The Stateless Hindus of Malaysia: A Whitepaper

The Stateless Hindus of Malaysia: A Whitepaper


Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, where Malays and indigenous groups (Orang Asli, Sabahans and Sarawakians etc.), who are defined as Bumiputera or Bhumiputra (sons of the soil), comprise 67 per cent of the population.

By constitutional definition, all Malays are Muslims and speak the Malay language. They dominate national politics, administrative and other governmental jobs. About a quarter of the population consists of Malaysians of Chinese descent, a group which historically has played a significant role in the field of trade and business.

Malaysians of Indian descent comprise 7.3per cent of the population, and include Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims.[i]

Hindus in Malayasia

Malaysia has one of the largest communities of peoples of Indian origin in the world outside the subcontinent, numbering about two million. The overwhelming numbers are of South Indian origin; predominantly Tamil-speaking and a significant number speak Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi and Punjabi. Indians began migrating to Malaysia in the latter part of the 19th Century, when India was under British rule, to work as indentured labourers in plantations.

Although Indians arrived in Malaysia a century ago, many of their descendants still lack formal status. As stated earlier, ethnic Indians comprise nearly eight per cent of the Malaysian population, but they suffer from an inability to obtain their proper citizenship and other basic documents.

This lack of proper documents has rendered generations of Hindus in Malaysia stateless.

Lacking basic documentation, many ethnic Indians do not have formal education and are unable to seek legal employment or cast a ballot. In addition to this, the stateless Hindus in Malaysia are treated as second class citizens or more appropriately, they have been deprived of citizenship of the country in which they were born by the Malaysian government.[ii]

Despite most Indians being here for three or four generations, they are now emerging as the new underclass with relatively high levels of hardcore poverty as a large section of Malaysian Indians share less than 1.6 percent of the country’s wealth.[iii]

According to the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, a child born in the country becomes a citizen by operation of law only if one parent is a citizen or permanently resides in Malaysia at the time of his or her birth or if he or she “is not born a citizen of any country.”

Article 14 of the Federal Constitution, Second Schedule, Part 2, reads:

Citizenship by operation of law of persons born on or after Malaysia Day,(1)(a) “every person born within the Federation of whose parents one at least is at the time of the birth either a citizen or permanently resident in the Federation,“ (e) “every person born within the Federation who is not born a citizen of any country.”[iv]

 In the present scenario this Article does not seem to apply on the Malaysians of Indian origin.

In spite of being in the country for more than a century and contributing to the development of the country, Indians have not received their due.

This paper attempts to highlight the age old discrimination and injustice suffered by Indians in Malaysia. It also explores long recognised human rights problems within Malaysia, and also seeks to shed light upon less well-known patterns of discrimination within the country.

This paper will explicitly state the fundamental reasons for the malicious discrimination of the Malaysian government against Indians in the so-called multi-cultural and pluralistic nation. In addition, this paper will address the grievances of Indians in Malaysia coupled with the testimonials of the stateless Hindus in Malaysia.

Lastly, this paper will document the agitations and protests of Indians against the hegemony of the Malaysian government against them.

History of Indians in Malaysia

To reiterate, Indians in Malaysia comprise 7.8 percent or 1.8 million of the 23 million total population.

For several generations, the Indian community resided in rural areas, especially in the rubber and palm oil estates managed by large plantation companies. These plantation companies not only provided them with jobs but also took care of their social and cultural needs—housing, school, temples and healthcare.

In 1970, 47 percent of the Indians were engaged in agriculture of which 74 percent were in the plantation sector. However, due to the rapid industrialization program undertaken by the government, many of these estates were developed into industrial, commercial and residential areas.

Employment in rubber plantations declined from 163,577 in 1979 to 11,788 in January 2006. From 1980 to 2000, it is estimated that more than 300,000 Indians were displaced due to this sort of industrial development.

The magnitude of Indian displacement from rural plantation areas to urban areas can be seen from the official reports. In 1970, 323,435 Indian (34 per cent) were in the urban areas and 609,194(65.3 per cent) in rural areas.However, by 2000, 1.33 million Indians (79.7) were in urban areas while 341,622 (20.3 per cent) continued to live in the rural areas.

Reasons for the Stateless Situation of Hindus in Malaysia

These people are by birth Malaysians, but due to their lack of knowledge and awareness of the importance of the documents that prove their citizenship, they are now in a state of limbo as their citizenship status is uncertain and they are at the mercy of the authorities who could due to bureaucratic reasons deny them their citizenship and thereby all the rights that flow from it.

It is sad that in this day and age, there are many people who are not aware of important basic facts, such as how to register a marriage, birth or death. One of the other reasons for this issue is the refusal of some people to own up to their responsibility when the child is born out of wedlock.

In other cases, the non-registration happened because some parents did not register their child’s birth within the prescribed 14-days mandatory period or after that because of the fear of being fined or reprimanded by the National Registration officials.

