Malaysia has discovered a magical cure for an ailment that has been troubling it. The government of Abdullah Badawi has promised ethnic Indians — who have been in a rebellious mood ever since their vehement public demonstration against discriminatory State policies a month ago — that their temples stand protected. These will no longer be summarily demolished to make way for new constructions, and, in cases where it is absolutely necessary, the administration will make suitable arrangements for relocation. The promise, together with the other placatory gesture of dropping attempted-murder charges against some of the demonstrators, is intended to soothe ruffled feathers. Anger against the State’s demolition drive, which was perceived to target Hindu religious structures, had provided the immediate reason for the outburst last month. The guarantee of protection may give some instant relief to the government, which is looking forward to general elections in 2008. But it is unlikely that such balms will heal the gaping ethnic wound in Malaysia.
The lack of respect for religious sentiments is not the only problem for the ethnic Indians. In a country that has followed a conscious policy of Islamization and positive discrimination for the bumiputera or the Malay Muslims since the Eighties, people of Indian descent have found themselves heavily marginalized in Malaysian society and in the economy. Without proper education, political representation and international support, the community has been left behind in the country’s march towards progress. The pledge to safeguard temples may reduce heightened passions among a people whose backwardness makes them over-protective about their religious symbols, but it will not address the real issue. A responsive government would be aware of how the discriminatory policies are widening the ethnic divide. But the political compulsions forced upon it by an Opposition that has been campaigning for more Islamization may make the present government in Malaysia less receptive towards the changes needed.