Tamil youth of Malaysia: question of culture and empowerment
Posted by chaanakyan on January 13, 2008
If it could be realized that development, social empowerment and even winning a struggle are rather cultural than economic or political, then it won’t be difficult to see that the problems of the Tamil Diaspora all over the world are more internal than external. The Tamil culture is one of the classical cultures of humanity. But if there is anything wrong in its contemporary manifestations, one shouldn’t shy away from reform. The global Tamil Diaspora should come together in this regard and help each other by commonly addressing the cultural problems. The privileged and developed sections of the Tamil Diaspora bear more responsibility in this regard, writes Opinion Columnist Ampalam.
The Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) is one of the most impressive centers of the world’s air traffic today. Its transit and departure terminal is a mini city by itself.
However, anybody who is familiar with the multicultural fabric of Malaysia may wonder how the Tamil community that consists of nearly nine percent of the nation’s population is not duly represented among the modern and dazzling lineup of ethnic food, curios and international chic.
Other than a single bookshop, there seem to be no other business establishments run by Tamils. Even the bookshop, which displays books on world’s languages, doesn’t have one book on Tamil. At the same, one would be surprised to see that all the numerous toilets in the Airport are invariably maintained by Tamils.
This is just a representative picture of the development disparity among the communities of modern Malaysia today, which is obvious for any outsider to understand.
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We are told that the thousands of Malaysian Tamil youth who went on a protest march against disparity in development carried pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Pirapaharan. This led to paranoid elements in India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia becoming panicky and jumping to hastily drawn conclusions. It is now the beginnings of the demonisation of the Tamil identity beyond Sri Lanka.
It is said that the youth carried those pictures as emotive symbols of extremity to highlight the choices left to them in the course of their struggle. If that was so, a structural interpretation would tell us that the frustration and resentment was directed more against India than against Malaysia, because both the symbols are meaningful antitheses especially to the Indian establishment today, which despises Gandhi secretly and Pirapakaran openly.
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Another noticeable feature of the protest was the Hindu banner under which it was carried out. If the protesters thought that a Hindu label would attract more attention and help from India, they were making a grave mistake. The Tamils in Malaysia in their origins don’t belong to the social or economic elite of Hindus in India, in order for them to evoke sympathy from the Indian establishment.
Only India might gain bargaining power by selling out the interests of its own Diaspora. Those who doubt this can always learn by seeing the example of the treatment meted out to the upcountry Tamils of Indian origin in Sri Lanka, whose rights were swapped in exchange for the global ambitions of India, right from the time of Nehru.
The Hindu label for the protest march is also misleading as it doesn’t include the Muslims, Christians and Sikhs of South Asian origin. The label is definitely not the appropriate symbol to represent the nature of the grievances of the oppressed masses of South Asian origin in Malaysia. It may only invite unwanted animosity from the Malay Muslim majority and serve those who exploit religious sentiments for political ambitions nationally and internationally. One has to go beyond religious fundamentalism to fight against it.
The Tamil culture was never confined to a single religion in its long heritage. The Tamil language served a medium to almost all the major religions of the world, whether Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam or even to atheism.
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Ever since Narayanasamy Pillai, the lieutenant of Colonel Ruffles of the English East India Company brought in the labour force from his native place of Naakappaddinam, it was largely the poor, oppressed sections of Tamil people from the famine-stricken villages of Tamil Nadu who migrated to Singapore and Malaysia, then known as Straits Settlements, mostly to work in the tin mines and rubber estates.
Many Tamils of Malaysia and Singapore may wonder how Thaippoosam, has today become the most important Hindu festival, nationally recognized in Malaysia and Singapore, whereas it has no significance in India, not even in Tamil Nadu.
The full moon day of the month of Thai (Jan-Feb) in the Tamil luni-solar calendar, which occurs with the moon’s transit through the Poosa constellation, was essentially an ancient Tamil festival of thanksgiving mentioned in the Theavaarams (the Tamil-Chaiva devotional hymns). If Thai-pongkal, the first day of Thai, is to offer new rice at home after harvest, Thai-poosam, the full moon day of the month is to offer it at temples. Even though both are non-Brahmin festivals, the latter is highly localized today and confined only to the agrarian folk in certain pockets in the Kaveri delta in Tamilnadu and Jaffna. It is also associated with the cult of the Tamil god Murukan.
