Malaysian Indian

Malaysian Indian
Malaysian Indians
From Left to Right: Tony Fernandes CBE, Malaysian entrepreneur,founder of Tune Air and CEO of Air Asia • Ash Nair, Malaysian alternative musician • Jaclyn Victor, Malaysian singer, actress and winner of the inaugural Malaysian Idol and Ikon Malaysia
Total population
c. 1,250,000
Regions with significant populations
Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore

Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Punjabi, Malay, English, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi


Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and Bahá'ís

Related ethnic groups

Indian Singaporeans, Chitty, Chindian, Jawi Peranakan

Malaysian Indians are Malaysians of Indian origin. Many are descendants from those who migrated from India during the British colonization of Malaya. Prior to this, Indians have been present in the Malayan archipelago at least since the period of the influential Indian dynasty of the Cholas in the 11th century. Today, they form the third largest ethnic group in Malaysia after the Chinese and the Malays, and constitute 8% of the Malaysian population[1]



Candi Bukit Batu Pahat of Bujang Valley. A Hindu-Buddhist kingdom ruled ancient Kedah possibly as early as 110 A.D, the earliest evidence of strong Indian influence which was once prevalent among the pre-Islamic Kedahan Malays.

The Arab and Indian traders had traveled this region including the southern tip of South East Asia the peninsula with maritime trade[2], the Sailendra kings of Java originating from Kalinga(India) were able to take control of the Peninsula and part of southern [Siam].The kings welcomed Buddhist missionaries from India, accepting their teaching of the Mahayana sect, which spread through their territories. However, central and northeastern Thailand continued to adhere to the Hinayana teachings of the Theravada sect, which had been introduced by missionaries sent by the emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. Another theory of the introduction of Buddhism after Indian arrived to the Peninsula is that after Kalinga conquered lower Burma in the 8th century their influence gradually spread down the peninsula. Keling is a word used to describe people originating from the Indian subcontinent by native Malaysians and Indonesians. The origin of the term is rooted in the former cultural and economic influence of the Kalinga kingdom over south east Asian kingdoms.[3] The ancient Indian Kalinga was located in southeastern India occupying modern day Orissa and northern Andra Pradesh. In the 7th century an Indonesian kingdom was named Kalingga[4] after the aforementioned Kalinga in India. Chinese sources mention this kingdom (Holing) as a center for Buddhist scholars around 604 before it was overshadowed by the Sanjaya or Mataram Kingdom. The most famous Kalingga ruler is Ratu Sima.

There is evidence of the existence of Indianized kingdoms such as Gangga Negara, Old Kedah, Srivijaya since approximately 1700 years ago[5]. Early contact between the kingdoms of Tamilakkam and the Malay peninsula had been very close during the regimes of the Pallava Kings (from the 4th to the 9th century CE) and Chola kings (from the 9th to the 13th century CE). The trade relations the Tamil merchants had with the ports of Malaya led to the emergence of Indianized kingdoms like Kadaram (Old Kedah) and Langkasugam.[6] Furthermore, Chola king Rajendra Chola I sent an expedition to Kadaram (Sri Vijaya) during the 11th century conquering that country on behalf of one of its rulers who sought his protection and to have established him on the throne. The Cholas had a powerful merchant and naval fleet in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. Three kinds of craft are distinguished by the author of the Periplus – light coasting boats for local traffic, larger vessels of a more complicated structure and greater carrying capacity, and lastly the big ocean-going vessels that made the voyages to Malaya, Sumatra, and the Ganges.[7]

Inscriptions and place names

A good number of Tamil inscriptions as well as Hindu and Buddhist icons emanating from South India have been found in Southeast Asia (and even in parts of south China). On the Malay Peninsula, inscriptions have been found at Takuapa, not far from the Vishnuite statues of Khao Phra Narai in Southern Thailand. It is a short inscription indicating that an artificial lake named Avani-naranam was dug by nangur-Udaiyan which is the name of an individual who possessed a military fief at Nangur, being famous for his abilities as a warrior, and that the lake was placed under the protection of the members of the Manikkiramam (which according to K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, was a merchant guild) living in the military camp.[8]

