As of 2016, Indians of Malaysian citizenship number around 1.99 million people or 7% of the 31-million person population in Malaysia. The vast majority of Indians are Tamils from the Indian subcontinent while the rest comprise Telugus, Malayalees, Punjabis, Gujeratis, Sindhis, Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils and others. The majority of Tamils in Malaysia are Hindus; other religions observed by the Indian community include Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. In tandem with the country’s socioeconomic development, Malaysian Indians in overall terms have also progressed socioeconomically.
In the 44-year period spanning 1970 to 2014, Malaysia’s median monthly household income grew by a compound annual growth rate of 7.8%. Malaysian Indians’ median monthly household income grew by a comparative 7.5% within the same period.
Based on the same income survey by the Department of Statistics, Malaysia (DOS), mean or average monthly income for Malaysian Indian households stand at RM6,246 compared to RM5,548 for Bumiputera and RM7,666 for Malaysian Chinese.
The overall socioeconomic achievement of the ethnic group masks deep intra-ethnic inequalities, which reflects the community’s diverse sub-groups and their different historical starting points in the country. These inequalities can fuel a sense of injustice and marginalisation if they become too pronounced or persistent across generations.
In recent years, the Government has launched a number of initiatives aimed at addressing these issues and for the first time in the country’s history, a Cabinet Committee on Indian Participation in Government Programs and Projects (CCIC) was formed in 2008 to ensure these issues receive attention at the highest levels. While these efforts are a significant improvement on the preceding status quo, a renewed push is needed to resolve long-standing issues of inequality and social immobility, and to integrate the relevant interventions into mainstream, race-neutral Government delivery mechanisms in the long-term.
By the 20th century, the Malaysian Indian community could be characterised as comprising two distinct groups: a lower socioeconomic layer located primarily in plantations or estates and the lower-middle to higher socioeconomic strata located in urban centres. Large segments of the lower socioeconomic layer have remained poor. It is with this group and their socioeconomic mobility that this Blueprint is predominantly concerned.
In 1966, 67.8% of the Indian labour force was still employed in the plantation sector and 2.6% in the mining sector, totalling 70.4% of the total Indian labour force. The large-scale displacement of Malaysian Indian estate workers, estimated in the hundreds of thousands, as a result of these developments created a traumatic impact, as “they not only lost their jobs but also housing, basic amenities, socio-cultural facilities and the community support structures.”
Displaced, uneducated, and largely neglected, the inhabitants of these slums became vulnerable to a host of social problems such as broken families, poor housing, unemployment, violence, gangsterism, destitution, vagrancy, and drug abuse.