Similarly, because they are illiterate or lack education, they are unable to converse fluently in Bahasa Malaysia. As a result, they are unable to communicate effectively with government officials and face difficulty in understanding their bureaucratic procedures and requirements. Therefore, they are often subject to rude treatment by these officials which causes them to be demoralised and give up their efforts to complete their application. This has led to serious problems for these poor Hindus and the cycle of “quasi statelessness” repeats itself after their children grow up and start families.[v]

Some Statistics

There are various views on the number of the stateless Hindus in Malaysia. For some, the figures soar as high as 300,000 while for others, it is estimated to be below 12,000.[vi]

Official government estimates say 40,000 ethnic Indians. Equally, the descendants of Indians who arrived in Malaysia to work on plantations a century ago do not have birth certificates or identity cards.  Activists say that the number is much higher.


N. Surendran

For example, Surendran and his Pakata Rakyat coalition have claimed at least 300,000 Malaysian Indians have been cut out of the nation’s economic, social and educational systems due to “systemic neglect” by the BN federal government and its refusal to issue proper papers and citizenship documents to this group of people.[vii]

HINDRAF (Hindu Rights Action Force) has on many occasions stated that there is an estimated 450,000 Malaysian-born Hindus that have been rendered stateless as they have been denied citizenship status by the Malaysian government.

According to the Population and Housing Census of Malaysia 2010, there are 2,320,779 non-Malaysian citizens residing in Malaysia. However the general perception that is put out is that this huge number consists of nothing but foreign workers from Indonesia, Bangladesh, etc. In reality it is suspected that this figure of 2.3 million also includes a large number of Malaysian-born but stateless Hindus.

Dr Paraman in his paper ‘The number games:Stateless Hindus in Malaysia’ expresses concern that a large number of Malaysians of Indian origin have been deprived of their right to citizenship despite their being entitled to it by virtue of their birth in Malaysia.

Quoting HINDRAF estimates, he cites a figure of 450,000 Malaysian-born Indians “who have been rendered stateless as they have been denied citizenship status by the Malaysian Government.”[viii]

Another interesting fact with regard to this issue is that Malaysia has a staggering 2.5 percent of the total stateless population of the world.[ix]

The UNHCR estimated that there were 40,000 stateless individuals in peninsular Malaysia alone, in addition to approximately 92,943 refugees and 15,393 asylum seekers. The UNHCR estimated there were more than 10,000 children of the roughly 80,000 Filipino workers in Sabah without birth documentation who are technically stateless.[x]These numbers are not just reflections of the stateless Indian population in Malaysia, but they also mirror the precarious situation of Hindus in Malaysia without citizenship.

The Gruesome Reality of Statelessness of Hindus in Malaysia

The long standing issue of undocumented Hindus still exists in the Malaysian society and the hundreds of thousands alleged to be stateless have been deprived of their rights and basic necessities.

For example, stateless people are barred from schools; marriages cannot be registered; they are ineligible to obtain a passport or driver’s license; they cannot open a bank account and are denied voting rights.

Without a passport they cannot leave the country, resulting in them being stuck here, and living in poverty because they cannot get jobs without a MyKad (the compulsory identity document for Malaysian citizens aged 12 and above). Currently, a child is eligible to be a Malaysian citizen only if he/she can prove that one of their parents is a Malaysian citizen. Sometimes it is difficult because most Indians living in former estates like to give birth at home and thus fail to register the birth of the child.Without a birth certificate, the child will not have an identity card and prove that he was born in Malaysia.

These undocumented stateless Hindus cannot even fall back on hospital records as proof because they were born at home.

Also, without being able to register their marriages, babies born will not be eligible for a Malaysian citizenship too, due to their unknown parentage. The law further states that babies conceived out of the first marriage only are eligible for Malaysian citizenship.

If a man chooses to marry a few women and starts a family with them, children from the second marriage onwards cannot be registered as citizens, by law. Currently, only a few of undocumented Hindus who meet this criterion and who have been constantly fighting for a MyKad have been given a green MyKad, which comes with an expiry date.

Holders of the green identity card are not entitled to most benefits like healthcare and cannot contribute to the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) or SOCSO (social security organization).

Often, the cards that are issued have a five-year expiration date which has to be renewed. Meanwhile, there are also some cards which only last for a few months or a few weeks.

Currently the NRD (National Registration Department) is invoking Article 19 of the Federal Constitution (which refers to foreigners) on Malaysia-born Hindus. Article 19, which is used for foreigners who want to get citizenship in Malaysia, requires the applicant to sit for Malay language tests and show proof of residence here for a required period of time. In addition, most stateless Hindus who have been denied entry to schools due to missing identity cards are illiterate and cannot read or write in Malay, let alone sit for the Malay language test for citizenship.

Testimonials of stateless Hindus in Malaysia

P Subramaniam

Hiding out in friends’ houses a few times a week seems to be the norm for the stateless P Subramaniam, who in the eyes of the law is labeled an illegal immigrant, although he was born and brought up in Malaysia.

Every evening, he dreads going home to his low-cost apartment in Jalan Kinrara 6, as the thought of police raids for illegal immigrants repetitiously plays on his mind.

“I’m so scared to go home. I’ve been caught numerous times before and when I can’t produce my MyKad, they ask me for money,” he said. The 29-year-old gardener often forks out between RM 30 to RM 100 from his daily earnings just so he wouldn’t be arrested and put in jail.

For over two decades, his fight for a Malaysian citizenship never stopped but all his struggles were in vain, as till date Subramaniam still remains a stateless Hindu.Firstly, he doesn’t have records to prove he is born in Malaysia, as the hospital he thought he was born at didn’t have any data on him.

