Malaysian Indians

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Malaysian Indians

PRONUNCIATION: muh-LAY-zhun IN-dee-uhns
POPULATION: 1.8 million (2004)
LOCATION: Malaysia
LANGUAGE: Tamil; Malay; Chinese; other ethnic Indian languages
RELIGION: Hindu (majority); Sikh; Buddhist; Muslim; Christian
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: People of India; Vol. 4: Malaysian Malays; Tamils


Indian traders came to Malaya as early as the 14th century. Through trading, they introduced Islam to the locals, particularly to the Malays. This was also done by marrying into the various royal families, consequently achieving positions of great influence. It was only in the latter half of the 19th century that an influx of Indian immigrants came to Malaya, due to its rapid economic development. The largest annual flow into Malaya occurred during the period of 1911-30, when more than 90,000 persons landed each year. They were recruited and solicited by the British, mostly as indentured laborers to work on rubber plantations. A large number of clerical workers were also brought in from Ceylon, while a number of professionals, doctors, and teachers were brought in from India, particularly after World War I. Almost every Indian ethnic subgroup is represented in Malaysia. This includes the Tamils, Gujaratis, Malayalis, Punjabi, Sindhis, Pathans, Telegus, Kannarese, and the Sri Lankan Tamil and Singhalese. They came from many parts of India and belonged to different faiths. Nevertheless, Malaysian Indians are mostly Tamils, forming 87.6 per cent of the population in Malaysia.

Indian Tamil1,396,48087.6
Malayali35,809  2.3
Telugu38,993  2.4
Sikh33,231  2.1
Punjabi23,147  1.5
Other Indian41,477  2.6
Pakistani11,313  0.7
Bangladeshi2,951  0.2
Sri Lankan Tamil8,735  0.5
Singhalese1,641  0.1

Even though the number and power of the Indians in Malaysia are far inferior to those of the Malays and Chinese, they are well represented in Malaysia's political arena. The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) plays an important role as a vehicle of political representation among the Indian Malaysians. It represents the Indians in the interethnic grouping of political parties called the Alliance. It was brought in as the third partner of the Alliance after the elections of 1964.


Since most Malaysian Indians were brought in by the British government to work as laborers on the plantations, most of them live in the major plantation states of Selangor, Negri Sembilan, and Johor, with spillover in other states, such as Kedah, Perak, Penang, and Pahang. Even today, plantations still provide employment for most of the Indian population. Gradual urbanization, however, continues among Indians, as with other Malaysians, with many drifting from plantation areas to neighboring cities and towns. This rural-urban migration has increased since the 1980s as a result of a shift in plantation agriculture from rubber to the less labor-intensive oil palm. This is also due to improved education and industrialization. The latter has generated employment opportunities in urban areas. All of this has led to a decrease in the rural population from 65% in 1970 to 30% in 2000.


Besides being able to read, write, and speak in their mother tongue of Tamil, or other Indian languages, almost every Malaysian Indian is also able to speak and write Malay. A large number are able to speak and read Chinese characters as well.

Unlike Western names, the Malaysian Indians do not have surnames. Their names consist of two parts: their given name, and their father's name, with "s/o" ("son of") or "d/o" (daughter of) to append the father's name. For example, Dorai, the son of Sivam s/o Ramesh, is not Dorai Ramesh, but Dorai s/o Sivam. The same principle applies to a daughter's name, except that upon marriage she has to take her husband's name. Therefore, Dorai's wife, Suseela, will be known as Mrs. Dorai or Madam Suseela. There are times when the initial of the father's name is placed in front of a person's given name. For instance, Ramesh s/o Arul will be known as A. Ramesh, "A" being the initial of the father's name, while Ramesh is the person's given name.

While the more traditional families will name a son after a Hindu god and a daughter after a Hindu goddess, the Christian Indians, such as the Thomian Christians in Malaysia, have biblical surnames like Abraham, John, Samuel, or Jacob that are perpetuated in the family. There are others who adopted Portuguese names, such as Rozario, DeSilva, and Santamaria, as family surnames. These are descendents of Indians from Ceylon, Goa, and Malacca, which were colonies of Portugal.


