How WE (MALAYSIANS) fail the Malaysian Indian Poor
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After 54 years as a country, it is unfortunate that a lot of non Indian Malaysians do not yet know the Indians.
For example, a lot of Malaysians still do not know the difference between Punjabis and Bengalis, and in some instances in recent years this confusion has been the topic of public discussion.
This goes back to the time of Independence and the formulation of our principal social engineering programme, the NEP.
With all due respect to the Tun Abdul Razak administration which created it, one of the main reasons why some parts of the Indian community is still stuck in the trenches of poverty are because the NEP was not extended to help those in the estates.
While the NEP helped the Malays and Bumiputera out of poverty and managed to create a group of middle class Malays, it overlooked the needs of the real composition of Indians.
The NEP was designed based on the per capita income of the Malay, Indian, Chinese and foreigner population. At the time, the Chinese had the highest percentage of per capita income, the Indians second, the Malays had the lowest.
However, as for the Indians, because we did not understand them, we grouped all of them in one big group.
What we did not realise is that the Indians are not a homogenous group, but made up of different groups that came in several batches. While there are a small group of Indians who were wealthier, about 10 million of them came to Malaya as buruh kasar.
Understanding in the Indians
Based on the average between the incomes of the small group of middle class Indians and the larger community of poor Indians, the statistics drawn were inaccurate.
It shows as if the Indians were doing okay, but in reality a big cluster of them were as poor as the Malays and Bumiputera.
It is sad that because we do not really understand our Indian brothers and sisters, we have allowed their poverty problem to continue as a legacy until today.
Now that our PM has vowed to address this issue, it is important that we know who they are, where they are and where they are going.
I recommend a book by Muzafar Desmond Tate called ‘The Malaysian Indians: History, Problems and Future’.
Here are several important points from the book. As I mentioned earlier, the Malaysian Indians are not all the same, but are made up of different smaller communities.
One major way the Malayan Indians were divided were the separation between Hindu and Muslim.
Another thing was social division into four major class groups:
’1) The elite, consisting of professionals, high government officials and senior executives in leading private firms;
2) An upper, English-educated middle class consisting mainly of government servants;
3) A lower, vernacular-educated middle class, comprising merchants, school teachers, journalists, smallholders, all largely outside government service;
4) Labourers in government service – the PWD, medical services, railways, the docks and the municipalities of large towns – and in private employ, particularly on estates.’
Tate writes that the Indian community remained highly compartmentalised as there was very little interaction between these groups, and hardly any social mobility existed for them.
A large number of Tamils who arrived in Malaya during the British colonial period were drawn from the lowest ranks of Tamil society and came as contract labourers for tin mines and agricultural estates.
They were ‘virtually debt slaves’ from the point they came to Malaya, having to work off the costs of their passage and recruitment under the contract system. Their wages were so meager that this would take them their whole term of service.
Besides this large group of Tamil labourers, there was also a small group of upper-class Tamils who came by their own resources. These were men of trade, commerce and finance, and Tate writes that this upper class, though small in numbers, were very significant as they ‘exerted an influence out of all proportion to their numbers’.
After Merdeka, the rift between the more affluent middle class and the larger number of Indian estate workers who ‘hover on the borders of poverty’, continued to exist.
The middle class was doing fine, dominating certain professions like law and medicine.
The enrolment of children into primary and secondary schools also remained the same. But for those in the rural areas, especially in the estates, the problem of poverty seemed intractable.
At the same time, the greatest shift that happened post-independence is urbanisation, which brought new social problems with it.
This was the ‘new poverty syndrome’ of the rootless Indians in the town. While the strategies of the NEP brought growing industrialisation, the Indian workers who left the estates found that they were in no position to compete in the towns.
They were uneducated and had no command of English, they lacked technical skills and were once again forced to live under squalid conditions.
The NEP, on the other hand, did not extend its benefits to the estate workers. The official rationale was that these workers were employees of the private limited companies who owned the estates, and thus they did not fall under the scope of the NEP.
Living below poverty line
In reviewing the Second Malaysia Plan (1970 – 75), the authors of the Third Malaysia Plan concluded that the aim of eradicating poverty in the plantation sector did not make progress.
Two-fifths of the estate workers were still living below poverty levels and unemployment was high.
Even at the end of the term of the Third Malaysia Plan in 1980, very little progress had been made towards the eradication of poverty.
In other words, Tate concludes that due to the segregation between the middle class Indians and those in the estates, and the failure of the NEP to support the Indians below the poverty line, essentially, the major problems of the Indian community remained the same in 2000 as they were before 1957.
This problem of poverty has become the legacy issue that we have to urgently deal with, along with the contemporary issues of the social problems of the urban squatters.
To really move to help the Indian poor out of poverty, any action taken cannot be a once-off thing. We need to define a target, the same way we implemented the NEP with specific goals.
There are several mechanisms we can put into place. Education is the first thing we need to look into. We can open up boarding schools like Maktab Sains MARA to make sure the children are provided a level playing field in education.
We can provide channels for skills-based training and open up job opportunities. For those who are not able to read and write, we can perhaps provide vocational academies for them to learn the basic skills they need.
To help the poor Indians, there needs to be provisions for the whole process from homes to schools to jobs, so that within one generation we can reduce poverty among the Indian poor and move them into the middle class via education and support, just like what we did for the Bumiputera under the NEP.
We must remember and take to heart that the Malaysian Indian poor problem is not an Indian problem, but a Malaysian one.