There weren’t any records on him being born in any of the hospitals, making it almost impossible for him to get a MyKad. However, his struggles did not end there, as growing up, Subramaniam could not get into schools without a MyKad and was denied a chance of a proper education. Being an adult did not make it any easier, as getting a job without a MyKad or work permit was close to impossible.

Rani Sukalingam

Abandoned by her parents at birth and raised by villagers at a former estate in Sepang has left the 52-year-old Rani Sukalingam growing up without a proper identity.2

“I don’t really know who I am or who my parents are. I don’t even have proof I was born here because I was born at a home and not a hospital,” she said.

The mother of two explained that the estate she was born in was cleared when she was about six years old to make way for the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).

They were then forced to move out and most of the villagers had no choice but to look for a new home elsewhere. She was then taken in by an old lady, who raised her and treated her like a granddaughter, and moved into Kampung Taman Sri Puchong. About six years ago, the village was also demolished to make way for development and she moved into Pangsapuri Enggan with her children after her husband died.

“It’s not easy to live without an identity card as I can’t get a job or even rent a house. I’m currently using a friend’s MyKad to get a job,” she said.With the help of her friends, Rani managed to get a job as an office cleaner for RM 700 a month.Helping her out is her 27-year-old son, who too, does not have identification, and can only get a job as a security guard for RM 25 per day.

“I’ve been trying to get a MyKad for seven years, many people have also been helping me but it’s no use. If I can’t get a MyKad, my son will have no chance to get one too,” she said.

Rani is hoping to get a MyKad for her son so that he can get a proper job, enjoy the benefits of a citizen and have some financial stability.

M Vijayletchumi 

Trying to make an honest living by working as a hairdresser to raise her six children was close to impossible for M Vijayletchumi who has no proper identification.“I’ve been caught by the police a few times before and they didn’t allow me to work as they thought I was an illegal immigrant,” said the 46-year-old.

Vijayletchumi, who was born in the General Hospital in Kuala Lumpur, lived her younger days in Balakong and then moved to Batu Caves after she got married.

She spent most of her life labeled as a stateless Indian after she lost her birth certificate when she was a little girl. Her parents, who have MyKads, were alcoholics and did not pay much attention to her or her other two siblings, who both own birth certificates and MyKads.

“My parents didn’t even help me apply for a MyKad last time and when I wanted to do it I couldn’t find my birth certificate,” she said. When she was 28, Vijayletchumi made her way to Putrajaya to claim her rightful citizenship. She was made to fill out forms which she could neither read nor write and the staff there did not offer her much help either. All she was told to do was to fi3ll in her mother’s and father’s names in the respective columns and the rest was filled by the staff present.

“I don’t even know what they wrote (on the form) as I can’t read. All I know is that I didn’t get the MyKad and went home,” she said. Even so, Vijayletchumi did not give up and is still trying to get herself out of statelessness.

She explained that she has always relied on her husband’s MyKad to rent a house or depend on him to be the breadwinner of the family. But ever since he died, she had difficulties renting a house and often cannot make ends meet as she doesn’t make enough money to feed her family or pay her electricity or water bills. Currently, she is working odd jobs like being a cleaner in Cyberjaya and is only paid RM34 per day.[xi]

M Gnanapregasam

Born in 1946 in Taiping, M Gnanapregasam is frustrated that his six attempts at gaining citizenship were all rejected by the National Registration Department (NRD). He can only work as a security guard.


Even Rajiv, who was born in 1987, did not get any relief in his efforts to get a MyKad. Rajiv stated that the NRD had rejected his applications five times as his birth certificate does not carry the names of his parents. He could not sit for public examinations and has lost out on job opportunities.

R Rajakumari

For R Rajakumari, 50, the lack of a MyKad means living in constant fear of the police. She applied twice for her MyKad but was rejected for failing to produce her deceased parents’ marriage certificate. “I cannot even have children because my own marriage cannot be registered,” the Klang-born Rajakumari stated. [xii]

Vasudevan Subramaniam

Vasudevan Subramaniam was legally adopted by a couple when she was a year old from the government welfare home in Johor Bharu. He did not have any legal documents. His adopted parents managed to get his birth certificate but at the age of 12 when the parents took him to get his identity card, Vasudevan was given a red identity card which is known as “Permanent Residence”.

Now Vasudevan Subramaniam is 19 years. Till date he is still unable to get his citizenship. His adopted parents have made several applications but all were rejected. Due to this, he is also unable to apply for an International Passport to travel to overseas with his adopted parents. Being born in Malaysia, having lived in a government welfare home, adopted by Malaysian parents and studied in a national school but being denied of nationality. Vasudevan Subramaniam has been classified as Stateless.

Muniammah and Family

Madam Muniammah is 60 years old. She was born in an estate in Kuala Kubu Bharu. She does not know where her siblings are, as she was married off at the age of 11.

Her husband was an alcoholic and did not care for the family. Muniammah has four daughters. The husband left when the children were still young. Muniammah tried to register the birth of her children but failed in the effort as she herself did not have any legal documents. Now her daughters are of the age between 30–36 years.