The Malaysian Indians have many folk tales and myths that are closely related to their majority religion, Hinduism. One of their legends is the story behind the celebration of the Festival of Lights, or Deepavali, as a celebration of Nagarasuran's death. Nagarasuran was a Hindu tyrant and an extremely cruel king. As a result, his people appealed to Lord Krishna to remove him from the kingdom. Lord Krishna favored their appeal by having Nagarasuran defeated and fatally wounded in a battle. However, before his death, Nagarasuran repented from his cruelty and begged Lord Krishna for forgiveness. He also asked for a favor from Lord Krishna, that is, to let his people celebrate his death instead of weeping for him. Lord Krishna granted his request by letting them celebrate the Festival of Lights, the Deepavali.


Indian Malaysians are of different faiths. However, most of them are Hindu, while others are Sikh, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian. For most Indian Malaysians, the Hindu religion is a way of life. They believe in the ultimate reality, which appears in many forms and for different purposes such as for life, creation, energy, and protection. They also believe in reincarnation that one's life and actions will determine one's next life and that the actions of one's previous life have determined one's present life. Since the spiritual goal of a person is to reach a state of perfection and enlightenment, she or he is given an opportunity to make up for any harmful deeds during her or his previous existence by being reborn.

Malaysian Indians have a deep faith, which is woven into their everyday lives. An Indian mother offers prayers and burns incense at the family altar every morning before the sun is up. This is done to greet her god and the new day. She may perform the same ritual at sunset, too.

Friday is a special day for Hindus in Malaysia. This is the day the Malaysian Indians flock to temples to offer prayers. At the temple, they make several different kinds of offerings. One of these offerings is the "banana" offering or "half-coconut" offering. This is done by giving a donation of 30 cents for a banana or 80 cents for half a coconut and by writing their name on a small slip of paper that will be read out loud by the priests during their formal prayers. After the formal prayers, the devotees are given holy ash to put on their foreheads and betel nuts that can be chewed by the older folks or placed on the altar at home. The blessed banana or coconut is then taken home, either to be eaten or to be placed on the family altar. If the offerings are not eaten, they will not be thrown away, even after they have become rotten. Instead, they will be placed under a tree or into a river.


Two of the Malaysian Indians' major holidays are the Deep-avali and Thaipusam. The Deepavali is known as the Festival of Lights and is usually celebrated in October. The exact day of the celebration is, however, determined by astrologers. It is largely a day for family reunions and also a time for non-Hindu friends to come visit during the Open House.

While Deepavali is a family celebration, Thaipusam is a very public celebration and takes place in late January or early February. It is a festival connected with penance, atonement, and thanksgiving for favors granted by the gods. It is dedicated to Lord Murugan, a god personifying the virtues of courage, youth, power, and endurance. At this festival, a person who had received answers to prayers will reciprocate by doing some sort of penance to show his or her gratitude. This act of gratitude is usually accomplished by carrying a kavadi on his or her shoulder on the procession day. Although a kavadi can be any form of offering to the gods, it is usually a large semicircular object, almost like half of a bicycle wheel, which is carried on the shoulder. Metal hooks and spikes are attached to the kavadi, which are fastened onto the devotee's skin.

Thousands of Hindus take part in the Thaipusam procession, which usually takes place at the Batu Caves in the State of Selangor. As a result, it enhances the social identity of the community and reinforces the spirit of "communitas." It is on this day that every Indian is equal in the sight of every other Indian. Women have equal status with men, lower castes have equal status with higher castes, and there is no distinction made between individuals.


An Indian couple always hopes for sons, as only sons can perform certain rites during the father's funeral. A mother and her child are considered unclean and in a state of danger for 28 days after the birth of the child. Therefore, many restrictions are placed on the mother throughout this period. The child's birth is celebrated on the twenty-eighthday, with friends and relatives invited to the celebration. The child is dressed up in fancy clothes and jewelry for the occasion. A child will be named on this day by placing the child on the father's lap, or on the lap of some relative, while his or her name is whispered gently into his or her ears. From then on, the child will be known and called by that name.

Like many other communities in Malaysia, the Malaysian Indians increasingly observe their birthdays in the Western way. Some Indians have puberty rituals, particularly for their daughters. The Ceylonese Tamils have a ritual called Chamati Chadanja, which is usually carried out at the time of the girl's first menses, though it may be done just before the girl marries. This ceremony is usually held on an odd-numbered date, i.e, the seventh, ninth, or eleventhday of the month. Unlike the girls, Indian boys do not normally go through puberty rituals or circumcision.