The prominence given to this festival by the Tamils of Malaysia and Singapore and the way it is celebrated reveal the socio-cultural context of the origins of a great portion of them and the myths of the subconscious mind that direct them. Understanding the background and the mindset is important to the Tamils as well as others in grasping what to look for and where to look for, to resolve matters related to the grievances of the Malaysian Tamil youth.
The resentment of the Tamil Diaspora in Malaysia is not an isolated case. It is the same story all over the world with the Tamils. Disparity within the Indian community has even classified the gods and temples in Mauritius into two categories: ‘Hindu’ and ‘Tamil’. The success of a few Tamils, belonging to the elite, priestly or mercantile communities, shouldn’t be generalized as reflective of the condition of the Tamil Diaspora.
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The Naakappaddinam port in Tamil Nadu, from where the bulk of the South Asians went to Malaysia and Singapore in the colonial times, is the nearest point of navigation to and from Southeast Asia, following the Ten Degree Channel. The ship service was in operation until recent times.
The Tamils of Jaffna origin in Malaysia and Singapore, disassociate themselves from the Indian Tamils and maintain a Ceylonese identity today. They are grouped along with Eurasians within one percent of the population in matters related to reservations. But, the Jaffna Tamils also migrated from the same Naakappaddinam port. The only difference was that their journey originated from the Kaankeasanthu’rai port in Jaffna to board the ship at Naakappaddinam. The two ports are only few miles apart on the opposite coasts of the entrance to the Palk Strait, and in those days it cost a mere 25 cents (one quarter of a rupee) of Ceylon money to travel from Kaankeasanthu’rai to Naakappaddinam by sailboats.
Though they were only separated by a few miles of sea, there was a huge gulf in the status of the two Tamil communities. The educational institutions of Jaffna made all the difference at that time and there was no compulsion such as poverty as was in the case of the Indian Tamils. Today, the same situation has been reversed: migration forced upon by a civil war, coupled with declining educational opportunities and the resultant contemporary culture, has made recent sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora suffer all over the world.
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If it could be realized that development, social empowerment and even winning a struggle are rather cultural than economic or political, then it won’t be difficult to see that the problems of the Tamil Diaspora all over the world are more internal than external.
The Tamil culture is one of the classical cultures of humanity. But if there is anything wrong in its contemporary manifestations, one shouldn’t shy away from reform.
The global Tamil Diaspora should come together in this regard and help each other by commonly addressing the cultural problems. The privileged and developed sections of the Tamil Diaspora bear more responsibility in this regard.
By ‘culture’ the writer doesn’t refer to what is commonly assumed: temples, festivals, dance, music, attire, obsolete ways of life and so on.
Today what is meant by culture revolves around education, healthcare, social equality, gender equality, harmony with environment, freedom to choose the ways of life, economic and human resources, elite formation in the society, and above all, the capability of a society to contribute to humanity in general.
The Diaspora Tamils should not expect much of these to come from India or Tamil Nadu. What is exported in the name of culture to the Diaspora is a combination of colonial Orientalism and Brahminism on one hand and the rhetoric and media of the Dravidian movement on the other hand which ultimately amuses us with the Sun TV brand of culture.
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Mr. Badawi has a great responsibility to handle the matter delicately. Development is always comparative. This is a question of disparity in the development of a national community which is backward in education, employment and resources, needing conducive institutions of contemporary culture. The discrepancies have to be acknowledged first.
Show of violence by one side and oppression in handling it by the other are capable of producing backlashes. The Tamil community needs to be sympathetically helped and strengthened through proper social, cultural and economic institutions. If there are any hurdles for the self-generation of such institutions by the community itself, they should be given the priority for removal.
The people to people contact of Tamils and Malays in ancient times contributed to the emergence of the first states in the Malay Peninsula. The Malay language and culture bear considerable traces of the long interaction with Tamils. Those who are familiar with Malay history will acknowledge that even the advent of Islam in the Sultanate of Malacca is traceable to the Tamils of Naakappaddinam. The present day Tamils, who shared a common colonial oppression along with the other communities of Malaysia, contributed immensely to the nation-building of Malaysia through hard labour. It is now Malaysia’s turn to help them becoming on par with the other communities.
As for the Tamil youth of Malaysia, it is futile to look upon the establishments at Delhi, Chennai or any other power centre of the world for help. For those who are seriously seeking inspirations, a corpus of international scholarship is already available to rediscover what is culture for social empowerment.