Kuala Lumpur's imaginative 'Malaysia truly Asia' campaign emphasizing the country's multicultural society has taken a hit following the recent violence involving local Indians, many of whom are Tamil Hindus.
Although the outbreak was brought under control fairly quickly, the fact that the agitation was spearheaded by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) was a disturbing sign. Though small, such outfits can remain active for a long time if the grievances of its ethnic supporters are not adequately addressed.
Since the so-called Hindraf claims to be articulating the complaints of Indians about discrimination and was able to bring a fair number of demonstrators on the streets, it will be unwise to write it off as a group of troublemakers peddling 'lies', as Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmed Badawi has said.
The organization adopted a curious stand by demonstrating outside the British High Commission, demanding a $4 trillion compensation from London for bringing Hindus as indentured laborers to the then Malaya in the colonial period. But everyone knew that its main target was the Malaysian government.
It is unfortunate that the Indian diaspora can now be said to be living a troubled existence in two countries not far from the Indian shores - Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Considering that the Indians have spread all over the world from Fiji to the Gulf countries to Africa, Europe and North America, there has to be a greater endeavour on their part at integration and on the part of host countries to assimilate them.
Before the present outbreak, Malaysia experienced disturbances in 1969 when there were race riots between the Malays and the Chinese. Since then, the country's increasing prosperity has defused ethnic tensions to some extent, but they evidently continue to simmer under the surface.
Even if minorities are usually believed to carry a chip on their shoulders and are over-sensitive to their treatment by the majority, there is always a grain of truth in their grouses, which a government can only ignore at the peril of the country's integrity and stability.
Since Malaysia takes pride in projecting the composite nature of its society comprising three main groups - the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians - the authorities should not be too eager to dismiss the charges of unfairness. Instead, they should hasten to talk to the complainants and take palliative measures if they want to avoid the unhappy fate of countries like nearby Sri Lanka or distant Kosovo.
Such a prompt and sympathetic response is advisable since all too often, the authorities delude themselves into believing that tough measures are the only solution till they find that the attitude of the ethnic dissenters have hardened with unforeseeable consequences. The denial of bail to the Hindraf activists is a case in point.
All multi-ethnic polities face problems of integration, not least because the size of the cake is rarely large enough for all to be pleased with their share. In Malaysia, the problem may have been compounded by the special privileges accorded to the bumiputeras or sons of the soil, who are the indigenous Malays.
As the builder of modern Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, had said, "The Malays are not only the natives, but also the lords of this country and nobody can dispute this fact." More recently, Badruddin Amiruldin, a leader of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), said that "no other race has the right to question our privileges, our religion and our leader". Evidently, such boastful assertions are not aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the 'outsiders', viz. the Chinese and the Indians.
Although the government recently tried to modify its policy of affirmative action by introducing the concept of meritocracy in keeping with modern trends, such efforts have obviously not been enough to satisfy the Indians.
The recourse to affirmative action was understandable in view of the dominance of the Chinese over the economy and of the Indians in the professions. But a time was bound to come when the government's skewed priorities would begin to be resented, especially when, as the Hindraf says, the number of Indians in the civil services has dropped from 40 percent in 1957 to 2 percent in 2005.
Although Indians constitute eight percent of the country's population, their percentage is as high as 50 percent where convicts are concerned and 41 percent in the case of beggars.
Although Malaysia is a Muslim country, its version of Islam is a moderate one, unlike what is practiced in West Asia. As a result, the followers of other religions are allowed to practice their faith and even preach them although not to Muslims. This freedom, however, is evident perhaps more on paper than in real life because one of the allegations of Hindraf is an 'unofficial' policy of temple demolitions in Malaysia and the creeping encroachment of sharia-based laws on public life.
Malaysia is also a virtual one-party state with the UMNO in power for nearly five decades. The party also includes Indian and Chinese leaders. But the Hindraf would not have appeared if there were greater trust in the ability of these leaders to influence official policy.
(Amulya Ganguli is a writer on current affairs. He can be reached at email@example.com)