Marriage in the Indian community is seen as sacred and eternal, lasting through life and even after. An Indian girl is expected to be married between the ages of 22 to 23, while a boy usually marries between the ages of 25 to 28. Even though young Indians have more freedom to choose their life partners than in the past, arranged marriages are still widely practiced among Malaysian Indians. Normally, two related families would arrange a marriage between their children. However, an Indian boy can only marry his father's sister's daughter or his mother's brother's daughter, but not his father's brother's daughter or his mother's sister's daughter. It is preferable to marry a girl of the same class, caste, and community.

A marriage is arranged by calling a priest from each side of the family to compare the horoscopes of the prospective bride and groom. If all is well, then the marriage is agreed upon. Once a match is made, the dowry is settled. It is important to note, however, that a marriage proposal usually comes from the girl's side. This is because, by tradition, a female has to provide a male with a dowry. The amount of the dowry depends on the eligibility (in terms of affluence and profession) of the young man.

There are certain marriage symbols used by Indian women once they are married. While South Indian women wear pottu, a red dot on the forehead, and thali, a necklace tied by their husband around their necks at the wedding, North Indian women wear bangles on their arms and red streaks on the parting of their hair.

The sixtieth birthday is the landmark age for an Indian gentleman. A celebration is held to pray for his longevity and good health. Malaysian Indians believe that when a person dies, the soul leaves the vicinity of the house only on the sixteenth or fortieth day, if the soul is very attached to his or her family. In respect for the soul, an oil lamp is left burning in the home day and night throughout that period. Although the soul may linger for a longer period, the body of the deceased is usually removed from the house within 12 hours. While most adults are cremated, children are not. When a woman's husband dies, she has to remove the thali from her neck and wipe off the pottu from her forehead. This symbolizes the end of her married life.


Traditionally, handshaking as a form of greeting is not widely used by the Malaysian Indians. Their usual form of greeting is to put the palms together in the prayer position and raise the hands to chest level in front of their face, with their head slightly bowed. However, today handshaking is an acceptable form of greeting, though it is best to let an Indian woman extend her hand first for a handshake.

When entering an Indian home, it is customary to remove one's shoes, unless told otherwise. Shoes are never to be worn in kitchen and prayer areas. The right hand should be used for any social purposes, such as to give and receive items. It is considered polite to bow slightly when passing in front of people, saying, "Excuse me, please."

Conversations between members of the opposite sex are normally kept to a minimum. Coarse jokes and sex talk are not to be spoken in the presence of any woman. Even though dating has never been part of their culture, it is becoming a common practice among young Malaysian Indians. They are partly influenced by mass media—television, magazines, novels, etc. It is also a result of young Indians mixing more freely with their friends in schools and universities.


Among Malaysia's Indians, there is a clear distinction between the urban middle class and the rural poor. While Malaysian Indians in urban areas have easy access to a better standard of living, the Malaysian Indians on the plantations have to cope with a lower living standard. Many children on the plantations do not receive proper nutrition before being sent off to school in the morning. Many families could not afford to buy even the basic necessities for their children's education, such as uniforms, shoes, notebooks, pencils, etc.

Unlike most other industries in the country, the plantation industry has built houses to accommodate its workers. This is because the plantations are usually located far from inhabited centers. Most plantation workers are currently living in "line-site" houses. There are two types of line-site house: the wooden barracks and the raised brick cottage. The wooden barracks are old and are arranged usually in rows of five. The walls are made of planks, and the roof is usually made of aluminum. Each dwelling in a row occupies an area of roughly 3 m by 6 m (10 ft by 19 ft), and is about 3 m (10 ft) high. It has a small veranda, a living room, a bedroom measuring roughly 3 m by 2.5 m (10 ft by 8 ft), and a tiny kitchen of 1 m by 2 m (3 ft by 6 ft). The raised brick cottages have a covered floor of roughly 5 m by 6 m (17 ft by 20 ft) and consist of two living quarters inhabited by different families. The two quarters are partitioned by a brick wall, but share a common tile roof. Each quarter has a living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, a toilet, and a bath.