An inscription dated 779 AD has been found in Ligor, Malay Peninsula. This refers to the trade relationship between the Tamil country and Malaya.[9] In ancient Kedah there is an inscription found by Dr. Quaritch Wales. It is an inscribed stone bar, rectangular in shape, bears the ye-dharmma formula in South Indian characters of the 4th century AD, thus proclaiming the Buddhist character of the shrine near the find-spot (site I) of which only the basement survives. The inscriptions are on three faces in Pallava Grantha script. The Ruler Raja Ganga fled from his empire into the forests with his queen and an infant heir. Raja Ganga left traces of hideout on a nearby hill in form of artifacts on stones.

All these inscriptions, both Tamil and Sanskrit ones, relate to the activities of the people and rulers of the Tamil country of South India. The Tamil inscriptions are at least 4 centuries posterior to the Sanskrit inscriptions, from which the early Tamils themselves were patronizers of the Sanskrit language.[9]

The Cherok Tokun Ancient Inscriptions were first documented by Colonel James Low, a British army officer, in 1845. In his log, Low recorded his disappointment of not finding a more spectacular ruin, expecting to find an ancient temple ruin. He documented what he made out to be "a group of seven inscriptions". The inscriptions were believed to be in pre-Pallava script and written in Sanskrit. They were attributed to the ancient Kingdom of Kadaaram, which flourished in northern Malaysia in the 5th to 6th centuries. However, according to J Laidlay, who translated the text in 1848, the inscription was in fact written in Pali - another ancient language of the Indian subcontinent.

Various place names in Malaysia contain the word keling for historical reasons, e.g. Tanjong Keling.,[10] Kampong Keling,[11] and Bukit Keling, etc.

In Penang, the Kapitan Keling Mosque, situated on the corner of Buckingham Street and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling (Pitt Street), is one of the oldest mosques in George Town. Various other Penang Hokkien street names contain the word keling, e.g. Kiet-leng-a Ban-san (Chowrasta Road), Kiet-leng-a Ke (King Street/Market Street).

In Singapore, there is a road in Jurong Industrial Estate called Tanjang Kling Road which is probably deprived from the word 'Keling'.

Tamil words in Malay

A very essential cultural element needed to carry out commercial transactions is a common language understood by all parties involved in early trade. Historians such as J.V. Sebastian, K.T. Thirunavukkarasu, and A.W. Hamilton record that Tamil was the common language of commerce in Malaysia and Indonesia during historical times.[9] The maritime Tamil significance in Sumatran and Malay Peninsula trading continued for centuries and borrowings into Malay from Tamil increased between the 15th and 19th centuries due to their commercial activities. In the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company was obliged to use Tamil as part of its correspondence. In Malacca and other seaports up to the 19th century, Malay terminology pertaining to book-keeping and accountancy was still largely Tamil.[2]

Borrowings from Tamil include such everyday words as:.[9]

Tamil Malay English
akka kakak elder sister
kadai kedai shop
kappal kapal ship
muthu mutiara pearl
vagai bagai kind

Indian migration

The overwhelming majority of migrants from India were ethnic Tamil and from British Presidency of Madras. In 1947 they represented approximately 85 per cent of the total Indian population in Malaya and Singapore. Other South Indians, mainly Telugus, and Malayalees, formed a further 14 per cent in 1947.

Large scale migration

British acquisition of Penang, Melaka,and Singapore - the Straits Settlements from 1786 to 1824 started a steady inflow of Indian labour. This consisted of plantation labour, traders, policemen and colonial soldiers (see sepoys). Apart from this there was also substantial migration of English-speaking Indians to work in the British colonial government[12].