The worst part, however is the fact that Muniammah’s daughters have children of their own. Which makes this family aloneto bear the tragic distinction of having thre generations of stateless people.[xiii]


The 48 year old Veerama has no birth certificate and identity card despite having been born in Malacca. She has four children and three grandchildren. Her 12 year old son Velan’s birth certificate is issued as “noncitizen” and so he has been denied an identity card (citizenship).Her husband is a Malaysian citizen and this alone should qualify all her children to become Malaysian citizens according to the Federal Constitution but as the HINDRAF report says,“UMNO does not work according to the constitution and the law.”[xiv]

Political Scenario and Agitations against the Government on the Issue of Statelessness Indians in Malaysia

Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy which became independent from the British Empire in 1957. The parliamentary system of government is based on the Westminster model but with significant differences.

Since independence, Malaysia has been governed without interruption by the Alliance Party, later renamed the National Front or Barisan Nasional (BN), a coalition of 13 parties dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). The other parties are the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), the Malaysian People’s Movement Party (GERAKAN), the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah (PBRS), the United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (UPKO), the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) and the Sarawak People’s Party (PRS).

Najib Tun Razak

The Prime Minister is the leader of the majority party in the House of Representatives and is considered to be the most power­ful political authority. Since April 2009, Najib Tun Razak has been the Prime Minister of Malaysia – the sixth since independence.

The People’s Alliance, or Pakatan Rakyat (PR), is the main opposition coalition.[xv] In the political scenario, the UMNO has played a predominant role in championing the privileges of Malays on the grounds of their indigenous status, which has seeded dissonance among sections of non-Malays.

HINDRAF and Pakatan Rakyat have been extensively working towards the welfare of the Indian minority in the country. They have been particularly agitating against the statelessness of Malaysia-born Indians.

On 25 November 2007, HINDRAF escalated the scale of its operations to mobilise disenfranchised Malaysian Indians to open protests on the streets of the capital, Kuala Lumpur. The professed intention of the march was to hand a petition with 100,000 signatures to the British monarch, via the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur.[xvi]

HINDRAF deputy chairman W.Sambulingam was commenting on the vice president of PR, Surendran’s remarks that the five years period for Barisan Nasional (BN) to resolve the issue of stateless Hindusas “a complete betrayal of the Indian community by the Najib/BN regime.”

“There is no basis whatsoever to take another five years to resolve the problem. To allow stateless Malaysian Indians to continue to suffer for many more years is inhumane, irresponsible and a serious deprivation of their human rights.” [xvii]

Pakatan Rakyat (PR) has demanded that all stateless Hindus born in Malaysia be granted citizenship and given blue identity cards without any further delay.This was relayed to the National Registration Department (NRD) by PR leaders and MPs who supported the 1,000-people-strong stateless Hindus’ protest in Putrajaya on 12 December 2012.[xviii]

Pakatan Rakyat staged a protest outside the National Registration Department (NRD) in Putrajaya on 5 Dec over the unresolved issue of stateless Hindus in the country.“We don’t want to do this, but our hand has been forced due to the government’s deliberate policy to marginalize and deprive the 300,000 stateless Hindus from earning a livelihood in this country,” he said.

Surendran also accused the government of ordering civil servants to deny issuing identification documents to Indians, particularly those from the lower economic strata.“This is a deliberate policy on the part of the government to marginalize and push out Indians from mainstream society,” he said.[xix]

Hundreds gathered at the open space behind the Palace of Justice to participate in the 12 December protest. Meanwhile, PKR claimed that they had registered a total of 500 people.[xx]

The NRD is responsible for ensuring that all bona fide Malaysians are registered and issued corresponding identity documents.“Instead of recognizing these people of Indian origin – born and bred in Malaysia–they chose to perpetuate their statelessness by discriminating against them and placing an unrealistic burden of proof on them to “prove” their citizenship,” PK members claimed.

Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) have accused Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and the National Registration Department (NRD) of failing to protect stateless Hindus in the country. The agitation against the statelessness of the Indian community led by PK members continues and the numerous stateless Hindus march on the streets of Putrajaya chanting slogans such as “Fight for rights” and “Fight for IC rights”.[xxi]

Consequences of Statelessness

It is estimated that around 40,000 Indian children in the state of Selangor alone do not have their birth certificates. Similarly, it is estimated that at least 20,000 Indian women do not have identity documents. These figures could be much higher if their children are taken into account. Therefore, they become stateless in their own country and as a result, they have been denied protection and care as a citizen of Malaysia, and thus vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

An adult without proper documents can’t secure a proper job or get married legally. If he or she does get married without a marriage certificate and have children, chances are that their children’s birth will not be registered. As a result the children are neglected within an environment that is not suitable for living or is less favourable than their peers.

Thus, they often lack the opportunities for development in accordance with their age; such as the opportunity to receive formal education, the opportunity to be safeguarded by the national healthcare system, the opportunity to work in safe and just positions (leading to labour exploitation), and the opportunity to legally travel out of their residential area. These children often become targets and fall victim to criminal gangs or enforcement officers such as the police and RELA. Ultimately, they get trapped in a vicious cycle.[xxii]

Numerous Malaysian born Indian children have been denied their birth certificates and identity cards even with the consequences that they are denied and excluded from even primary school education let alone university education, skills training, job opportunities and even from exercising their democratic rights to vote in general elections. Without birth certificates these children are not even allowed to enroll in primary schools. They cannot get skills training, not allowed a place in local universities, a good job, cannot open a bank account, cannot get a driving license and can be arrested at any time for being an illegal immigrant.[xxiii]

Malaysia’s International Commitments

Malaysia has not joined the following international treaties and other in­struments which are relevant to the rights to equality and non-discrimination of the stateless Hindus in the country.

