Malaysia and India face complex challenges posed by race and ethnicity

Anwar Ibrahim Photograph:( Reuters )

Gurgaon, Haryana, India Jan 10, 2019, 04.28 PM (IST) Pushpesh Pant

The visit of Anwar Ibrahim, the deputy prime minister of Malaysia and widely perceived as heir to the prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, has made Indians suddenly aware of a neighbour who often remains on the margins. Ibrahim has urged India to speak its mind about Rohingyas clearly and firmly as behoves a regional power. It appears that an expansionist China has prompted our south-east Asian neighbours to ‘look west’ after many years.  

Malaysia is a country that has had centuries-old ties with India (economic and cultural). The port of Malacca controlled the waterways that served as from the Bay of Bengal to the stretch of Indian Ocean lying beyond. The colonial historians maligned the native rulers as chiefs who commanded bands of marauding pirates erasing in a blink the civilisational contributions of Malay sultans. Islam spread through this entry point to Indonesia and southern tip of the Philippines. Their contacts with Arab, Indian and Chinese traders had exposed the Malays to diverse cosmopolitan influences and it is a totally false claim that it was the British colonisers that tamed and civilised the natives in this peninsula who were given to running amok quite unpredictably. 

However, what can’t be denied is that the British transformed the peninsula by developing rubber plantations on a large scale and enthusiastically undertaking tin mining. They imported indentured labour from India and encouraged Chinese immigration from the mainland drastically changing the demographic profile. Much like India the native princes were brought under British Imperial paramountcy and organised in a loose federation. 

The small fishing village Temasek, now known as Singapore, discovered by Raffles was developed as a strategic naval base and important entrepôt.  

In recent years the discovery of oil has enriched Malaysia beyond wildest dreams of anyone in the middle of the last century. It has quickly leapfrogged many ‘developing’ brethren and has at times been brash towards those it considers laggards. But we digress, India has enjoyed a special relationship with Malaysia over the years for a variety of reasons. At one time almost 10 per cent of its population comprised people of Indian origin. This held the electoral balance as the ‘sons of the soil’ the Malays and Chinese were evenly matched in numbers. The Chinese had participated in a communist-led insurgency that raged for almost a decade after the end of the Second World War and was not trusted by either the British masters of Malay leadership during the period of cold war. 

Malaysia’s membership of the Commonwealth, use of English language in education and adopting the English legal system created affinities with India. The ties were fortified by India emerging as the largest buyer of Malaysian Palm Oil. 

It is not as if the bilateral relationship has been entirely free of stress. In the past quarter century, there has been a steady drift towards Islamic fundamentalism in some parts of Malaysia. 

The states on the eastern coast and on the northern tip bordering Thailand have witnessed social unrest and political ferment. Malays have long nursed the grievance that the ‘clever’ Chinese have deprived them of economic gains. The government has had to tread carefully. Despite legislation to ensure social justice Malays have continued to lag behind. The simmering resentment has at times in distant past exploded in communal violence. The Islamisation of polity and the judicial system has alienated many among the Chinese and Indian community. This is not to suggest that Malaysia is facing a crisis. What we need to appreciate is that it, like India, is a plural society with complex challenges posed by race and ethnicity. 

Kalimantan Utara (Northern Borneo) where the states of Sabah and Sarawak are located is home to many non-Malay tribes and its development has to constantly keep in mind the fragility of the pristine ecosystem. Here too exists a unique opportunity to cooperate and collaborate. 

Mahathir rose to power once again at the age of 90 because his predecessor had acquired an unenviable reputation for gigantic corruption. There should be no need to remind readers that the issue of corruption dominates political discourse in India. 

Before we conclude it is perhaps necessary to refresh our memory about the chequered career of Anwar Ibrahim. He rose and fell like a meteor in an earlier incarnation. He was a fiery youth leader advocate of special rights for Malays and not inhibited about his Islamic ideology. Once a favourite of Mahathir and identified as heir he fell from grace dramatically trapped by political intrigue. 

This isn’t the place to unravel conspiracy theories but suffice to note that the Malaysian leader has mellowed without losing his charisma. It will be interesting to see how our government responds to his overtures. Whenever we 'look east' we harp on the shared Hindu-Buddhist legacy. 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

Pushpesh Pant

Pushpesh Pant is a noted Indian academic and historian.

Story highlights

In the past quarter century, there has been a steady drift towards Islamic fundamentalism in some parts of Malaysia.