Case for the Indian Poor

Published: 24 March 2015 7:00 AM
On The Malaysian Insider

Malaysia’s undisputed third member, those of Indian origin and ancestry, make up 7.1% of our total population.

That said, their presence in a PPR or low-cost public housing is typically disproportionately high, weighing in between 20% and 30% or higher, of total flat dwellers. Such trends are common in some PPR or low-cost public housing in the Klang Valley.

Recent statistics provided by Ravindran Devagunam (Pemandu) and recorded in Malaysian Issues & Concerns: Some Policy Responses (2013) show staggering figures: the ethnic Indian share of Bursa Malaysia capital stands at a negligible 1.1%; 90% of Indians earn below RM3,000; and “contribute” 30.6% of crime and 70% of violent crime.

The UNDP Malaysia Human Development Report 2014 shows that intra-ethnic inequality is highest for the Indian ethnic grouping, higher than the national Gini. An expose in Al-Jazeera in mid-2014 showed how gangsterism was rampant among Malaysian Indian youths, resulting from social exclusion and systemic corruption.
The historical narrative

As with the other generalised race groupings, the Indian community are heterogenous, comprising of mostly Tamils and to a lesser extent Telegus, Malayalees, Gujeratis, Punjabis and so on. Labour brought in by the British to work in the administration fared better in assimilating into a more cosmopolitan setting. However, the overwhelming majority of Indians lived and worked in rural plantations.

Malaya’s population of migrants from India only became very significant in the 1900s. At that time, the resident-general of the Federal Malay States opened its doors to India after gaining control of the Malayan interior. However this call of opportunity was met with surprising lethargy. This soon changed in the 1910’s, when “rubber became a successful crop in the first decade of the present century. A large number of Indians, mostly Tamils from Southern India, at the encouragement of the British government in Malaya, began to move in. In a period of 20 years the number of Indians residing in Malaya had gone up to more than five times the 1901 figure.” (Dun, 1978: p. 118)

However, the characteristics of this population were transient and fluid, and fluctuated with Malaya’s economic fortunes. Due to this “floating character”, “percentage of Malaya-born Indians could never be high”.

“In Malaya as a whole, only 12.4% of the total Indian population was listed as Malaya-born… It seemed even harder to persuade Indians to stay permanently in Malaya than it was to induce the Chinese.” (Ibid: p. 119)

True to British rule, the different ethnic groups were organised into different job functions, and existed separately from the other. Li Dun Jen further explains the early days of the Indians in Malaya in the following manner:

“The Indians in Malaya formed most of the so-called “estate population”. The Indians were brought to Malaya primarily to work on the plantations. Early in the present century there were practically no Chinese on the estates, the estate population was composed largely of Indians plus a small number of Malays.

“In 1911, 60% of the estate population was Indian, 25% was Chinese, and 14% was composed of Malays and allied races in the Federated Malay States.  By 1931, the percentage of Indians in the total estate population had increased further. Of a total estate population of 423,000 for all of Malaya, Indians accounted for more than 300,000. In that year the total Indian population in Malaya was 624,009*.”

This means that about half the Indians in Malaya were living in plantation areas and that more than two-thirds of the plantation population were Indians.

Although Indian workers were indentured to the British government, their welfare was monitored by the Indian government who played a “paternal role” to their affairs, requiring standard wages and compulsory education for children.

This contrasted with the Chinese who had no such support from the weak Manchu government of that time. Indians generally earned lower than the Chinese, as they offered unskilled labour.

Out of the estates and into the dungeons

Palm oil supplanted rubber in the late 1960’s and land owners sold off their lands. Displaced, the estate population was forced to moved into urban centres, settling in squatter houses. Their movement coincided with the Malay migration, who moved to cities in search for better opportunities induced by the New Economic Policy.

The National Economic Policy introduced in the Second Development Plan focused on elevating the socio-economic standing of the people especially the Malay of that time, who were largely rural. The Chinese and Indian had more visible representation in public administration then.