United Nations Instruments

(a)                Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951);

(b)               Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (1954);

(c)                International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Dis­crimination (1965), additionally making a Declaration under its Article 14 allowing individual complaints;

(d)               UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960);

(e)                International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and Optional Protocol I to the International Covenant Civil and Political Rights (1976);

(f)                International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) and Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2008);

(g)               Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treat­ment or Punishment (1984) and Optional Protocol to the Convention against Tor­ture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (2002);

(h)               International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (1990).[xxiv]

Government Efforts in Eradicating the Statelessness of Hindus

(a)    The Malaysian government has taken some effort by setting up the Special Implementation Task force on Indian Community (SITF) under the Prime Minister’s Department.

(b)   SITF initiated the MyDaftar campaign from 19 Feb – 4 Mac 2011. SITF managed to collect 14, 882 cases.

(c)     The National Registration Department has also been very cooperative in handling thestateless issue.

(d)   The Prime Minister’s Department has also provided allocation to various NGOs to identify and assist in eradicating this issue.

(e)     The government has launched many media campaigns in this direction.

All these efforts have been appreciated but not much has been done in policy matters. Only with policy amendments can the issue of stateless Hindus can resolved.[xxv]

Discrimination against Hindus in Malaysia

“Malaysia is fond of presenting itself as a beacon of multiculturalism, but intolerance and division are increasingly the hallmarks of this Southeast Asian nation of just over 29 million,” a recent Time magazine article declared.

This assessment was reflected by events in 2013, when Malaysia was marred by political turmoil and heightened ethnic and religious tensions.[xxvi]

This section of this paper deals with the wide array of discrimination against the stateless Hindus in Malaysia. The discrimination suffered by Hindus is on varied grounds like racial and ethnic inequalities, religious freedom, political rights, civil liberties, and so on.

With regard to each ground of discrimination, this paper discusses the ways in which stateless Hindus experience discrimination and inequality in all areas and spheres of life, in­cluding the result of discriminatory laws, actions of state actors carrying out public functions, exposure to discriminatory violence and discrimination in ar­eas such as employment, education and access to goods and services.

Once comprising 12 percent of the population, Malaysia’s two million Indians make up less than 8 percent of the population today.

Apart from the economic discrimination they have suffered under Malaysia’s Bumiputera policy since 1971, a number of sensitive issues affecting the culture and religion of the Malaysian Indians have come up.

While there does not appear to be a bias in favour of Bumiputeras in the matter of taxation, instances are repeatedly cited, pertaining to alleged racial discrimination against non-Bumiputer as in many other fields including:

  • allotment of business licenses
  • closure of Tamil primary schools
  • award of government scholarships
  • granting of citizenship to Indians
  • granting of permits for taxis
  • allotment of shopping lots
  • admission to universities
  • appointment of lecturers

In 1991, the NEP was revised under the New Development Plan (1991-2000) to achieve further development of the Bumiputeras. The same preferential treatment of the majority Malays has continued under the NewVision Policy (2001-2010).[xxvii]

Racial and Ethnic Inequalities

Race and ethnic relations are central to any discussion of discrimination and inequality in Malaysia. Race and ethnic relations have long played a key role in the politics, economy, society and culture of Malaysia, with the preferen­tial treatment of the Bumiputeras dating back to the British colonial era.

The more favourable treatment of Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak (col­lectively referred to as the Bumiputera – “sons of the earth”) “and the legiti­mate interests of other communities” became constitutionally permitted by Article 153 of the Federal Constitution, and implemented through the New Economic Policy and subsequent economic policies intended to “reduce and eventually eliminate the identification of race with economic function”.

While the impact of such policies is contested, some argue that in practice the prin­cipal beneficiaries have been a growing ethnic Malay middle class. As a result, other ethnic groups, including the Chinese, Indian and some indigenous com­munities, experience discrimination in the fields of education, employment, housing and political participation.

Schools and universities in Malaysia are on the whole segregated along racial lines, primarily as a result of the use of Malay as the language of instruction in public schools. Vernacular, national-type schools and students are disadvantaged by the unequal financial sup­port provided by the government which favours Malay schools and students.

Within the employment field, Malay employees dominate the public sector as a result of affirmative action policiesand such policies have also led to preferential treatment of Malays in the housing sector.

The Malaysian politi­cal process is also dominated by ethnic Malays who hold the most powerful senior leadership positions. Non-Malay political parties have been discriminated against through, for example, restrictions on their freedom of expression.[xxviii]

Socio-Economic Discrimination

Constituting nearly eight percent of the population, Hindus have been adversely affected by the pro-Malay policies (Bumiputera policies) of the regime. Although the Chinese have been affected in apolitical sense, their economic clout has mitigated the worst effects of the hegemonic Malay model.

Meanwhile Hindus, being numerically small and economically weak, have to suffer the full brunt of government policies that prioritise Malay interests.

