Malaysian Indians: Finding a Political Voice

ANU Malaysia Institute Event


Dr Carl Vadivella Belle


Seminar Room 1, Crawford School of Public Policy, #132 Lennox Crossing, ANU


Thursday, 19 September, 2019 - 16:00 to 17:30

In 2007 a new movement known as the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) organised a series of actions which captured gathering Indian anger and resentment. This was particularly pronounced among the Indian labouring classes, mainly Tamil Hindus, who comprised well over eighty per cent of the Malaysian Indian population. In the subsequent elections of 8 March 2008 Indian voters overwhelmingly renounced their previous allegiance to the ruling Barisan Nasional Coalition, - a coalition dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Their actions resulted in a major realignment of Malaysia’s political forces, and, it has been argued, helped generate the momentum which on 9 May 2018 finally unseated the protracted reign of the UMNO directed-coalitions which had endured for over sixty years.


Many observers had noted rising Indian disillusionment and despair. While Hindraf activism may have been ignited by immediate religious issues, its program rapidly broadened to include demands for structural and economic reforms and the investigation of glaring systemic failures (such as Indian deaths in police custody). The Indian labouring classes believed that that they had been largely ignored by the better off in their own community and betrayed by Indian political and industrial leadership. The Hindraf phenomenon demonstrated that they were no longer prepared to tolerate the regime of benign neglect which had reduced the Indian labour force to social, political and economic irrelevance.


This presentation will examine the construction of the colonial Indian community, and the divisions which emerged among Indians. It will trace the communal dynamics of Post-Merdeka Malaysia with particular reference to impulses which created the Hindraf led revolt and its outcomes. Finally, it will discuss the ramifications of the election of 9 May 2018 and the possibilities for meaningful change for Indian Malaysians.


About the speaker:

Carl Vadivella Belle is an independent scholar based in Millicent, South Australia. He served in the Australian High Commission, Kuala Lumpur, from 1976 to 1979. He has maintained a long-term interest in Malaysian social, political and religious issues, in particular the history and traditions of the Indian community. His doctoral dissertation, “Thaipusam in Malaysia: A Hindu Festival Misunderstood?” was accepted by Deakin University in 2004. He has lectured extensively on Malaysian history and politics, and on South Indian religious traditions, and has prepared numerous papers on these topics. He has also acted as principal consultant to several television and radio productions focusing upon the festival of Thaipusam as practiced at Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur. His most recent books are Tragic Orphans; Indians in Malaysia (2015) and Thaipusam in Malaysia: A Hindu Festival in the Tamil Diaspora (2017), both published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.



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