Impact of the Peoples’ Election Tsunami Upon Malaysian Indians

By Dr. Sankaran Ramanathan

Malaysian Indians: Located at the tip of the Southeast Asian Peninsula, Malaysia is a multi-ethnic nation formed on September 16, 1963. The population is estimated at 32 million in 2017, comprising majority Malays (bumiputras) at 68.6 percent, Chinese at 23.4 percent, and Indians at 7 percent. The term “Malaysian Indians" is used to describe the approximately 2.3 million citizens whose ancestors originated from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. However, this excludes many who have converted to Islam, taken Muslim names and can be regarded as bumiputras.

The country first achieved independence from the British as the Federation of Malaya on August 31, 1957, when a coalition of three race-based parties (United Malays National Organisation – UMNO, Malaysian Chinese Association – MCA, and Malaysian Indian Congress – MIC) won the first elections in 1956 and formed the government. Malaysian Indians have participated actively in the political process since the nation's formative years, and there have been many notable leaders on both sides of the political divide.

This article begins with the impact of the latest Malaysian general elections and then analyzes why race-based parties (principally MIC) fared badly. The third part of this article discusses what the elections results mean for the future of Malaysian Indians.

Peoples' Tsunami: Malaysia's 14th general elections held on May 9, 2018 and dubbed as the “people's tsunami" has lived up to its billing. Five months later, the largely unexpected results have dramatically altered the political scenario. The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition helmed by UMNO fared badly at both federal and state levels and its 61-year dominance has ended. Pakatan Harapan (PH), a loose clutch of opposition parties, has formed the new federal government and governments in the majority of the 13 states.

PH leader Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamed is the new prime minister. This 93 year-old veteran (jocularly known as the come-back kid and the Malaysian Jedi) is the world's oldest elected leader, and this will be his second time as prime minister, his previous long stint being from 1981 till 2003. During the elections campaign, this nonagenarian was vilified not only for his previous track record (especially that related to human rights abuses) but also because of his ancestry (his forebears were from Kerala, India).

Lending credence to the saying that “politics makes for strange bedfellows," Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ibrahim, wife of former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (himself of Indian origin) had teamed up with Mahathir's party and is now the nation's first woman deputy prime minster. Anwar, once jailed by Mahathir and jailed again by former Prime Minister Najib Razak on charges of sodomy, has been pardoned and released from prison, paving the way for his own political come-back as a member of parliament and designated next prime minister. Strange bedfellows indeed!!!

The PH government has also banned Najib and wife Rosmah Ali from travelling overseas and Najib is being charged in court on mounting charges of corruption and money laundering (three rounds and still counting). Rosmah's personal possessions including 487 Birkin handbags, diamond rings and necklaces worth millions have been impounded and she is also expected to be charged.

Decline of MIC: I had predicted the end of race-based parties in my previous writings, noting that the Malaysian electorate as a whole (regardless of race, creed and colour) has matured. Specifically, MIC had been steadily losing support of Malaysian Indians, especially over the previous elections (2008 and 2013). In this election, MIC was almost wiped out, having won 2 of 9 seats contested at federal level and 3 of 13 seats at state levels. This can be considered its worst election performance ever.

I noticed the warning signs with the emergence of HINDRAF ( Hindu Rights Action Force) prior to the 2008 elections. In fact, I had participated in its demonstrations (courting arrest once) and still continue to have discussions with its founder P. Uthayakumar. Sadly, the banning of HINDRAF, incarceration of its leaders and internal dissent, principally between Uthayakumar and his brother Wathayamoorthy, had weakened HINDRAF as a strong political force.

I have also viewed previous government attempts to assist Malaysian Indians with distrust because of cronyism and favouritism among MIC leaders, who enriched themselves in the process. Here are some notable examples:

When telecommunications was privatized under Dr. Mahathir's previous administration in 1981, he had allocated 10% of shares to the Indian community, but since it was channelled through the MIC, it was misappropriated by some MIC leaders during the IPO ( Initial Public Offering) stage. They formed a shell company and subsequently sold the shares at higher prices, benefitting themselves financially in the process.

When former Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh visited Malaysia, the project allocation of RM40 million to beautify “ Little India" in Kuala Lumpur was channelled through MIC, and there are allegations that its leaders have benefitted at the expense of truly-deserving citizens.

A subsequent allocation to renovate Little India in conjuction with the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (also channelled through MIC) a few years ago is said to have benefitted some MIC leaders.

The management of the world-famous Batu Caves Murugan Temple is tainted with accusations of corruption, cronyism and nepotism. Management of other MIC-controlled temples has also been similarly viewed.

Even at state and local levels, it was common knowledge that allocations, scholarships, places in universities, licences, tenders, etc. meant for Malaysians of Indian origin had to be channelled through MIC officials, who demanded their “pound of flesh."

Hence, these and corruption issues associated with BN leaders (including money-laundering during the campaign) became fodder for Malaysian Indian candidates from opposition parties, who campaigned under the PH promise to rid the country of kleptocracy, corruption and cronyism, and toppled seasoned politicians from race-based parties, principally UMNO, MIC and MCA.

I am heartened to note the unprecedented appointment of many Malaysian Indians to high-ranking positions in government, including four ministers of Indian origin (Gobind Singh Deo, M. Kulasegaran, HINDRAF founder P. Wathayamoorthy and Dr. Xavier Jayakumar) and the attorney-general (Tommy Thomas). Gobind is the only Sikh outside of India and Canada to serve as a minister at federal government level. Many Malaysian Indians have also been appointed as ministers in PH-held states.

The Future: As a third-generation Malaysian Indian, I feel we should stop emphasizing racial origins (as evidenced during the 2018 elections campaign) and seek to promote a truly Malaysian identity and a more egalitarian civil society that is free from corruption and cronyism. I feel that cash handouts are not the answers to the endemic poverty affecting lower-income Malaysian Indians. A good start is that the minimum monthly wage for all Malaysians has been raised (from RM1000 to RM1050) by the PH government, with a promise of more increases and benefits for the poor.

This is certainly the dawn of a new beginning for Malaysia, however, there is a long, long way ahead in previously uncharted and potentially treacherous waters. But now there is HOPE (as in the Bahasa Malaysia term - Harapan), which is the slogan of the PH government. The nation and the world are watching to see if this Alliance of Hope will eliminate corruption, restore democracy and the rule of law, and promote equal opportunities for all racial groups in Malaysia.

Acknowledgement:? Parts of this article were derived from a talk on “Return of the Malaysian Jedi" to journalism students at the University of NC, Chapel Hill on August 27, 2018.


Dr. Ramanathan was founding journalism faculty member at Universiti Teknologi MARA Malaysia. Now he is Principal at Mediaplus Consultancy, operating in Southeast Asia and the U.S. Contact:?