And so, as long as Malay interests are prioritised under this hegemonic model, it becomes very difficult for Indians to get a fair and just chance. According to a prominent Malaysian Indian scholar P. Ramasamy, without the necessary political support, and in the absence of equal opportunities of development, working-class Indians find it impossible to venture into business and other forms of entrepreneurial activities.

Public sector tenders, contracts and business licenses are virtually beyond the reach of ordinary Indians. Even licenses for garbage collection and disposal are denied to Indians on the grounds of their ethnicity.

In the Ninth Malaysian Plan report, it was highlighted that ethnic Indians control only 1.2 percent of the corporate wealth in Malaysia, a decline from the 1.5 percent that they controlled previously. It is not that Indians lack the necessary professional skill and knowledge, but it is the particular kind of racial politics in the country that prevents them from seizing the opportunities

Amid its social and economic marginalization, the Indian community has faced serious challenges in the last three decades due to major changes in the plantation sector. As mentioned earlier, the majority of Malaysian Indians are Tamils, and about 60 percent of them are descended from plantation workers.

As the country progressed, recording impressive economic growth rates from the 1980s, the largely Indian plantation resident communities were left behind, as well as becoming victims to the overall national development.

More than three hundred thousand poor Indian workers have been displaced after the plantations were acquired for property and township development over the years. after they were evicted from the plantations, these people not only lost their jobs, but, more importantly, housing, basic amenities and socio-cultural facilities built up over decades.

Despite the very large number of people involved in this involuntary stream of migration from rural plantation areas to urban areas, little or nothing was done by the authorities to provide skills training and resettle these communities in more sustainable and improved livelihoods.

Thus, the government’s discriminatory policies and the horrific living conditions of the displaced community contributed to a situation where many Indian youths have turned to illegal activities to sustain themselves.

The following statistics collected by various sources apparently indicate the marginalisation and deprivation of the Indians in Malaysia in every aspect of life:

(a)    Seventy percent of the two million Indians are very poor or poor; the national average poverty level is a mere 2.8 percent.

(b)   Less than one percent of Malaysia’s education budget goes to Indian schools, even though Indians comprise about 8 per cent of the total population.

(c)    Indians’ participation in the civil services declined from about 40 percent in 1957 to about 2 percent in 2007.

(d)   About 90 percent of the armed forces personnel are from the majority Malay Muslims.

(e)    78 percent of the government services are occupied by Malays, while Hindus share only four percent.

(f)    Indians comprise 60 percent of the urban squatters and 41 percent of all beggars[xxix]

(g)   99 percent of deserving Indian students are denied the 847,485 public university places. Indians are excluded completely from the 120,000 university (UITM) places which have a campus in every state.

(h)   Only one overseas government PSD (Public Service Department) Scholarship is awarded to do medicine out of the two million Indians.

(i)     Only one medical seat is made available at the University of Malaya against a two million Indian population in Malaysia.

(j)     Government PTPTN study loans and scholarships are denied to Indians studying medicine, law, engineering etc overseas.

(k)   371 Tamil primary schools with about 100, 000 Indian children are denied full government financial assistance.

(l)     99.9 percent of deserving Indians are denied agricultural land schemes for the hard-core poor and poor in the semi government run FELDA, FELCRA, RISDA, FAMA, and Agropolitan in the 13 State Government Land Schemes.

(m) Indians in the civil service today have been reduced to 1 percent from over 40 percent in 1960s.

(n)   99 percent of the deserving Indians are denied licenses, permits, government contracts and project business loans and opportunities.[xxx]

Political Discrimination

The picture of inequalities in Malaysia would be strongly distorted without an understanding of discrimination practised by its politics against Hindus.

The main patterns of political discrimination are related to voting rights and other political participation rights, arbitrary detention on political grounds, freedom of association and assembly, and freedom of expression.

Given the strong alignment of political parties with race and religion, this form of discrimination intersects and overlaps with ethnic and/or religious discrimination and this makes it difficult to disentangle the causal factors.

Article 10(4) of the Federal Constitution is discriminatory on the ground of political opinion. It sets out exceptions to freedom of speech and expression conferred under Article 10(1)(a) which are highly political in nature and are used to restrict the activities of political opponents of the government.

[pullquote]Hindus, along with other minorities, have faced increasing religious discrimination as the Malaysian polity becomes more Islamized.[/pullquote]

Domestic legislation, such as the Police Act 1967, has been enforced in a discriminatory manner so as to prevent public assemblies by political opponents of the government. In addition to the repression of freedom of association and assembly, the Malaysian government has also used the Internal Security Act to detain political opponents in a discriminatory manner. The Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act and the Printing Press and Publication Acts have been used to silence, intimidate and punish critics of the government. [xxxi]

Religious Persecution

Non-Muslims represent approximately 45 percent of the population (12.5 million people) and include Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, and nature worshiping communities. Hindus, along with other minorities, have faced increasing religious discrimination as the Malaysian polity becomes more Islamized.

An appeals court decision in October 2013 upholding the ban on the use of the word “Allah” by a Catholic newspaper epitomized this growing trend and threat to religious freedom.

Minority rights groups believe that the ruling may have wider implications for Christians and non-Muslims, and may be interpreted to suppress other forms of speech and activities. Significantly, the government supported the ban purportedly to “preserve national security and public order.” Non-Muslims and minority Muslim sects further confront a complex series of discriminatory constitutional provisions, the expanding jurisdiction of Sharia courts, Islamic edicts, government preference for Sunni Muslim places of worship, and arbitrary restrictions on their religious freedom.

