Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

An Indian Problem is a Malaysian Problem

Written by johnleemk on 11:55:13 pm Dec 12, 2007.
Categories: ,

There is a particular joke I never tire of telling and retelling. It runs along these lines: in Malaysia, a Malay problem is a national problem. A Chinese problem is a racial problem. An Indian problem, however, is not a problem.

This joke has always resonated with me because of how accurately it reflects the situation in Malaysia. Our government and our government-controlled media always take pains to hype a problem faced by the Malays as a problem the entire nation must be concerned about. An issue raised by Chinese is one dismissed as a racial issue. And problems faced by the Indian community? Reading our newspapers, you would be forgiven if you thought they had no problems.

After the recent Hindu Rights Action Force rally, you might think it would be difficult for the ruling party to shove Indian problems under the carpet — but nonetheless, it has tried. S. K. Devamany, the member of Parliament for Cameron Highlands, initially granted Al-Jazeera an interview in which he blasted the HINDRAF protesters, but later spoke out in Parliament, criticising the government's refusal to address the issues raised:

Now, instead of simply calmly responding to Devamany's concerns, the government threatened him with punishment for breaking ranks, and launched a massive publicity drive denying that Indians have any substantive problems that need addressing.

One figure that has been commonly quoted in media around the world indicates that the Chinese have the largest mean household income, followed by the Indians, with the Bumiputra a distant third. This is, of course, a brilliant example of one of the "three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics".

The problem with the mean is that it is skewed significantly by outliers in the distribution — in simpler terms, one bloody rich man can make a hell of a lot of poor people look like they're part of the middle class, if you just take the mean of their incomes.

According to one estimate, of the roughly 5% equity held by Malaysian Indians in the country, if you took Ananda Krishnan out of the equation, nearly all that equity would be gone, reduced to perhaps a pathetic 0.2%. This is perhaps a classic example of the problem with using the mean.

It is often useful to know the median income instead. I would bet top dollar that if you look at the Indian median, they are pathetically lagging behind the rest of the country, and that the Chinese median might not be so far off that of the Bumiputra.

If you want to talk figures, here's one for you: 15% of Malaysian Indians are homeless. Look at the Indians you pass on the street. Over one out of every eight does not have a roof over their head to go home to at night. How is this not a failure of the Malaysian nation?

So, we have established there is a serious problem facing the Indian community. Should we care? If you listened to some of the rhetoric utilised by HINDRAF leaders, you might think otherwise.

But contrary to what a lot of people might have you think, there is no such thing as a Malay problem, a Chinese problem, or an Indian problem. There are only Malaysian problems. We do not live in separate compartments, separated by a sea. We are no islands, neither literally nor metaphorically.

We pass by each other everyday. We go to school together. We work together. We socialise together. We live in the same neighbourhoods. We eat the same food. We watch the same movies. We listen to the same music.

How can the problems of one of us not affect the rest of us? How can we not be affected when a co-worker cannot put food on the table, or when our neighbours' place of worship is torn down? How can we not be affected when our friend cannot marry the man she loves, or a classmate cannot get the scholarship she needs?

These are all problems that should concern every Malaysian, because human needs and human happiness do not stop at the boundaries of race, religion or culture. Every human being has the same fundamental needs and the same fundamental rights.

An Indian problem is not one for the Indian community to solve. It is not one for a Malay government to solve. It is not one which can be solved by simplistically demanding more racial discrimination in the public sphere, any more than we can solve discrimination against the Bumiputra by introducing racist legislation, or ending racial polarisation by effectively segregating our young.

Every segment of the Malaysian community has been marginalised, polarised, discriminated against in some way. But ultimately, we all live in the same country. We have nobody else to go to — we are all brothers and sisters, and we must be our brother's keeper.

It's time we acknowledged the plain truth of these problems Malaysians, regardless of race or religion, face, and work to solve them as Malaysians. Maintaining this lie that we can solve these problems through segregation and separation, or just as bad, that these problems don't even exist, can lead to nothing but sorrow for all Malaysians.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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