Malaysia's Indians try to overcome bitter background

By Patrick Chalmers

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 23 2001(Reuters) - For one Malaysian Indian family, this year's Deepavali festival of lights was the happiest, and safest, in years.
For another, it was spent burying a son slashed to death in gangland fighting.
Malaysia's ethnic Indians, generally poorer and more poorly educated than numerically superior Chinese and majority Malays, have grown used to bitter-sweet fortunes in the century or so since being shipped in as labourers by British colonial rulers.
But they are keen to shake off a legacy that has helped drive children of the poorer members of their community into the arms of the Muslim southeast Asian nation's underworld.
Indians say their sweat -- building railways or toiling on rubber and palm plantations -- laid the foundations of the nation but left the majority of them at the bottom of the social ladder.
Violence, a frequent hazard for Indian gang members, boiled onto international media headlines in March, when six people died and scores were injured during days of fighting between Indians and Malays in a poor satellite suburb of the capital.
This year's Deepavali on November 14 saw a similar fate befall Mahadevan Kuttappan, a 27-year-old former national athlete who died when he and some friends were attacked by Indian gang members wielding long-bladed "parang" knives and iron rods.
His father told newspapers Mahadevan was an innocent bystander, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
His murder obscured signs of progress made nearby in Kampung Medan, a squatter community notorious for crime and the site of racial clashes in March.
Vijaian Ratnam, who lives in the area with his wife and three young children, said his Deepavali had been the best in years.
Speaking above the intermittent crackle of cheap fireworks, the car assembly plant worker credited a four-month-old community scheme for having cleared a pall of fear from his neighbourhood.
Vijaian said drunken young men had marked previous celebrations by beating up rival gang members or passers-by.
"This year, there were a few of them sitting drinking but they were not troubling anyone, they were just enjoying themselves," said Vijaian, who assists in a programme bringing education, legal, medical and other services to local residents.
Squeezed out of low-end jobs by cheap immigrant labour, and facing race-based quotas for higher education places, many Malaysian Indians feel left out.
"The majority of Indians are stuck in the working class," said political economist Charles Santiago. "This is a big source of problems because there is no effort by the government to reshape the economic structure of the poorest sector."
The result is bored, disaffected youth drawn to the sort of gangland violence they see in popular Tamil-language movies.
"The social effect of being pushed to the wall has clearly manifested itself in increasing gangsterism and increased violence among the youth," Santiago said.
Indians are blamed for committing more serious crimes than other ethnic groups in the country, though they make up less than eight percent of the population.
Ethnic Chinese account for a quarter of the country's 23 million people while Malays make up most of the rest.
Malaysian police last year said 38 Indian crime gangs with about 1,500 members were active in Peninsular Malaysia, a place not generally blighted by violent crime.
Santiago says criminal tendencies among Indians stem from poverty, lack of opportunity and the fragmentation of plantation communities as jobs are lost to increasing mechanisation.
Malaysia's policy of importing foreign labour, and its major inflow of illegal immigrants, only adds to the pressure.
"These people who are coming to the cities are now competing with migrant workers who are paid much less and they are easier to control," said Santiago.
Selva Kumarr Sivalingam, who has small business interests in Kuala Lumpur and the northern city of Ipoh, said being a Malaysian Indian meant facing a daily diet of discrimination.
"You go to the hospital, you are not treated well. You go to the bank, they do not respect you. Why? Because our leaders are not fighting for us," he says over sweet milky tea in the capital's Brickfields area, a large Indian neighbourhood.
Kumarr blames poor leadership in the community and and by Samy Vellu, works minister and president of the Malaysian Indian Congress, the ethnic Indian party in the ruling National Front alliance.
Malaysia operates an affirmative action policy for Malays and other "bumiputras" or sons of the soil, giving them preferential access to education, land, housing, civil service jobs and equity ownership in state-linked businesses.
The policy, born with independence from Britain in 1957 but greatly expanded after some 200 people died in 1969 riots pitting Malays against Chinese, is intended to boost Malay wealth relative to the generally richer Chinese.
Indians, mainly descendants of Tamil-speaking families from south India, enjoy little targeted help.
A Malaysia development plan issued this year and due to run until 2010 carried several promises to improve the lives of the country's urban and rural poor, estimated at 7.5 percent of the population, though without reference to race.
Although the community contributes many of Malaysia's doctors and lawyers, Indians control less than two percent of the rapidly developing nation's wealth.
Kumarr blames the country's political patronage system, which determines who gets most government contracts, big or small.
"I am not asking for political rights. I want the capacity to earn, to get a chance to compete with others," he said.
"I have an education, why should I see a politician?"
Samy Vellu, playing host to all comers at his "open house" Deepavali celebration, says Indians must be patient.
"I am hoping that in the next 10 years we would be on a par with the bumis (bumiputras)," he told Reuters between greeting a multi-racial crowd, ranging from ordinary families to leaders of all the main political parties.
"Within the next 10 years, I see a lot of improvements coming up for the Indian community. They will be in a higher bracket of working, we won't be the labourers any more," he added.
In Kampung Medan, Vijaian is more interested in the service and self-help philosophy embodied in the ATMAH programme, acronym for Action to Mobilise All Hindus and the Sanskrit word for soul.
He adapts a well-used saying of the international development community in describing the help given by outside volunteers.
"They are teaching us fishing, so we'll survive forever."