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Stateless Indians – No need for the blame game

April 23, 2012

FMT LETTER: From Harish Subramaniam, via e-mail

Largely drawn by its attention-grabbing headlines, I read with interest and a big pinch of salt Dr Paraman Subramaniam’s sensationalist article in CPI Asia on stateless Indians in Malaysia. Since his title posed a question I have answered it in mine.

The good doctor started by tugging at the heartstrings in citing the UN Declaration of Human Rights as if to paint the plight of Indian Malaysians like the Hmong refugees in Thailand, Europe’s Roma or the Kurds in Turkey.

Institutionalised discrimination against Indians in Malaysia by the government (which historically included large numbers of Indian civil servants) seems to be the thrust of Subramaniam’s piece. This is clearly an exaggeration or the author’s artistic licence designed to draw the attention of the reader.

He then launches into a series of numbers and figures which are at best historical and at worst plucked out of thin air. 450,000 is the number he has built his central argument around. The ridiculousness of this number can be immediately disproved by a quick check on UNHCR’s website.

On its page on Malaysia, the UNHCR says that as of January 2011, there were 216,900 people whom it lists as “people of concern”. These include refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless people and others of concern. Of this, the grand total of all stateless people is 41,000.

Maybe it was a printing error that caused the doctor’s numbers to swell by an extra zero, but if so, it was an oft-repeated mistake. Or maybe he allowed himself to be swayed by Hindraf’s unsubstantiated claims and took their number to be gospel. He would have us believe that this extra 409,000 must have slipped through the cracks in the UNHCR count but wasn’t he relying on UN numbers in the first place?

I shall not go into the sheer folly of basing one’s argument on historical population projections which were subsequently proved inaccurate. Saying that “the figures could represent an unbiased clearer picture of the Malaysian population today” merely because it was included in a UN report is idealistic at best.

Furthermore, it is simplistic to say that, in 1975, Malaysia’s chief statistician in the Census and Demographic division, R Chander (an Indian in the highest levels of the civil service!) could not have made a mistake. To take his figures as gospel would be foolish, just as condemning him for being wrong would be churlish.

It could quite easily be argued that, Chander did the best he could given the resources he had and the data-collection methods of that time. To say he was right 2 out of 3 times (for Malays and Chinese) and wrong only with Indians (off the mark by a mere 175,000) and to then construct a conspiracy theory around this would be plain childish.

Let me state quite clearly, that I do not dismiss Dr Subramaniam’s claims altogether. It is clear that unregistered Indians in Malaysia are a blot on the nation and previous governments may not have given the issue its due attention. I am, however, disputing his inflated numbers and the methods at which he arrives at them.

Without sounding like a sycophant, I am glad that the Najib administration has recognised this problem and has taken action to redress this historical wrong. As a people who have been invaluable to the nation-building effort in Malaysia, Indians who have resided in Malaysia for generations and their descendants should be granted full citizenship and all its attendant rights and privileges along with it.


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