The Mobilisation of Indians in Malaysia


A Review of The Mobilisation of Indians in Malaysia: The Role of the Law in Ethno-Cultural Minority Mobilisation, by Thaatchaayini Kananatu.

This dissertation seeks to describe the socio-economic position of the Indian ethnic minority in Malaysia through time, and in particular to explain the historical pattern of Indian quiescence in the face of marginalisation save for two main incidents: the Klang labour strikes in 1941 and the HINDRAF rally in 2007. The dissertation draws links to the law – as a tool for racial marginalisation by the colonial and postcolonial state and in turn as a resource for mobilisation by an ethnic minority group.
The first chapter provides the big-picture background context to the conditions and dynamics of the Indian minority in Malaysia. The majority of the Indian population was imported from British India to fuel the demand for cheap and obedient labour on rubber plantations once the formal system of slavery had ended. Colonial plantation owners preferred to employ low-caste Tamils for this work and institutions were put in place to facilitate the migration and control of Tamil labourers. Smaller numbers of better educated Indians were also brought to Malaya for specific tasks, and a small minority also migrated independently. There was a great deal of diversity in terms of ethnicity, caste and class of the Indian population in the colony, but colonial policy sought to lump them all together in order to distinguish them from the Chinese and Malays. Following Independence, the Malaysian Constitution conferred legal privileges on the Malay population, and later the New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1971 brought in various forms of affirmative action in favour of the Malay population. The outcomes of these government policies were that poor rural plantation labourers remained in poor conditions with low wages, while the position of urban Indians in the professions has also been declining.

The first chapter also outlines the political position of the Indian minority population in Malaysia. Although the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) was formed in 1946 to represent the interests of the Indian minority population, and gained considerable support from the rural Indian underclass, it has never had much political clout within the Barisan Nasional (National Front) regime. It was abandoned by many Indian voters in the 2008 election. It was only in 2010 that Malaysia’s ‘New Economic Model’ recognised the poverty problem of rural Indians. Despite the disadvantaged position of the Indian minority throughout Malaysia’s history, there have been only two instances of mobilisation – the Klang plantation labour strikes in 1941 and the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) mass rally in Kuala Lumpur in 2007 – these events are introduced here and then dealt with in detail in the later chapters.

Chapter 2 returns to a literature review of the studies done of rights mobilisation, with a particular focus on Malaysia and countries which share similar forms of illiberal democracy. The emphasis here is on situations where constraints on the judiciary and civil rights have resulted in the proliferation of rights-based mobilisation in extra-legal spaces, such as political lobbying and direct action. The chapter focuses on links raised in the literature between law, collective identity and collective political action. The author settles on the work of Michael McCann as providing a useful theoretical framework for the consideration of legal mobilisation, with the addition of the constitutive methodologies of socio-legal theorists (p. 114).

In Chapter 3, the colonial regime, its treatment of the Indian migrant labour population and the Klang labour strikes of 1941 are discussed in detail. Law, classification and colonial administrative practices served to segregate the Malays, Chinese and Indians into socio-economic and spatial groups, with Indians designated as rubber plantation labourers. The British colonial administration also supported and developed hierarchical relations within these groups – feudal structures among the Malays, the political and labour control of the kongsi for the Chinese and diverse Indian sub-groups used as plantation middlemen. The Indian labourers endured contractual debts, poverty, sub-standard housing and facilities, and harsh and cruel treatment. Nonetheless they remained divided and acquiescent until the Klang strikes. The strikes, it is argued, were triggered by the voluntary migration of middle-class Indians to urban Malaya in the 1930s who brought with them anti-caste and Indian nationalist ideology. It was such activists who mobilised the plantation labourers to strike over their grievances and to demand equal concern and respect. In the end the strikers were subdued by force and their grievances were not addressed.

Chapter 4 brings the reader into the postcolonial period (1957–1989). The chapter documents the ‘mutually constitutive link between law and race’ and the use of law as a repressive tool by an increasingly authoritarian state. The laws which favoured Malay Muslims as a special rights bearing group within the Malaysian state had the effect of marginalising the Indian community. The 1957 Constitution gave Malays a ‘special position’ within the state, and in 1970 the New Economic Policy (NEP) (as soft law) brought in a range of pro-Malay affirmative action policies. Economic development policies targeted rural Malays but specifically excluded Indian plantation labourers. Urban middle-class Indians were also pushed aside in the rush to give Malays better education opportunities and access to civil service positions. Although this period saw a few signs of Indian mobilisation, mostly the Indian political vehicle (MIC) was subsumed within the government regime. Increasingly repressive laws, such as the Internal Security Act 1988, curtailed any anti-government action. That is, ‘rights consciousness was easily repressed by draconian laws’ (p. 188).

The final substantive chapter of the dissertation focuses on the period 1990–2013, and in particular on the HINDRAF Indian mobilisation in 2007. From the 1990s there was increasing civil society activity in Malaysia generally. Indian civil society groups began to become more active, in particular in response to a series of inter-religious court cases where Indians were losing out due to their lack of standing in syariah courts. Other incidents such as the state- backed demolition of Hindu temples in the early 2000s, and the Kampung Medan racial clash between Malays and Indians, led Indian activists to try to claim redress through the courts. These cases, however, were dismissed on technical grounds. These activists, deciding that courts were not the answer to their grievances, then organised the HINDRAF rally. The author argues that the HINDRAF movement mainly used rights rhetoric rather than recourse to actual legal rights in their activities. The rally itself was disbursed by water cannon and the leaders arrested.

This dissertation provides a comprehensive account of the Indian minority in Malaysia through time and the construction of a minority ethno-religious group through state laws and policies. It will be of interest to scholars of Malaysia specifically, but also to those wanting to understand the links between law, race and minority mobilisation in any context.

Dr Petra Mahy
Centre for Socio-Legal Studies
University of Oxford

Primary Sources

Documentary sources (legislation, print and online media, civil society and political documents, parliamentary proceedings)
Semi-structured interviews

Dissertation Information

Monash University. 2014. 286 pp. Primary Adviser: Helen Nesadurai.

Image: The children in the picture are first generation born in the low-cost flats which was built to house the former plantation laborers who were forced out of the rubber plantations in the state of Selangor. Photograph by the author (18 April 2015) at the Taman Permata Flats in the Dengkil area, in the state of Selangor in Malaysia.

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