Unlike the urban areas, basic amenities, such as water, sanitation, and electricity in the plantations, are seriously below legal standards. The plantations get their water supply either by water piped to each house, stand-pipes shared by a few families, well or pond water, a river, or through the JKR (Department of Public Works) water supply. While some plantations are provided with electricity by an estate generator, others obtain electricity by running their own generators, and others use gas or oil lamps.


Like many communities in Malaysia, the Malaysian Indian families are organized in relation to nuclear family units. It is through the family unit that values, culture, and religion are imparted to younger generations. Many of these nuclear families, however, are linked together into extended families. Family size among Malaysian Indians varies according to standards of living, education level, and location. There are households in the plantations that contain as many as 9, 10, 11, or even 12 family members. Living conditions for most people are crowded, but all members of the household benefit from the mutual support of parents, children, and grandchildren living under the same roof.

Malaysian Indian women in some ways are still highly conservative. This is mainly because of a strong emphasis on male line descent and a patrilineal system. The father is ranked highest in the hierarchy of authority. He commands the family. Although the mother's position is respected, she is expected to be subservient to all of the males in the family.


A sari, the traditional dress of an Indian woman, is a flowing silk or cotton wrapped dress worn over a short, tight-fitting, elbow-length-sleeved blouse. An Indian girl usually starts wearing a sari when she turns 13 years old. While Indian women wear a sari, Indian men wear a dhoti, a wrapped white skirt worn either with or without a shirt or white tunic.

Besides the sari, a Hindu Indian woman may wear a pottu (dot) on her forehead. A pottu can be worn in one of three traditional colors: red, yellow or black. These colors have certain significance among Indian women. While red is worn by married women, black is traditionally worn by unmarried women. However, red and yellow can also be used simply as an auspicious color. While these two colors are thought to have a calming effect when put on the forehead after prayers, black is used to counteract the effect of the evil eye. A black dot is able to protect a girl from harm by repelling evil influences, particularly when a young girl receives too many compliments.

Except during festivities and other celebrations, it is very common to see Malaysian Indian women dressed in blouses, jeans, skirts, dresses, or shorts. Malaysian Indian men commonly wear pants, shirts, shorts, and tee-shirts. Even the color of the pottu on the forehead is worn simply to match the color of women's attire these days, regardless of their marital status.


As in most Asian communities, rice is the staple food of the Malaysian Indians. Breads, such as chapati (a thin, flat, unleavened wholemeal bread), naan (leavened white bread), puri (a deep-fried wholemeal bread), and rothi paratha (a flaky whole-meal bread), are also staple foods among the Malaysian Indians. While these breads are usually eaten with hot curry gravy, rice is eaten with curries, sauces, vegetables, and other dishes. Since most Indians are Hindu, they tend to be vegetarian. Their foods are usually cooked in coconut milk or yogurt and are seasoned with hot peppers and spices, thus making them very spicy. They normally add colors to their food by adding chili powder for red, curry powder for brown, and turmeric for yellow. This helps enhance the appearance of their food. They also have a variety of snacks. These snacks include vadai, deep-fried cakes made with ground lentils, green chilies, and ginger; muruku, crispy and crunchy pretzels; pakhora, mixed vegetable fritters; and samosa, deep fried pastries containing meat, onion, and spices.

Like the Malays, the Tamils traditionally use the fingers of the right hand for eating. A popular traditional style of dining among the Malaysian Indians is by eating off banana leaves. A variety of curries, vegetables, and sauces are placed around a pile of rice on the banana leaves. Even the dessert after the main meal is served on the same banana leaf. The banana leaf is folded in half after the meal, to indicate that one has finished one's meal. Sometimes, foods are served on a thali, a metal tray with several small matching bowls for food. This is particularly true in traditional Indian homes. All the food, including the desserts, is served at the same time, with the rice or bread placed in the center of the tray.


The Indian community is the poorest of the three major communities in Peninsular Malaysia. Because of this, Malaysian Indian youth have relatively low rates of enrollment in schools. Their enrollment rates in both urban and rural areas are lower than those among Malays and Chinese. Furthermore, in comparison with the Malays and Chinese, more Indian youths drop out of school due to low motivation. As a result, the position of the Malaysian Indians in reference to education is comparatively poor in Malaysia.

