The historical, civilizational values and cultural wealth of India are stimulating the linkages between the Diaspora and India: Dr. K.S. Nathan

The nation comes first, and these 3rd or 4th generation Indians have some times little or no connections with the land of birth of their ancestors, says Dr. K.S. Nathan, Principal Fellow Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in an interview with Dr. M. Mahalingam, Research Fellow, Centre for Policy Analysis, New Delhi.

If Diaspora members can be instruments of soft power? What motivates them?

The historical, civilizational values and cultural wealth of India are stimulating the linkages between the Diaspora and India, especially in the context of India’s rise as a major power. It is good for Diasporato connect with their original homeland as is the practice with Malaysian Chinese and Malays who continue to maintain their natural historic connections with China and Indonesia. There is a mutual benefit. For instance, when the Malaysian Prime Minister, honourable Mr.Najib Razak visited India in 2010, he mentioned the important contribution made by the Indian Diaspora in Malaysia in the field of plantations, railways,  public health, public works, and government services. He acknoweldged their significant contribution  to Malaysia’s  economic development  and modernization.. His statement  made all the Malaysian Indians feel proud about themselves and India. India is an emerging power and Diaspora would like to connect  and to play their role as transnational actors.

In the era of globalization, Transnationalism of Diaspora is challenging. In the field of International Relations, the theoretical models are based on nation-state. Could you comment on this?

The Nation-State is playing a role in terms of organization of resources, distribution of resources and management of resources. It cannot be supplanted. Although NGOs and Diaspora as transnational actors can influence the policy of the nation-state, they cannot make policies and manage the resources. They could act as an interest group or  pressure group. At the same time,in the era of globalization, Diaspora’s influence  and connectivity has become very intense between homeland and  host land, aided as it it by the revolution in transport and communications.

International scholars have argued that  ‘the biggest instrument of our  soft power is theIndian Diaspora’ Do you  support this  statement?

Of course, Indian Diaspora is doing well in the hostland as entrepreneurs, professionals, political leaders, as well as skilled and unskilled workers,  and so on. They maintain Indian cultural traits and look upon India for civilizational values. They could lobby for the interests  of India in the hostland. They could act as intermediaries for facilitating trade and bilateral relations. For instance, in the case of Malaysia, Indian Diaspora has been in power in the Malaysian political system which is based on the ethnic model. Thus, by holding high-level political positions they could act and more easily promote the economic and political interests of both countries—Malaysia and India. They could influence the Malaysian government’s decision in favour of India’s foreign policy interests in the region. Indeed, it is not too far-fetched to say that the Indian Diaspora have emerged as a strategic asset. India could leverage this factor by formulating appropriate Diaspora engagement policies.

Do you think that the Indian Diaspora of Southeast Asia is a strategic asset for India in the region?

I would think so, given geographical proximity, they have maintained  economic and cultural links  with  India for hundreds of years. You have  huge temple complexes and a trace of  Indian civilization in the social and cultural life of Southeast Asia. Moreover,  there are a large  number of  professionals, political leaders and  entrepreneurs  who  are playing  a major role in the host- lands in Southeast Asia. Definitely, Indian Diaspora can be considered as a strategic asset for India.

Malaysian Indians have been a part and parcel of the ruling government of Malaysia since independence. How far have they influenced  the Malaysian government in favour of India?

Malaysian Indians have been very supportive of India’s efforts with regard to Malaysia. In 2011, Malaysian Ex-Minister for Works, Mr. S. SamyVellu was appointed as Special Envoy on Infrastucture for India and South Asia, with the aim of  promoting trade and economic relations with Malaysia. He has initiated many measures for making Malaysian companies to invest in India. Malaysian companies have already been involved in numerous infrastructure development projects in India.

What kind of expectations and aspirations do Malaysian Indians have from India?

Educational exchange at the student level, and academic exchange at the faculty level should be encouraged. India has opened up its economy which encourages Diaspora to play its due role. Malaysian Indians should be encouraged to invest in India and build smart partnerships for the benefit of both countries. The Indian government could also do more by offering more study fellowships to Malaysian Indian students who may not be able to benefit from similar opportunities in Malaysia.

