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Friday, October 29, 2010

Beneath the glamor and the rhetoric of Little India


Dinesweri Puspanadan, Malaysia Chronicle

The Indian community has made important contributions to the development of Malaysia during the past hundred years. They have worked with sincerity and dedication. They have excelled at medicine, law, engineering and accountancy. They have participated at each stage in the building of Malaysia - Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India

It must have been a sense of achievement, pride, a moment of heightened emotion, even a short period of mild ecstasy that Malaysian Indians felt on hearing these words from the Prime Minister of India Dr Manmohan Singh during the Inauguration of Little India in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur recently.

Of all his speech, perhaps these were the words, the balm that the Indian community in Malaysia valued the most. For their tired ears, injected and attacked once too often by heart-stabbing and pride degrading racial slurs, Manmohan's gentle and limited comfort still offered a source of interim refuge.

The encounter while brief was fascinating for the mostly-Indian residents there, who gawked to see their congested and almost-slum neighbourhood turned into the center of attention and used as a bridge to strengthen India and Malaysian ties.

Despite their mental slavery, few Malaysian Indians will refuse to acknowledge Brickfields as a platform of Indian heritage, a hub where traditional food, costumes, savories, decorations, spices and accessories can be found along with the personal treasure troves of deeply-buried memories of many family gatherings.


Stacked-to-the-brim shops beautified with authentic India decorations like Sakthi Rasam, Parampara incense and Gold Winner Sunflower oil plus grand welcoming archways seem convincing enough to crown the streets of Brickfields as 'Little India', although many also claimed that such a description actually belittled the Indians.

Since the first day it was proposed, the Little India project has received mixed reactions from various groups. Unsurprisingly, 'barking agents' barked with baseless allegations, while 'community welfare driven' people threatened to protest. But the biggest group were the clueless jokers who clung onto their 'favorite figures' for the free publicity.

Looking at it from a different context, Little India might help to beef up the economy of this nation, or so the Malaysian authorities say. A series of MoU and Agreements -

Agreement towards implementing Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) between India and Malaysia on 1st July 2011
MOU on Cooperation in the Field of Traditional Systems of Medicine
MOU for cooperation in the filed of Tourism
MOU for Cooperation in the filed of IT & Services
Agreement between CSIR of India and UNIK of Malaysia on Research and Development Collaboration
Cultural Exchange Programme for 2010-13

- were signed between both Prime Ministers and widely touted to improve access to each other's market. The mutual benefit that is expected to be achieved by both regimes is the increase in FDI.

The visions look promising for those who read the details of each MoU, yet the yield of the projects are questionable especially against the current reality of the racially-protected Malaysian economy. With the Najib administration hesitant to implement the NEM and meritocracy to overcome leakages and wasting capitalism, the possibility for the people to really benefit is doubtful.

Why dream of driving a Ferrari when even owning an old kapchai is difficult? Within the Indian community, there were many grouses from the grass root people. Some hawkers were not happy with the project, complaining that the promised relocations for their shops were not ready and this affected their business badly.

A walk along Brickfields on a fine day wold explain to you the existing marginalization in the community. Wedged between luxurious condominiums and high-class restaurants are many poor and middle-income families - trapped by the lack of opportunities. If you are a frequent visitor, you would have bumped into kids selling pens or souvenirs. When questioned, they will utter their infamous memorized sentence 'My family is poor and I am selling these things after school to support them'. But few of their customers would not be able to guess correctly that these kids are actually controlled by syndicates who are taking advantage of them.

Although, one can argue that the community's sufferings is exacerbated by their own attitude, won't the implementation of 'Gigantic Projects' create greater marginalization and enlarge the economic and social gap between the rich and the poor. In other words, won't it worsen urban poverty - the signs of which are already apparent in Brickfields - with or without the Little India revamp.

You do not need a degree in Economics or Science Political to make sense of the current situation and pose a simple question, 'How does Little India benefit these 'Little Indians' as a whole?'

We might need Little India for various reasons but with fundamental rights and necessities ignored and abandoned, dreams about building a business empire is equivalent to building a sand castle in the air!

To talk about exporting expertise or competing globally to folks gathered at the streets there is ridiculous when their basic rights are axed and daily livelihood jeopardized. To reminisce about past walkabouts in the area or eating curry does not make sense to the folks, who are struggling to make a meager income stretch for a month.

In this context, what else can Little India be if not another of the government's rhetoric to boost public relations or some other agenda to fish for Indian votes for upcoming General Election. Perhaps Little India is the 'help' extended to the people there for which they are expected to 'return' this help' very soon.

The fact is it is just too early to judge whether Little India is a successful project or a failed mission. The yield can only be observed in the long run. However, we need to remind ourselves that unresolved issues at the grass root level could generate disastrous impact that could contribute to the down fall of the larger society.

Is Little India promised wealth or planned disaster? Figures in the future shall speak for themselves...

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