Indians in Malaysia should use three canons: Indian scholar


by Rama Ramanathan

Malaysia: I’ve lost count of the number of Tamil newspapers in Malaysia. Occasionally I buy a Tamil paper. I seldom buy the same masthead twice in a row. This allows me to get a sense of what each masthead reports, the tone it uses, and its depth of coverage.

They cover socio-economic developments in Tamil Nadu, and in the rest of India. They also report news about Indian movie stars and singers.

The Tamil papers are valued by many Indian businessmen in Malaysia, both Hindus and Muslims. The death notices are also valued by readers.

Since there are so many Tamil papers, each one has limited circulation and, therefore, limited resources. Their reporters are concentrated in the big cities; they depend on stringers, so there is little first-hand Malaysia news.

When I’m in India, I often read the newspapers. Every day there is some mention of caste. On my last trip to New Delhi, I read about the Jat caste in Haryana state – they rioted and destroyed property to press their claims for more seats in institutions of higher learning and in government – called “reservations” in Indian English.

In Malaysian Tamil papers, I do not recall reading reports or discussions of caste. It seems Malaysian Tamils have overcome a still-common feature of society in India.

Professor R K Jain – whom I mentioned in my previous article – says Malaysian Tamils offer “a message for India: in [the] caste war the tables are turned through socio-economic and political mobility of the traditionally downtrodden without . . . caste enhancing . . . political bait of Reservations for the Dalits [the ‘untouchables’].”

After seeing my previous article, Jain sent me his most recent analysis of the Malaysian Indian over-representation in the catalogues of misery. His analysis is structured around three key words: ascription, aspiration and achievement.

Ascription” means attributing something to a cause.

Jain draws on social and anthropological studies of Indians in Malaysia, including his own work. He says the evidence says the cause of income and wealth inequality amongst Hindu Indians in Malaysia is not the Hindu caste system (as in India with its riots and reservations), but in class. Kudos to Malaysian Indians!

Aspiration” means ambition, the hope of achieving something.

The aspiration of Malaysian Indians is to reduce the incidence of gangsterism, chronic disease, slum-dwelling, etc. Jain warns Malaysian Indians not to think like a persecuted ethnic group or minority (often based on gossip and perceptions). He urges them instead to look for and latch onto chances for betterment, for instance in the 11th Malaysia Plan.

Achievement” doesn’t need definition.

Jain notes that Malaysian Indians have contributed beyond their numerical strength to Malaysia’s present success. He adds that though they have succeeded in defining themselves as “Malaysian,” they are still Indian. He urges them to network inter-ethnically with Malaysia-based and India-based businessmen to conduct business.

Jain, ever the scholar and sociologist, suggests a framework for analysis.

After noting that Malaysian Indians have “creatively destroyed” the stifling caste features inherited from their Hindu ancestry, he urges them to use “the canons of social scientific comparison and contextualization” to chart the way forward.

He recommends a three-component framework of analysis attributed to Max Weber (1864-1920), a renowned sociologist and political economist:

Market forces (for life chances or opportunities in the economy).
Status considerations (the choices of life-styles, in other words, consumption and culture), and
The play of power (as in the negotiations of political processes).
I find the framework attractive because it is neither overtly religious nor political.

It takes account of market forces, just as business and government policies do. It acknowledges personal responsibility for life-style choices which may hamper or hurry the process of rising from the ashes. It recognizes the need to leverage power.

Those who are active in working to reduce income inequality in Malaysia can learn from Jain: are you using the cannons of provocation? If yes, Stop! Are you using canons of sociology? If no, Begin!

The next time I read a Tamil newspaper, I’ll evaluate it using the Weberian canons.

(The article was first published in