Ostensibly, the protest aimed to present a memorandum to the British High Commission seeking £2 trillion in compensation for bringing thousands of Indians to work as cheap labour during colonial rule. The real goal was to embarrass the Malaysian government by urging the British government to intervene on their behalf in the face of what they perceive as years of discrimination.
The protests reflect mounting racial disquiet, fuelled by Malaysia's institutionalised racism. Malaysian government policies have enshrined differences between races in national legislation and a 1971 affirmative action policy favouring Malay Muslims in education, housing, business and employment has lead to vast disparities between ethnic groups. Crudely speaking, Malays make up 60 per cent of the population and dominate politics. Ethnic Chinese, the second largest group, dominate the economy. Little remains for ethnic Indians, who are the poorest group.
Latent discontent over discrimination was exacerbated by more recent religious tension stemming from Malaysia’s creeping Islamisation. Malaysian politics has adopted an increasingly religious flavour reflected in developments such as the expansion of Sharia courts vis-à-vis civil institutions. The spark igniting the protests appears to be anger concerning the insensitive government demolition of Hindu temples.
The authorities have so far reacted in a wholly counter-productive manner. Peaceful protests were met with tear gas, water cannons and baton charges. Calls from government officials to revoke the citizenship of Hindu Rights Action Force (the organisation which led the protests) leaders and enact the draconian Internal Security Act (which provides for detention without trial) threatens to inflame the situation still further.
At the very least, the government would be wise to allow free expression of these grievances. All Malaysians face issues venting their grievances; press freedom is limited and gatherings of more than a handful of participants require government permission. Ethnic Indians are even blocked from economic avenues of protest as their share of gross domestic product is a paltry 1.5 per cent. As opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim described, the protests are therefore an important ‘safety valve’ to let off simmering grievances. Quelling peaceful protests will do little other than force aggrieved minority groups to adopt more extreme measures to be heard.
More important, however, is the need to listen to the grievances of this underprivileged minority. Many of their concerns are legitimate. Failure to address the issues facing ethnic Indian Malaysians threatens to radicalise this downtrodden group. This could upset the delicate ethno-political balance Malaysia has maintained since independence. The country’s reputation as a diverse but unified melting-pot is but a façade. In reality, deep veins of racism and religious bigotry taint Malaysian society. Thus it would be easy for such a rally to spiral into serious racial discord which would be an existential threat for Malaysia with its multitude of ethnicities, cultures and religions.
The petition appears to represent a political awakening of at least a small segment of the Indian ethnic minority in Malaysia. Reports vary, with numbers varying between 5,000 and 30,000 protesters. Whatever the number, the protest was significant. In a separate event, a massive protest on 10 November called for electoral change in the largest political demonstration in a decade. Taken together the protests suggest that economic, political and religious discontent is on the rise and that Malaysian's no longer fear the consequences of demonstrating. Further protests can be expected in the future and this shift of politics to street-level should clarify the need for urgent reforms to combat Malaysia's institutionalised racism.
Andrew Legon is a Research Associate with the Asian Programme in the International Security Studies Department at RUSI. He is contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.