However, it remains that the Indian estate population was distinctly separate from their urban counterparts, and formed the bulk of the exodus to the cities.

As migration continued, the Malaysian government quickly recognised the rapid and disorderly increase in population resulting in the rise of slums. Plans for public housing were identified as a solution to “eliminate slum dwellings and squatter living”, and other problems in the Second Development Plan:

“The growth of industries and services in (urban centres) has attracted large numbers of young people from the rural areas and smaller towns. This in turn has led to problems of congestion and unemployment, with all their social consequences in the urban setting. Housing, utilities and communications services have not been able to keep to pace with urban growth… In the Second Malaysia Plan period, greater attention will be paid to resolving these problems. Programmes of urban redevelopment, including slum and squatter clearance, the construction of housing schemes, improvement of water supply and sewerage systems and the provision of other public amenities are important aspects of the plan… (Public housing) is designed to eliminate slum dwellings and squatter living, as well as to resolve other socio-economic problems associated with rapid growth of the urban centres in the country.”

Since then, regular campaigns were conducted to eliminate squatter homes. Zero Squatter Campaigns successfully cleared occupied land, evicting and placing occupiers into high-rise dwellings commissioned by the government. Today, these flats are characterised by a dilapidated, slum-like existence and suffer from similar social ills – not so different from life in squatter homes of the past.

The 20 to 30% of Indians living in public flats today live in great poverty and cultural isolation from other ethnic identities. On the ground, feelings of being discriminated, unheard and unfairly treated permeates the discussion. Their involvement in crime is testament speaks of such isolation and neglect. Outside, mentions of “estate Indians” are met with silent incriminations, stigma and suspicion. Such are major stumbling blocks to their empowerment.

A survey by the revealed that over 38% of Indian respondents indicated that the top criteria for a Prime Minister was that he would be fair to all races.  Has the Indian of estate plantation origin been left out of the government’s development policies? Has the Indian category been overly generalised that a large proportion of them live in urban poverty and social exclusion?

There is a need to study the socio-cultural constitutions of such a segment of our brothers to determine the gap which they have fallen through, to construct solid steps to help them out of the poverty trap to enable them to stand on an equal competitive footing, away from the destructive nature of vice.

A few days ago, the Selangor government held a working seminar on “11th Malaysia Plan (11MP): Inequality in Malaysia and Challenges for the Indian community”. During the seminar, community leaders articulated the specific problems that beset the Indian community.

Although the general position recommended by the illustrious panel was to make policies that were colour-blind and needs-based, there was a felt concern that without direction, the Indian poor would once again be left behind.

What is sure is the need to look into narrowing intra-ethnic inequalities, which play out most markedly at the local level – at flat dwellings, schools, marketplaces and the surrounding neighbourhoods. Being cognisant to the socio-cultural identity in the administration of public services is also key.

There are two seemingly divergent views in handling a multi-ethnic, multi-class society – to produce colour-blind policies and the other, to cater to differences. However, it may not be so divergent if colour-blind policies provide the overarching themes at the top, while at the local level, more segment-based “customer” relationships determine how these needs are met, by being aware of sociocultural identities and community-specific problems.

Perhaps an elected local council will provide the required attention at the ground level.

The case of the Indian poor cannot be neglected or ignored. His historical narrative, angst and struggles are real, and our responsibility towards them must move away from rhetoric. Is he really our third brother? He is, and our actions as fellow Malaysians must show it. – March 23, 2015.


Denison, J. (Ed.) (2013). Malaysian issues and concerns: Some policy responses. Kuala Lumpur: Centre for Public Policy Studies

Dun, L.J. (1982). British Malaya: An economic analysis. Kuala Lumpur: Institut Analisa Sosial.

Economic Planning Unit, Prime Minister’s Department. Second Malaysia Plan (1971-1975). Retrieved from:;jsessionid=C8951A5C8C7A8C316F4B715CD8B8F41A

UNDP, 2014. The Malaysia Human Development Report. Retrieved from:

* Debbie YM Loh is a postgraduate student at Universiti Malaya.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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