More people-to-people interactions could strengthen economic relationship, create new opportunities

By Suseela Devi Chandran & Yanitha Meena Louis

ONE significant aspect of Malaysia-India relations is the presence of the Indian diaspora. The Indian diaspora has helped to strengthen ties between the two countries and brought bilateral relations closer – economically, socially and emotionally.

The total number of persons of Indian origin (PIOs) is around 2.77 million (about 8.5% of the Malaysian population). “PIO” refers to a foreign citizen who at any time held an Indian passport (but not currently) or if his ancestors were born and permanently resided in India as defined in Government of India Act 1935 or a spouse of an Indian citizen.

About 90% of PIOs in Malaysia speak Tamil and the rest Telugu, Malayalam, Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati and Marathi. There are about 185,000 skilled and unskilled non-resident Indians (Indian citizens who are not residents of India) in Malaysia.

The term “diaspora” has a historical context. In general, “Indian diaspora” refers to all persons of Indian descent living outside India, as long as they preserve some major Indian ethno-cultural characteristics. In recent times, it has emerged as a generic term to describe communities residing beyond the boundaries of their culture and nation-states.

As for Malaysia, Indians mostly emigrated as kangani and voluntary labourers to work in rubber, tea and oil-palm plantations in the British colonies – known as “old Indian diaspora”. The “new Indian diaspora” includes engineers, doctors and IT professionals – “global citizens” who willingly move in search of better economic status.

This flow of “new Indian diaspora” started after Indian independence and gathered momentum with the emigration of IT professionals in the 1990s. There was also the flow of professionals, unskilled and semi-skilled workers going mostly to the Gulf countries and Malaysia. Hence, a modern definition of diaspora amalgamates the art and aesthetics, culture and ethics between nations.

Schemes for Malaysians

Malaysia-India bilateral relations are mainly a government-driven endeavour from the political, economic and social-cultural dimensions. The government is seen as the prime mover and architect of designing the partnership. Hence, whenever high-level visits take place, these are formalised through many programmes, agreements and collaborations.

Malaysia has benefitted from various schemes initiated by India, such as “know India programme” (KIP) – a three-week orientation youth programme to promote awareness of different facets of Indian life – and overseas citizen of India (OCI) card for PIOs holding foreign passports.

A rich network of personal relationships through travel, study, work, sports and cultural exchanges has opened the doors of opportunity to foster understanding and enhance cultural appreciation between both countries. This plays an active role in contributing ideas and views toward fostering closer friendship with the Indian community globally.

In this context, it is important to briefly discuss the role of the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Indian Cultural Centre (NSCBICC) – the Indian Council for Cultural Relations’ mission in Malaysia. NSCBICC prioritises working with Malaysian cultural organisations by complementing and supplementing their efforts to promote Indian art and culture.

While NSCBICC (formerly known as Indian Cultural Centre) has had a steady track record in being the nodal agency that promotes India’s rich and diverse culture in Malaysia, more can be done in terms of visibility, outreach and people-to-people connectivity.

However, despite the agency’s best efforts, some of these initiatives are not properly localised or targeted holistically to the diverse diaspora in Malaysia or Malaysian population. It must be internalised that while the diaspora in Malaysia may relate to or identify with the basic rationale behind most initiatives of NSCBICC, in terms of appeal, the agency’s means and methods fall short.

Broader appeal

One way to address this is to go beyond engagement with just prominent cultural organisations and identify and target lesser-known groups involved in movements and projects that influence the cultural pulse in Malaysia. Examples would be parai isai, urumi and chenda melam, silambaatam, kalaripayattu groups or even wayang kulit groups with an emphasis on how much this artform shares with forms of shadow puppetry (bommalaattam) in India.

NSCBICC can also consider taking a pan-Indian approach when it comes to cultural programmes and initiatives. While it is appreciable that the rationale behind the current focus on the southern region of India is to appeal to the majority of the Malaysian diaspora who are Tamil, Telugu or Malayalam speakers, NSCBICC must also highlight the cultural vibrance of northeastern and northwestern states of India, such as Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Rajasthan and Gujarat. This will create an ecosystem which allows for mutual learning and appreciation for India’s sheer cultural diversity and richness.

The role of diasporic connections promoting economic and trade ties between the two nations must also be recognised. The economic sector is the most successful component of the Malaysia-India relations. The free-trade agreement signed between Malaysia and India in 2011 contributed to the increase in trade volume and value by removing trade barriers to goods and services.

In 2021, India figured in the list of top 10 trading partners for Malaysia and the role of agencies, such as the Malaysia-India comprehensive economic cooperation agreement (MICECA), business council (MIBC) and Malaysia-India CEO forum, are perceived as prime movers in economic relations.

Diaspora-driven and targeted trade and business can be observed in the consistent efforts taken by companies like Agenda Surya Communications that organise annual fairs, such as Global Indian Shopping Festival. This allows Indian traders to sell their products, such as textiles, food and Indian crafts, in Malaysia.

Agenda Suria Communications has served as a one-stop centre for shoppers to explore Indian goods. Traders from Kashmir, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Kerala and Punjab are brought in to sell their products directly in Malaysia. This event has proven to be a success and has been conducted since 2002. These events, besides showcasing Indian culture, also benefit the Indian traders and Malaysian consumers alike.

Another important feature of the diaspora is the tourism industry. India has consistently figured among the top 10 nations in terms of volume of tourists visiting Malaysia while in 2019, Malaysia was the second largest source country from Southeast Asia for foreign tourists visiting India.

The presence of three overseas Tourism Malaysia representative offices in India – in New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai – shows the importance of the Indian market. For Malaysia’s Indian diaspora, consistent travel to India may be due to the presence of relatives still residing in the country, religious pilgrimage, shopping and other cultural activities. A significant number of Indian Malaysians still travel to India for “wedding shopping” even today.

Visa hassles

Low-fare airlines like AirAsia have increased the seating capacity and frequency of flights, making it easier to travel between the two countries. The sole hindrance, however, lies with the visa system. The mutual high prices for the Indian tourist visa for Malaysians (RM420 for a year) and Malaysian tourist visa for Indians (RM425 for a 90-day e-visa with multiple entry) must be revisited and relooked at to encourage ease of travel.

It cannot be disputed that the Indian diaspora in Malaysia plays an immensely significant role in shaping Malaysia-India relations. Whether it is through culture, trade, business or tourism, the diaspora necessitates that both the Malaysian and Indian governments constantly ramp up efforts in capitalising on this important and irreplaceable element of relations.

While it is clear that there is room for enhanced policies and approaches that target and are driven by the diaspora, there must be mutual acknowledgement and efforts to tap into this aspect of relations. Although it could be that Malaysia is inclined to push the frontiers of economic cooperation compared to social and cultural aspects, a comprehensive approach to bilateral relations would foster a solid foundation to elevate this relationship to a higher level.

Dr Suseela Devi Chandran is senior lecturer at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) and Yanitha Meena Louis is researcher at ISIS Malaysia


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