Malaysia’s Indian community has not fared well under BN rule. They are numerically fewer than the Malay and Chinese communities on the peninsula, and on the whole, Tamils and other South Asian communities have whole not enjoyed the fruits of development that other Malaysian communities have. Lumped together with Chinese as non-bumiputera, their particular concerns and grievances have long been obscured. Hindu places of worship are commonly closed without cause, or alleged to be illegal in some way (this is the proximate origin of the Hindu Rights Action Force). It does not help that the BN’s Indian party—the Malaysian Indian Congress—is perhaps the most ineffectual of all BN parties. (“Ineffectual” is pleasant way of saying corrupt and incompetent.)
I argued several years ago that a key part of Malaysia’s 2008 political tsunami was the near complete rejection of the BN by Indian voters. That represents the culmination of decades of neglect, and my favorite sources on this are Sucked Oranges, the academic work of P. Ramasamy, and Cage of Freedom by my Cornell colleague Andrew Willford.
But a persistent structural problem is the fact that Indians are always and everywhere a minority, in every district. The figure below illustrates this perfectly.
Plots like this—ternary plots—can be hard to read if you’ve never seen them before. So let’s walk through this one. For every district in peninsular Malaysia, we know the percent Malay, Chinese, and Indian, the triple (M%, C%, I%), from the data described in my last post. The sum of the three numbers, of course, is 100. The ternary plot just plots the distribution of the triples in two dimensions. An overwhelmingly Malay district (98,1,1) will fall near the top. An overwhelmingly Chinese district (1,98,1) will fall at the bottom left. A mixed district (33.3,33.3,33.3) will fall in the exact middle. A multiethnic district of type (40,40,20) will fall closer to the northwest side.
The plot shows just how dispersed the Indian population in Malaysia: there is no Indian majority district, nor an Indian plurality district. The colored dots indicate which party was nominated in each district, and we do see that MIC candidates are nominated in just those districts where Malays and Chinese are roughly equal in size and Indians are fairly prevalent. But note, in districts where Indians are equally numerous as those few MIC districts, but Malays and Chinese are not so evenly divided (so the district falls closer to the bottom left or top, but along the same southwest-to-northeast diagonal), the UMNO or MCA always contests.
The conclusion that emerges is the size and distribution of the Indian population in Malaysia leaves is structurally incapable of winning more than juts a handful of seats. That is, of course, just so long as coalitions nominate parties based on ethnicity.