Indian Diaspora of Malaysia is facing several challenges due to majoritarian politics.   What is your say on this?

The present economic model favours the Malay majoriy. So, the minorities -- Chinese and Indians are facing more challenges and difficulties than usual, especially with regard to government employment and promotions. The Malaysian Indians, given that the majority (at least 70%) were of plantation background, have a steeper hill to climb the socio-economic mountain. At the same time, the Indian community should also adopt self-empowerment approaches to improve their standard of living. The more fortunate members of the community have an obligation to help the less fortunate ones. This spirit of unity and self-empowerment also reduces the burden on government to help the Indian poor. As they say, charity begins at home: as the Malaysian Indian community unites to help their own kind, the Government will surely take heed and also contribute to the empowerment of the community to enhance national development, welfare and security. Indian community is fragmented and they should get united for increasing bargaining power.

A majority of Indians are third or fourth generation Malaysian citizens. How do  they prefer to call themselves as Indian Malaysians or Malaysian Indians?

According to me, I prefer the phrase ‘Malaysian Indian’. I think that they should be identified as Malaysian Indians because they have become citizens of Malaysia. The nation comes first, and these 3rd or 4th generation Indians have sometimnes little or no connections with the land of birth of their ancestors. Malaysia is the only country they know, and where they are full citizens.

What is the relevance of the Malaysian Indian Congress(MIC)  to the Indian community after the HINDRAF’s (Hindu Rights Action Force) induction into the ruling coalition?

The MIC did not perform well in the last election (2013). They also did badly in the 2008 General Election. Their representation has gone down. The Indians who are belonging to opposition have more representation in the Malaysian Parliament than MIC. It is no longer the sole party which represents the Malaysian Indian community. Previously, MIC was allocated money to distribute it for Indian welfare programmes. At present, this is not so. The Malaysian government, after the 2008 GE fiasco, decided that other organizations should be approached and supported. One such NGO which receives direct funding from the Government is the Sri Murugan Centre  which was established in 1982, and has demonstarted a a good track record of connecting with the grass-roots.  So, MIC is not the only a channel today, there are various other channels that are available to promote  the welfare  of Malaysian Indians (over 2 million) of which 85% are ethnic Tamils.

HINDRAF  has been inducted into the ruling government. Mr. P. Waythamoorthy has become a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Deparment. Do you think HINDRAF can deliver to the Indian community?

In the beginning, HINDRAF was obliged to act on its own as the MIC was reluctant to recognize it as a movement promoting Indian welfare, especially the depressed sector. Prime Minister Najib Razak had sufficient wisdom to recognize some of the strengths of the HINDRAF movement, especially its commitment to uplift the welfare of poor Indians and to tackle urban poverty, as many thousands of plantation workers migrated to the urban areas with little or no skills after their estates were framented or closed down. There is also the lingering problem of several thousand stateless Indians (people born in Malaysia but without proper documents to facilitate processing their applications for Malaysian citizeship).  Mr. Waythamoorthy should  be  given time to deliver, as he too had to confront the dilemma of the cost-benefit approach of whether it is better to serve the Indian cause outsideGovernment or inside the Government. He has chosen the latter, and we should give him a chance and enough time to deliver on the programmes which inspired him to form HINDRAF. Undoubtedly, HINDRAF  has  raised political awareness among the working class Indians.Empowerment has two sources: internal source (self-empowerment) and external source (Government and other agencies including the private sector). With commitment and a focused approach from all sides, there is hope for raising the socio-economic performace of Malaysian Indians in relation to all Malaysians.


K.S. Nathan was born and educated in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  He is currently a Principal Fellow at the Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA) in the National University of Malaysia (UKM), Bangi, Selangor. He served as Director of the Institute of Malaysian & International Studies (IKMAS) in UKM from 1st January 2011 until 1st April 2013. Dr. Nathan has also served as the first President of the Malaysian International Affairs Forum (MIAF), and the Malaysian Association for American Studies (MAAS), both of which were founded in l983.  Dr. Nathan was also a Visiting Scholar at several leading academic and research institutes in the world. He can be contacted at [email protected], [email protected]


Interview Date:   Sunday, Nov 17, 2013
Person Name:   Dr. K.S. Nathan

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