The Indian population in pre-independent Malaya and Singapore was predominantly adult males who were single with family back in India and Sri Lanka. Hence the population fluctuated frequently with the immigration and exodus of people. As early as 1901 the Indian population in the Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States was approximately 120,000. By 1931 there were 640,000 Indians in Malaya and Singapore and interestingly they even outnumbered the native Malays in the state of Selangor that year. At the time of Independence in 1957 it stood at over 820,000. Today, Malaysian Indians account for approximately 8 to 12 per cent of the total population of Malaysia (in the range 1.8 to 2.5 million) and 8 per cent in Singapore (250,000). There has also been a significant influx of Indian nationals into Singapore and Malaysia in recent years to work in construction, engineering, restaurants, IT and finance with many taking up permanent residence in Singapore where they account for nearly a quarter of the Singapore population. Overseas emigration for educational and professional reasons among Malaysian Indians is also increasingly commonplace.

Geographic distribution

The close correspondence between the ethnic and occupational divisions of the South Asian community was inevitably reflected in the community's geographical distribution in Malaya. The South Indian Tamils were concentrated mainly in Perak, Selangor, and Negri Sembilan, on the rubber estates and railways, though a significant proportion found employment on the docks in Penang and Singapore. The Telugus are concentrated in lower Perak,northern Selangor,Negeri sembilan,Kulim and Sg Petani in Kedah and Pahang.The Malayalees were located predominantly in Lower Perak, Kuala Lumpur, parts of Negri Sembilan, and Johore Bahru where they were usually in the estates or in the civil service in the earlier days.While the business communities, the Gujaratis, Sindhis, Chettiars, and Tamil Muslims, were concentrated in the urban areas, principally Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Ipoh, and Singapore. The Ceylon Tamils were also mainly an urban community, though some were found in rural areas working as staff on the estates as well being well known in dominating the railways. In Sabah and Sarawak, the Indian population is concentrated around the major cities and towns in both states, with representations from the Tamil Muslims, Punjabis, Malayalees, Sindhis, Ceylonese, South Indian Tamils and other Indian ethnic groups, taking up careers in the private and government sectors or running businesses.

Young Malaysian Indian boys


The economic state of Indian Malaysians is stratified and the distribution of wealth is uneven. However, while many Indians are part of the Malaysian working class, there also exists a large group who consist of Malaysia's educated middle class and professionals and are part of Malaysia's upper middle class.

Indians are well represented in Malaysian medical and legal fraternities. Indians also form a large portion of English language teachers in Malaysia. Law and medicine have traditionally been the preferred career choices in Indian families although more young Indian Malaysians are now venturing into other fields such as engineering, finance and entrepreneurship. Ananda Krishnan and Tony Fernandes are examples of notable Malaysian tycoons of Indian heritage. There are major Indian business districts in Kuala Lumpur (Brickfields, Jalan Ampang and Jalan Masjid India), Klang (Jalan Tengku Kelana), Penang and Ipoh.

Tamil primary schools are funded by the Federal Government and use Tamil as the medium of instruction while Malay and English are taught as compulsory subjects.


The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) is the oldest and largest Indian political party in Malaysia. It is a senior member of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. The Indian Progressive Front (IPF), another Indian-based party, is affiliated with Barisan Nasional but is not a formal member. The People's Progressive Party (PPP) is technically a multiracial party but its membership is overwhelmingly Indian. It is a member of the Barisan Nasional. The opposition People's Justice Party (PKR) and Democratic Action Party (DAP) have a large Indian membership and have many Indian lawmakers. Both parties are members of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition. The Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), a minor opposition party, has a strong Indian presence. The Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) was formed in 2007 to address alleged racial discrimination against Indian Malaysians. It was banned after it staged a large anti-government rally in Kuala Lumpur in 2007. Hindraf's political wing is the Human Rights Party (HRP). The Malaysian Indian Muslim Congress (KIMMA) is a party that represents the interests of the Indian Muslim community. The Malaysian Ceylonese Congress represents Malaysia's Sri Lankan Tamil community who are technically not Indian but often regarded as such by most Malaysians. Other Indian fringe parties include the Malaysian Indian United Party and the pro-Barisan Nasional Malaysia Makkal Sakthi Party.

Media and the Performing Arts

Satellite television provider Astro provides several Tamil television channels. Astro Vaanavil and state-owned RTM TV2 broadcast locally-produced Tamil shows. India-based channels available in Malaysia are Sun TV, Jaya TV, Chutti TV.Thangathirai and Vellithirai are Tamil movie channels while Astro B4U is a Hindi movie channel. The Indian Malaysian community is an important market for the Tamil film industry Kollywood.There are two Tamil radio stations, the state-owned Minnal FM and the privately owned THR Raaga.

It is also customary for major Malaysian corporations to produce television commercials in conjunction with Deepavali. They generally pay tribute to the contributions of the Indian community to the nation and are well received by Indians of all faiths. The heart-warming Deepavali commercials by the state petroleum company Petronas are especially popular.

Indian Malaysians have also contributed to the mainstream Malaysian entertainment industry. Notable Indian Malaysian artists with multiracial appeal are Reshmonu, Jaclyn Victor, and Alleycats. Indian Malaysians have also made significant contributions to the Malaysian English theatre scene. Tamil hip hop was started in Malaysia by pioneers like rappers Chakra Sonic, Yogi B and several others, which had since then made its way to Kollywood.

Bharathanatyam, the national dance of India, is an important feature of Tamil culture and is hence popular in Malaysia. Ramli Ibrahim and Mavin Khoo are two non-Indian Malaysians who are world-renowned Indian classical dance performers. The Temple of Fine Arts in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur is an academy that provides training in traditional Indian dance and music. The urumee drums are often played at religious and cultural events. The nadaswaram is a traditional Indian wind instrument often played at Indian weddings in Malaysia.


The contribution of the Indian community in Malaysian cuisine is enormous. Indian cuisine has had a strong influence on traditional Malay cuisine resulting in the popularity of curries in Malaysia. Indian restaurants are well received by Chinese and Malay Malaysians. They have become an important fixture in everyday Malaysian life and is the venue of choice for watching live English football matches. Mamak restaurants and stalls refer to eateries owned and staffed by Indian Muslims. The word 'Mamak' is sometimes erroneously used to describe any Indian restaurant. Roti Canai, Nasi Kandar and Rojak Pasembor are Indian dishes unique to Malaysia. Nasi Kandar is sold exclusively in Indian Muslim restaurants and the sauce recipe is kept secret. Unlike Indian cuisine in the United Kingdom and other Western countries which tend to focus on North Indian cuisine, Indian cuisine in Malaysia is largely based on southern cuisine as the Indian diaspora here is overwhelmingly Tamil, although some northern dishes such as tandoori chicken and naan bread are common. Southern breakfast delicacies such as idli, vadai and dosa (spelled in Malaysia as 'thosai') are common. The appam is a favourite breakfast dish in Tamil homes. Idiyappam is known as putu mayam in Malay and usually sold by mobile motorcycle vendors. The murukku is made to mark Deepavali or Christmas. Banana leaf rice meals with various meat dishes and condiments are served in restaurants during lunch and dinner and in Indian households during special occasions. Mutton is highly favoured and served as either varuval (dry curry) or peratal (thick curry). Fried bitter gourd, banana chips, papadam, rasam, yoghurt and pickels are the usual condiments. Deserts and sweets include payasam, halva, mysore pak, palgoa and ghee balls.

Religions and faiths

In Malaysia are a number of religions and faiths practiced by a majority of Malaysians such as Islam primarily amongst the Malays, Buddhism amongst the Chinese, Hinduism amongst the Indians, and Christianity, Chinese, Indians, Kristang people, and Eurasians of British descent. In the Indian communities which compose of Tamils, Telugus, Malayalees.

The advent of Hinduism and Buddhism from India occurred in the Malay Peninsula from the 2nd century AD . The Indian-influenced kingdoms of Kadaram (Old Kedah), and Ilangosagam (Langkasuka) have practiced Hinduism and Buddhism during the rule of the Malay-Sri Vijaya and Tamil-Chola kingdoms.[13] Islam found its way to the Malayan Peninsula as well as the Archipelago of Indonesia not from Arabia, but from southern India, specifically, Tamil country.[9] The early Indians married into leading families of Malay Archipelago and brought Hindu ideas of kingship, just as more than a thousand years later the Tamil Muslims married into the families of the Sultans and Bendaharas of Malacca.

Trade contacts between the Tamils,Malayalees along with other south eastern Indians such as Telugus,Bengalis and Arabs and with East Indies antedate the Islamic period (c. 570-632 AD), or the birth of Islam. Indonesians and Malays came to know about Islam through the Muslim merchants of south India and not through Arab missionaries. Furthermore Islam had reached South India, particularly Tamil country in the 8th century AD, while the state of Gujurat received Islam during the early 14th century, as a result of the invasion of the Delhi sultanate. Muslim traders of the Coromandel Coast are said to have been even politically influential in historical Malaya.[9] In 1445 AD Tamil Muslim traders staged a coup at Malacca, installing a sultan of their choice.[14] During the coming of Islam to Malaysia was the early decline of Hinduism and Buddhism.

The practice of Hinduism began to rise during the second wave of people from the Indian subcontinent during British rule. Hinduism is the most practised religion amongst the Tamils, including both the major Hindu and Tamil pantheon of deities. Tamils of both Indian and Sri Lankan backgrounds practice Hinduism. Telugus predominantly belong to the Vaisnavite branch of Hinduism, with a minority among them belonging to Christianity and Islam.

Christianity is widely practiced by Tamil people in many denominations. Christianity has been in Tamilakkam or the Tamil country since the times of St. Thomas, an apostle of Christ. After him, came the Portuguese who introduced Catholicism, then the British who introduced the Protestant denominations. In Malaysia, most of the Christians are Methodist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Plymouth Brethren (Christian Brethren of Malaysia), and Catholic. Amongst the Malayalee community Catholicism is strong. The Marthoma Church also has a strong presence in Malaysia.

Islam is the religion of roughly 10% of Malaysian Indians with a population of roughly 200,000.

Sikhism is practiced amongst the Punjabis.


One of the biggest South Indian festivals in Malaysia is Thaipusam. Thaipusam is a religious festival dedicated to the Tamil deity Murugan which occurs on the day in the Tamil month of Thai (January–February) when the asterism Poosam is on the ascendant. It is celebrated in grand style in the temples of Singapore, Penang, and Kuala Lumpur for three days.

In Kuala Lumpur, Thaipusam has become an almost national seat for Poosam celebrations. The venue of the Kuala Lumpur celebrations is a picturesque shrine right inside a cave that lies many feet above the ground, and can only be approached by a steep climb. This place, known as Batu Caves, is about eight miles from the city, and a chariot procession carrying the image of the deity to and from the place adds to the color and gaiety of the festival. Crowds from all over the country throng to the cave, including people of all classes and groups. It is above all a day of penance, on which all kinds of vows are fulfilled. A 42.7m high statue of Lord Murugan was built at Batu Caves and was unveiled in Jan 2006, having taken 3 years to construct.

Idols carried in procession during Thaipusam at Batu Caves.

One of the most significant rites performed is the carrying of the kavadi, a large wooden decorated arch, as an act of penance. When deities were taken on procession from one shrine to another, they would be followed by a number of these voluntary kavadi-bearers. In other towns and estates, kavadis would be taken for other festivals like Chittirai Paruvam. As back in the Tamil country, some of the more rigid practitioners would bear spikes, spears, and hooks pierced into their bodies. The Chittirai Paruvam festival and festivals to the Tamil deity Mariamman are usually accompanied by a fire-walking ceremony.[13]

Deepavali or Diwali is another popular Hindu festival which is the 'Festival of Lights' and celebrated by all Hindu community. Thai Pongal is a festival of the Tamils occurring on the first day of the month of Thai. In Tamil Nadu it is celebrated as a harvest festival when the first grains are gathered and brought in for the ceremony.[13] The Telugus celebrate Ugadi, Telegu new year based on the lunar calendar as compared to solar calendar which is celebrated by Tamils and Sikhs. Sankranthi is another major festival for Telugus which is also celebrated as ponggal by Tamils.

The Festivals of the Christian faith practiced by the Malaysian Indian communities are Easter, All Souls Day, and Christmas. In the Islamic faith, Ramadan is practiced by Indian Muslims.

Challenges facing the community

Despite the fact that the average income of Malaysian Indians exceeds that of their Malay counterparts, there exists a sizable portion of the community who are poor. This portion of the community account for 14% of the nations juvenile delinquency, make up less than 5% of successful university applicants and share less than 1.5% of Malaysia's wealth. To make matters worse, they are not eligible for any of Malaysia's lavish affirmative-action programmes, which are reserved for Malays and certain indigenous people[15]. What has further added to the challenges faced by the community is the sense of creeping Islamisation in the country which threatens their religious freedom. These factors in part have resulted in the migration of many highly skilled Malaysian Indians abroad, where Indian migrants are largely upwardly mobile. However, the underprivileged section of the community (along with the poor from other races) continue to be excluded from affirmative-action programmes despite their genuine need for support in obtaining employment, government subsidized education, and housing. This perception of a zero-sum game amongst the races has unfortunately fueled protests by frustrated sections of the hitherto quiescent community - who consequentially faced a heavy-handed response from the authorities[16]. Recently, the Malaysian government has at least pledged to change all of this by increasing assistance to needy Malaysians regardless of race.


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ a b Sneddon, James (2003). The Indonesian Language: Its history and role in modern society. Sydney: University of South Wales Press Ltd. p. 73. 
  3. ^ "Malaysian Indians stuck with dictionary's ethnic slur", Northwest Asian Weekly, May 21st, 2009
  4. ^ Sejarah SMA/MA Kls XI-Bahasa By H Purwanta, dkk
  5. ^ European Journal of Social Sciences – Volume 7, Number 3 (2009)
  6. ^ International Tamil Language Foundation (2000). The Handbook of Tamil Culture and Heritage. Chicago: International Tamil Language Foundation. p. 877. 
  7. ^ Sastri, K.A. Nilakanta (2000) [1935]. Cholas (fifth printing ed.). Chennai: University of Madras. pp. 86 & 318. 
  8. ^ Sastri, K.A. Nilakanta (1949). "Takuapa and its Tamil Inscription Part I.". Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 22. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f Arokiaswamy, Celine W.M. (2000). Tamil Influences in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Manila s.n.. pp. 37, 38, 41, 43, 45–49, 51–57. 
  10. ^ The Malay-Tamil Cultural Contacts with Special Reference to the Festival of "Mandi Safar" by S. Singaravelu
  11. ^ Kampung Kling Mosque.
  12. ^ European Journal of Social Sciences – Volume 7, Number 3 (2009)
  13. ^ a b c Arasaratnam, Sinnappah (1970). Indians in Malaysia and Singapore. London: Oxford University Press. pp. 4, 168, 169, 170, 171, & 175. 
  14. ^ Kulke, Hermann & Rothermund Dietmar (1986). A History of India. New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books. 
  15. ^ [2]
  16. ^

See also

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