The Malaysian state, for instance, places burdensome requirements on Hindu temples, which wish to bring foreign priests and religious workers into the country. These include requiring a support letter from a federal minister of Indian descent and mandating orientation classes for priests conducted by the Ministry of Human Resources. Hindu organizations, such as Malaysia Hindu Sangam, claim that such conditions are inequitable and not required of other religions. Consequently, it has resulted in an acute shortage of Hindu priests to serve the needs of the country’s Hindu community.

Moreover, reports emerged in 2013 of government schools carrying out Muslim religious rituals on school premises and during school hours, including the slaughter of cows during the Muslim holiday of Hari Raya Aidiladha.

The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism (MCCBCHST) alleged that these religious activities violated the constitutional rights of non-Muslim students, particularly Hindus, who consider cows to be sacred. The Education Ministry, however, failed to stop the practice, despite protests from MCCBHST and the parents of minority students.[xxxii]

Religious persecution has been a formidable source of marginalization of the people of Indian origin in Malaysia. In the last couple of years, the growing religious intolerance and Islamic conservatism have heightened the sense of insecurity among minorities, especially in Hindus.

A number of Hindu temples have been demolished by city hall authorities in Malaysia. According to a report, every one week one Hindu temple is demolished in the country.[xxxiii]

Century old Malaimel Sri Selva Kaliamman Temple which was bulldozed.

Between 2004 and 2007, 96 Hindu temples were demolished in Selangor state alone. The centuries-old Malaimel Sri Selva Kaliamman Temple, located in Kuala Lumpur, was destroyed by the City Hall Authorities on 21 April 2006 because of an alleged violation of construction laws.

This was followed by a series of destruction of many temples in the city and outside. For instance, on 11 May 2006, part of a 90-year-old suburban Hindu temple was forcibly demolished by armed city hall officers in Kuala Lumpur on grounds that the temple was built illegally.

Moreover, the 100-year-old historical Temple of Maha Mariyaman was destroyed by the Malaysian authorities in the region of Shah Alam on 30 October 2007. This incident occurred just around the time of Deepavali and later, triggered the unrest that was led by the HINDRAF (Hindu Rights Action Force). The devotees who resisted the government’s act of temple demolitions were doused with water cannons and beaten by baton wielding security forces several times.

Temple demolitions are only a precursor to other forms of religious persecutions against ethnic Indians in Malaysia. The issue of forced religious conversion has also been at the forefront. There are several cases of non-Muslim Malaysian Indians finding themselves or their children forcibly converted to Islam and unable to reverse the process.

For instance, in February 2008 a teenager of Indian origin was converted to Islam(without his parents’ knowledge) by school friends who took him to the religious department where he recited the syahada (proclamation of faith) and received a conversion certificate. He was subsequently given a Malaysian identity card (MyKad) which stated “Islam” as his religion. The teenager still practices Hinduism and wants to leave Islam but cannot revert to his religion of choice, as he faces a tough legal battle in the Shariah Courts.

Such cases are not limited to Hindus only. A similar case involving an Indian Sikh Mohan Singh, occurred in the region of Shah Alam. On 4 June 2009, the Syariah High Court of Shah Alam ruled that Mohan Singh was a Muslim at the time of his death and should be buried according to Muslim rites.

However, Mohan’s family claimed that he had neither converted nor practiced Islam. There are many such cases of conversion to Islam, either voluntary or forced upon the ethnic Indian community, which has caused fear and apprehensions among the group.

The manner in which these incidents were dealt with shows the degree of intolerance and insensitivity on the part of the Malaysian government towards the religious sentiments of the Indian community.[xxxiv]

Discriminatory Provisions in the Legal System

Malaysia’s Federal Constitution explicitly gives preference to Muslims and establishes Islam as the official state religion.

Article 3(1), for instance, recognizes that Islam is the official religion of Malaysia and provides that other religions may be practiced in “peace and harmony” in the Federation.

Article 11 guarantees the right to practice and profess one’s religion, but simultaneously protects only the right of Muslims to freely propagate their religion, while prohibiting other religious groups from propagating their religion amongst Muslims.

Additionally, while it is illegal for Muslims to convert out of Islam, a non-Muslim must convert to Islam in order to marry a Muslim and have their marriage officially recognized by the state.

Furthermore, Article 160 affords a special status to ethnic Malays by defining “Malay” as a “person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language,[and] conforms to Malay custom…”

Islamists have also steadily gained influence over the judicial system since the 1990s.

The Federal Constitution was amended in 1988 to give recognition to Sharia. Moreover, it is estimated that more than 90 percent of the judiciary is filled with Malay-Muslim Judges.

In addition, the Constitution establishes a parallel court system, with secular civil and criminal courts, and Islamic Sharia courts. The Sharia courts have authority over Muslims in issues such as religion, marriage, divorce, inheritance, apostasy, and religious conversion.

Federal courts have no jurisdiction in matters that fall within the purview of the Sharia courts. Although the Sharia courts are not constitutionally authorized to exercise jurisdiction over non-Muslims, Hindus and other minorities have recently been forced to deal with the Islamic courts where they have faced severe disadvantages.

