals, instead of the proposed agenda. Similarly, the Ministry of Sports in consultation with the External Affairs Ministry ordered a last minute pull-out of the Indian hockey team from the prestigious Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament that year.
However, the crux of the problem lies in the social and economic conditions of the PIOs in Malaysia. Among Malaysians, Indians lag behind in many socio-economic indicators and remain lumpenized. 40 per cent of the serious crimes in Malaysia are committed by Indians; there are 38 Indian-based gangs with 1,500 active members; Indians also form the highest number of those detained under Emergency Regulations. Further, Indians have the highest suicide rate, and account for 20 per cent of child and wife abuse and 14 per cent of juvenile delinquents. In Kuala Lumpur they comprise 15 per cent of the squatters. Malay-Indians are represented through the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), which is an important constituent of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO). But there is a need for change in the leadership and attitudes of Indian parties in Malaysia. Factional struggles and disunity among them and within the MIC have harmed the interests of PIOs in Malaysia.
The Indian government has been biased in its approach towards PIOs. It has mostly engaged only the affluent sections of overseas Indians, particularly NRIs. It is believed that the Indian government’s strong reactions against the 2003 incident came about because of the involvement of NRIs. Previous cases of discrimination against PIOs have failed to draw the attention of the Indian government. The Indian government has failed to develop a strong economic constituency in Malaysia which could strengthen and expand the bilateral political and economic ties between the two countries.
It is also incumbent upon the Malaysian government to develop strong political and economic relations with India, a growing market, a developing economy and a powerful political friend. The Malaysian government should eradicate the red-tape imposed on ethnic Indians business ventures. Malaysia should also ensure that Indians are entitled to a share equivalent to their share in the population. If the Malaysian government showed greater understanding of the problems of the Indian community, especially in the estate sector and among urban squatters, the circumstances of ethnic Indians would improve. These changes would also allow for improving bilateral relations between Malaysia and India. The Government of India, for its part, should promote cultural linkages between Indians and Malaysia and curb the illegal Indian immigration to Malaysia.
Source : Indian Diaspora in Malaysia and Singapore: Changing Perceptions and Rising Expectations
Amit Singh highlights the need for India and Malaysia to constructively engage the diaspora for enhanced cooperation between the two states
Indian Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies