Perceptions about Malaysia are shaped through the experiences of the Malaysian Indians, as recounted to their relatives and family members in India: Ambassador Veena Sikri

The Malaysian Indian diaspora can be an important bridge of friendship and goodwill, strengthening in their own way the spirit of cooperation and mutual benefit that pervades our bilateral relationship, says Veena Sikri, Former High Commissioner of India to Malaysia (2000-2003) in an interview with Dr. M. Mahalingam, President, GRFDT.


You have written the book “India and Malaysia: Intertwined Strands”, which was published in 2013 and reprinted in 2014. Could you provide excerpts of your book for the readers of the newsletter ‘Roots and Routes’?

Veena Sikri (VS): My book highlights the intertwined nature of India-Malaysia relations since antiquity, for well over 2000 years. It explicates the various strands of interactions in the realms of trade, religion, and culture between the two regions: South Asia and Southeast Asia. It shows the role and technological prowess of Indians in the ship building industry. India-built ships operated between India, Malaysia and across Southeast Asia, right up till the eclipse of direct trade under British colonial rule. During the colonial period these ancient links were forgotten, obliterated from history books and public memory. It was Rabindranath Tagore who, in the 1920s, rediscovered the antiquity of the India-Malaysia and India-Southeast Asia links.  The book details the role played by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru and others in shaping the relationship between India and Malaysia in the twentieth century. Over all, the book covers several key issues, including trade cooperation and the strong people-to-people interaction between India and Malaysia in three broad sections: the pre-colonial period, the colonial period, and the post-colonial period covering the last seventy years.

You had been India’s High Commissioner to Malaysia from September 2000 to December 2003. You mentioned in your book that your posting in Malaysia was among the most memorable years of your career with the Indian Foreign Service. Why do you think so?

VS: I was amazed by the strong evidence of civilizational linkages and shared history between India and Malaysia. You can find traces of Indian heritage in the language, religions and culture of Malaysia. I have tried to document through my book the nature and details of this shared identity and other inter-linkages between India and Malaysia. All the people of Malaysia are very friendly, warm and keen to build upon this relationship. In particular, the large Indian diaspora in Malaysia is most welcoming. I have enjoyed among the most fruitful and memorable moments of my diplomatic career in Malaysia. I travelled widely across the length and breadth of this beautiful country, including to Sabah and Sarawak. Everywhere, I could see the tremendous potential in the India-Malaysia relationship, and the keen interest of the people from all walks of life in carrying this relationship forward. Trying to make this happen has made my assignment as High Commissioner to Malaysia a challenging yet rich and rewarding experience.

What was your significant role in taking India-Malaysia bilateral relations forward during your service in Malaysia?

VS: Despite the keen interest and warm friendship, I soon realised that the people of Malaysia and India do not know enough about the contemporary developments in each other’s countries. There was not enough awareness and interaction among contemporary youth. There has been a sliding back from the early decades of Malaysia’s independence, when there were many and much more intensive exchanges between our two countries. So my first focus was on stepping up people-to-people exchanges and interaction. Education was one big focus, so that more scholarships for higher studies were made available for all those who had the need and the interest to study in India.  We organised one of the largest-ever multi-sectoral series of events across Kuala Lumpur and other cities, appropriately named “Incredible India”. This included a very successful Business Forum and Expo, highlighting India’s achievements in the pharmaceutical, automobile, IT and many other sectors. There were fashion shows, cultural events and film festivals. The response was outstanding. I also worked hard to bring an Indian Cultural Centre to KL. This started functioning informally, and is now up and running very well. Several agreements were inked in the areas of defence, infrastructure development, education and trade. Malaysia had the vision of becoming a knowledge-based economy, so several agreements were signed between the Malaysian government and the Indian IT majors for facilitating technology transfer and inflows of IT professionals. Malaysian companies participated in developing the road infrastructure in India, as part of the Golden Quadrilateral project.  

During my tenure, there were several high level visits between our nations, each of which contributed greatly to strengthening the bonds of friendship and understanding. Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Malaysia twice, in 2001 on a path-breaking bilateral visit, and in 2003 for the Summit of Non-aligned Countries. Malaysia’s long-serving former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad visited India in 2002. In addition, there were many, many senior ministerial visits and business delegations.

What is your point of view about the inter-linkages or relations between India- Malaysia during the pre-colonial time?

VS: My book reveals enormous details about these pre-colonial inter-linkages, with maps and illustrations wherever possible. Excavations and archaeological finds establish migratory movements between India and Malaysia dating back to the Iron Age, around 1200 BCE. The most extensive and intensive interactions took place over the last 2000 years (till the colonialists arrived) encompassing trade, religion and culture.  The trade linkages were intensive and regular. The Malay Peninsula, located at the centre of the oceanic trade routes between India and China, was an active participant in this trade. Settlements, ports and emporia grew on the eastern and western shores of the Malay Peninsula, the precursors of the present-day States and provinces of Malaysia. The people of India and Malaysia assimilated through inter-marriage, sharing their religious and socio-cultural Hindu-Buddhist traditions. This was a win-win situation for mutual prosperity, with not even a whiff of domination or colonialism. Even the 11th century Chola expeditions from the Thanjavur region of southern India were the result of trade disputes, a fact well-accepted by all scholars. Centuries later (late 13th and early 14th centuries), Islam came to the Malay world the same way that Hinduism and Buddhism had: through merchants and traders from South India. This millennia-old history of peaceful interaction for mutual benefit between India and Malaysia is the strongest leit-motif for our continued friendship, going ahead in the 21st century and beyond.

There has always been bonhomie between India and Malaysia ever since both the countries have begun their diplomatic relations. One would like to know, were there any irritants at any point of time between India and Malaysia? And if so, what were the reasons for the same?

VS: There is excellent bonhomie and goodwill between India and Malaysia in the conduct of their bilateral relations. It has always been so. In the immediate aftermath of Malaysian independence, the bilateral relationship was strong and dynamic in every field. The Sultans of Malaysia, the Prime Minister and other dignitaries visited India very often, together with equally frequent high-level visits from India. Malaysia supported India during the war with Pakistan in 1965. India supported Malaysia in their konfrontasi with Indonesia. The relationship between India and Malaysia continues to be robust and positive. Whenever any problems arise, as for example in 2003 when 270 Indian IT professionals living in Kuala Lumpur were arrested and maltreated for alleged visa irregularities, these are solved through diplomatic channels, even though this may have involved some frank speaking.

However, both sides need to do more to strengthen people-to-people linkages. India is more than willing to work towards this objective. India fully supports the One Malaysia programme launched in 2010 to ensure ethnic harmony and national unity within the country. Many in India find it difficult to ignore the feelings of socio-economic marginalisation and deprivation that engulf large sections of the Malaysian Indian community. These are loyal citizens of Malaysia. In the spirit of friendship and mutual benefit, India can play a positive role in skills development and language training to mainstream them as part of One Malaysia. Perhaps Malaysia India relations can never reach their full potential as long as the elephant in the room (the situation facing Malaysian Indians in Malaysia) is not faced up to, squarely and openly.

How far has the erstwhile Look-East policy of India strengthened India-Malaysia relations? Do you think that the Act East policy has substance to it?

VS: India’s erstwhile ‘Look East’ Policy, initiated under former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, was envisaged for its potential to bring about a revival of India’s pre-colonial multi-dimensional interactions with Southeast Asia. India’s ‘Look East’ policy coincided with ASEAN’s own ‘Look West’ policy in the early 1990s. Over the last two decades and more, our Look East policy has brought India and ASEAN much closer to each other. It has given a whole new dimension to India’s bilateral relations with Malaysia and other ASEAN countries. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his ‘Act East’ policy signals the high priority his government accords to taking India-ASEAN relations to new heights, focussed on the implementation and achievement of specific targets. The results are already visible. In 2015, building upon the 2009 India-ASEAN FTA (Free Trade Agreement), we have seen success through the conclusion of the India-ASEAN CECA (Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement) covering investments, and adding trade in services to trade in goods. Commerce, Connectivity and Culture are the three pillars of India’s Act East policy. Over the next few years, we can look forward to doubling of bilateral trade and of bilateral investments between India and ASEAN.

Could you make an assessment of the India-Malaysia strategic partnership at present?

VS: This new dimension, the declaration of the Malaysia India Strategic Partnership, came about in 2010. Malaysian Prime Minster Najib visited New Delhi in January of 2010, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Kuala Lumpur in October the same year. They agreed on evolving a long-term strategic partnership, based on historical, cultural and social links, on shared values of pluralism and an open society, on the shared commitment to democracy and development and a high degree of commonality in political and economic interests. However, nothing substantive came of this decision for the next five years. It is only in November 2015, during the visit of Prime Minster Narendra Modi to Kuala Lumpur, that very specific details, even a programme to build up the proposed strategic partnership have been spelt out in the Joint Statement issued at the end of the visit. This includes considerably stepped up political consultations, targets in the economic, trade and financial areas, seriously enhanced defence and security cooperation, including cyber security, and strong focus on tourism and education, human resources development, health, science and technology, public administration, as well as regional and international cooperation on a wide range of issues. Steady and sustained focus on implementing the decisions and recommendations of the November 2015 Joint Statement will certainly go far in materialising the Strategic Partnership to the mutual benefit of both Malaysia and India.

Media reports have highlighted the plight of the unskilled Indian migrant labourers in Malaysia. What is your take on that?  Has India signed any labour mobility agreements and social security agreements with Malaysia?  Please provide us details.

VS: This is a human tragedy. It is deeply disturbing to read in the newspapers far too frequently about the misery and suffering involved in what often amounts to trafficking of unskilled Indian migrant labour to Malaysia. Malaysia is always in great demand as a destination for Indian unskilled labourers. Malaysian employers, too, seek out Indian labour. To make this a smooth and mutually beneficial process, there should be strict oversight and regulations for the labour recruitment industry, with stringent guidelines. There have been innumerable discussions on this between the two governments, and agreements have been arrived at, MOUs have been signed. However, monitoring and implementation have been inadequate, and serious problems persist.

Various studies have shown that Malaysian Indian Diaspora is at the cross roads. What is your reading about them?

VS: I have touched upon some of these issues in my answer to question 5 above. The Malaysian Indian diaspora has made an immense contribution to the prosperity and economic growth of Malaysia. They have toiled in the plantations, they have served as teachers and educationists, they have excelled as civil servants and administrators, and they have reached the highest levels in the judiciary, all through their hard work and unstinting loyalty to Malaysia, the land of their birth, the nation they are proud citizens of. Over the years, despite many plans and projects enunciated by the Government of Malaysia (New Economic Policy-NEP, Vision 2020, One Malaysia) the Malaysian Indian community has been increasingly marginalised. Evicted from the plantations with severely restricted access to educational facilities, and few if any avenues of employment, combined with the implementation of ethnicity based socio-economic policies, the Malaysian Indian community is in dire straits. I do feel that, with the fast-developing strategic partnership between India and Malaysia, their planned cooperation in areas such as education and human resource development can include mutually agreed projects that will meet the needs of the Malaysian Indian community.

Malaysia hosts more than one million of the Indian Diaspora. How far can they be tapped for deepening India-Malaysia bilateral relations?

VS: India’s bilateral relations with Malaysia extend equally to cover all citizens of both countries. In the growth and development of our bilateral relations, India does not distinguish between one group of citizens and another on the grounds of community, ethnicity, race or religion. Malaysian Malay, Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indian communities have contributed in full measure to the growth of our bilateral relationship. However, the Malaysian Indian diaspora does remain a key bridge between our two countries, a vital link between our peoples, because it is this group that has the largest social links and family connections across the length and breadth of India. Perceptions about Malaysia are shaped through the experiences of the Malaysian Indians, as recounted to their relatives and family members in India. Public opinion about Malaysia as a nation is shaped through such interactions, which in turn influence political parties, particularly in the southern states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The Malaysian Indian diaspora can be an important bridge of friendship and goodwill, strengthening in their own way the spirit of cooperation and mutual benefit that pervades our bilateral relationship.  I certainly hope this will soon be the case!


Interview Date:   Monday, Jul 18, 2016
Person Name:   Ambassador Veena Sikri

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