In fact, there have been several instances where non-Muslims suffered outright religious discrimination, particularly in intra-family disputes, through the Islamic court system. This is due in part to a Malaysian law which gives custody of children to a Muslim parent in divorce proceedings with a non-Muslim spouse where the children have been converted to Islam.

[contextly_sidebar id=”5nSz27IJmhfqRwaQlXDFclOF22DarJrD”]

As the State Department recently noted, there have been a number of cases where minor children were converted to Islam by a Muslim parent without the consent of the non-Muslim parent.

In these instances, the Sharia courts typically found favour with the Muslim parent and sanctioned the conversion, thereby violating the non-Muslim parent’s rights.

In April 2013, for example, S. Deepa, a 29-year-old Hindu woman discovered that her estranged husband had converted her two children (ages five and eight) to Islam without her knowledge or consent. Deepa’s husband, who left the family 16 months earlier, took the children from their school in April and had them converted at an Islamic Center.

When Deepa challenged the conversions, she was told by an officer at the Islamic Center that she had to pursue the case in the Sharia courts.Malaysian Bar Council President Christopher Leong asserted that such types of conversions violate the Federal Constitution. He specifically stated that, “The unilateral conversion of minors to any religion by a parent, without the knowledge or consent of the non-converting parent, creates social injustice, violates the rights of the non-converting parent, and is contrary to our constitutional scheme.”[xxxv]


In conclusion it can be said that although Malaysia boasts of being a tolerant multi-ethnic and multicultural nation, it has proved it’s double faced hegemony through the rampant discrimination against ethnic Indians in Malaysia.

The denial of the nodal principles of equality enshrined in the Federal Constitution, establishes the fact that Malaysia as a pluralistic society is a national exercise in political, racial and religious hypocrisy.

(Research and writing contributed by Tasneem Sharief)

[1]Department of Statistics, Malaysia 2010


[ii] Recognising Malaysia’s stateless Hindus

[iii] Stop hoodwinking the Indian communityFree Malaysia Today

[iv] Constitution of Malaysia

[v] Stateless Undocumented Indians by Nanthini Ramalo

[vi] Sorry state of statelessness by Brenda Ch’ng

[vii] Surendran hauled up by police ahead of stateless Malaysian Indians protest on Dec 12

[viii] The Numbers game: stateless Hindus in Malaysia by Datuk R. Chander, Former Cheif Statistician of Malaysia

[ix] 300,000 Stateless Indians in Malaysia, still Nambikei Nalib?

[x] Malaysia Human Rights report 2013 by Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013 United States Department of State • Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour

[xi] Sorry state of statelessness by Brenda Ch’ng

[xii] Unending, inexplicable agony of state

[xiii] Stateless Undocumented Indians by Nanthini Ramalo

[xiv] Malaysian Indian Minority and Human Rights Violations Annual Report 2008′ by the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF).

[xv] Washing the tigers- Addressing Discrimination and Inequality in Malaysia by The Equal Rights Trust in Partnership with Tenaganita. per cent20CR per cent201.pdf

xvi]The Hindraf Saga: Media and Citizenship in Malaysia

[xvii] Hindraf will resolve the issue of stateless Indian

[xviii] ‘Grant citizenship to Malaysian-born stateless Hindus without further delay’by Chua Jui Meng

[xix] December 5 protest outside NRD over the issue of stateless Malaysian Indians

[xx] Hundreds turn up for ‘stateless Hindus’ protest

[xxi] Protestors rally in Putrajaya against statelessness

[xxii]Stateless Undocumented Indians by Nanthini Ramalo

[xxiii]Malaysian Indian Minority and Human Rights Violations Annual Report 2008′ by the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF).

[xxiv]Washing the tigers- Addressing Discrimination and Inequality in Malaysia by The Equal Rights Trust in Partnership with Tenaganita. per cent20CR per cent201.pdf

[xxv]Stateless Undocumented Indians by Nanthini Ramalo

[xxvi]Hindus in South Asia and the Diaspora – A Survey of Human Rights (2013)by the Hindu American Foundation.

[xxvii]Malaysian Indian Community: Victim of ‘Bumiputera’ Policy’ (2008) byDilipLahiri.

[xxviii] Washing the tigers- Addressing Discrimination and Inequality in Malaysia by The Equal Rights Trust in Partnership with Tenaganita. per cent20CR per cent201.pdf

[xxix] Challenges to the rights of Malaysians of Indian descent by Karmveer Singh

[xxx] Malaysian Indian Minority and Human Rights Violations Annual Report 2008′ by the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF).

[xxxi] Washing the tigers- Addressing Discrimination and Inequality in Malaysia by The Equal Rights Trust in Partnership with Tenaganita. per cent20CR per cent201.pdf

[xxxii] Hindus in South Asia and the Diaspora – A Survey of Human Rights (2013)by the Hindu American Foundation.

[xxxiii] Malaysian Indian Minority and Human Rights Violations Annual Report 2008′ by the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF).

[xxxiv] Challenges to the rights of Malaysians of Indian descent by Karmveer Singh

[xxxv] Hindus in South Asia and the Diaspora – A Survey of Human Rights (2013) by the Hindu American Foundation


IndiaFacts Staff

IndiaFacts Staff articles, reports and guest pieces