However, the government has taken impressive measures to uplift the standard of education among the Indian community in Malaysia. Since it is mandatory for Malaysians to attend schools between the ages of 6 and 15, the government has made an effort to build primary and secondary schools on the plantations across the country. After the age of 15, youths are encouraged to attend vocational or technical colleges and other institutions of higher learning. They can obtain loans and scholarship programs from the government, the NUPW (National Union of Plantation Workers), and the MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress). An increasing number of Malaysian Indian parents see education as a means for their children to gain better employment than plantation work. Through and increased emphasis on education, many young adult Malaysian Indians are now working as professionals, managers, and clerical staff in all sectors of modern economy.


Malaysian Indians' dance, music, and literature revolve around their religion, Hinduism. Their dances are greatly influenced by the two great Indian poetic epics, the Ramayana and Mahabhrata. These two epics do not only influence Indian dances and music, but also the Malays' dance and theater performances, such as the wayang kulit and makyong (seeMalaysian Malays) .

Since most Malaysian Indians are Hindu, the Vedas (Hindu scriptures) play an important role in the community. They are ancient writings that explain the mystery of life. They contain some simple parables, which are easily understood by the common people, but which can also be read and understood at the highest levels of abstract philosophy.


Even though the majority of Malaysian Indians work on plantations as laborers, there are many who are doctors, lawyers, trade unionists, police and army personnel, small shopkeepers, teachers, etc. Basically, they are found in every strata of the society class structure. As traders, they usually sell textiles, perfumes, and jewelry. Many are successful professionals, traders, and businesspeople. At the other end of the scale, however, the Indian laborers on the rubber estates are among the poorest Malaysians.


Like among many other ethnic groups in Malaysia, sports such as soccer, rugby, basketball, badminton, and cricket are becoming very popular among the Malaysian Indians in rural and urban areas. The most popular spectator sport is soccer (known as football in Malaysia), particularly among the youth. Both on the plantations and in the cities, it is not unusual to see Indian youths and adults get together to play soccer on any open field.


Forms of entertainment among the Malaysian Indians depend greatly on where they live. Those who live in urban areas have the same forms of entertainment that people have in suburban areas in the United States and the United Kingdom. They have easy access to movies and theater, while those who live on the plantations do not have the same privileges. In urban areas, the Malaysian Indians do not only attend Indian movies and theaters, but also have access to Chinese and Malay movies and theater. They also have access to video arcades, parks, etc., which are popular places for recreation among the youth. Televisions, radios, compact discs, and cassettes players are common forms of entertainment in Malaysian Indian homes in urban areas. Some homes on the plantations do have television sets and video players as forms of entertainment. This is, of course, only true in homes that have access to electricity.


Like most parts of their cultural heritage, Malaysian Indian arts and crafts are closely related to Hinduism. Their fine art and carvings can be seen in stone carvings and terra-cotta sculptures, inset tile work, and other colorful details in their temples across Malaysia. Their painters have also produced hundreds of paintings (or, in recent times, colored prints) of gods and goddesses. These paintings are usually for devotional use in home shrines.


The persistent poverty and political powerlessness of rural Indians in Malaysia is one of the country's best-known and most-severe social problems. Even though the plantation industry is a major source of income for Malaysia, low wages and poor working conditions for its plantation laborers have caused the Indians to be one of the poorest communities in Peninsular Malaysia. Most of them, like their contract-laborer ancestors, are rubber workers, though some are now small farmers. Poor budgeting and excessive drinking seem to aggravate the problem of low incomes and savings among the Indian poor. Furthermore, features such as low self-respect, apathy, poor parental responsibility, and weak community cooperation seem to reinforce one another and worsen the economic hardship faced by the Malaysian Indians.


The strong emphasis on the patrilineal system among the Indians shapes gender issues and relations in the community. Women usually do not sit with the men at any function. In some homes, the wife does not even sit down when male guests are present. In some cases a wife is not to call her husband by name nor openly object to his decisions and ideas. This is particularly true in many traditional homes. A wife may serve the guests, but otherwise she will stay in the kitchen or in some other part of the house. A wife usually stays at home, except for the occasional shopping trip to the department stores. However, these traditional values are changing with modernization, educational opportunities, and equal rights of women. In the plantations, women tap rubber and weed alongside men and receive wages at identical rates.


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—by P. Bala