The historic election win of Malaysia’s 93-year-old veteran politician Mahathir Mohamad this month has raised hopes that the condition of the country’s minority South Asian community will change for the better.

“This is the dawn of a new beginning,” said Sankaran Ramanathan, a third-generation Malaysian academic and media consultant with roots in the Indian subcontinent.

Last fortnight, Mahathir led a coalition of opposition parties, called the Pakatan Harappan or the Alliance of Hope, to a victory that ended the 61-year rule of the Barisan National, a front of race-based political parties. This is Mahatir’s second innings as the prime minister, having served in the post for 22 years until 2003.

The new prime minister’s cabinet, announced last Saturday, included senior ministers from diverse ethnic backgrounds, including those of South Asian descent. Most prominent among them was Gobind Singh Deo, who belongs to a Malaysian Sikh family. He has been given charge of the communications and multimedia ministry.

Most families of Malaysian Sikhs migrated to the Southeast Asian region from the Indian subcontinent in the late 19th century to serve in paramilitary and police forces of the British colonial government. The community – mistakenly called Bengalis in Malaysia – is 1,30,000-plus strong.

As it turns out, Mahathir is also of Indian origin. His ancestors migrated to the country then called Malaya from Kerala in the late 19th century.

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Mahatir’s multi-racial cabinet marks a significant shift from Malaysia’s divisive race-based politics. This has ushered in a sense of optimism among minority non-Malay groups, especially those with ancestry in the Indian subcontinent.

“The time has come for Malaysians to stop emphasising racial origins and promote a truly Malaysian identity,” said Ramanathan.

For the six decades it was in power, the most powerful entity in Barisan Nasional coalition was the United Malays National Organization, a nationalist group representing the interest of the majority Malay Muslim population.

During the elections, the Democratic Action Party and People’s Justice Party, both coalition partners of Mahathir’s ruling alliance, fielded politicians of South Asian descent for senior leadership positions, said James Gomez, a Bangkok-based Singaporean academic and co-editor of the 2018 book Media and Elections Democratic Transition in Malaysia.

The Democratic Action Party was traditionally seen as representing the interests of the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia.

Gobind Singh Deo is Malaysia's first Sikh federal minister. Photo via Twitter/Gobind Singh Deo

Malaysia’s Indians

In Malaysia, the term Indian loosely refers to people with origins in South Asia. Indians comprise less than 7% of the population and remain socially and economically disadvantaged due to the national policies of affirmative action that grant special privilege to the majority Malay Muslim population in housing, education and government jobs.

Malays are referred to as Bumiputeras, or the sons of the soil. The ethnic Chinese who constitute 23% of Malaysia’s population are also seen as a minority.

Mahathir, who is hailed as the “father” of the industrialised, modern Malaysia, an Asian economic powerhouse, was criticised for being an autocrat in his previous tenure as a prime minister from 1981 to 2003.

The veteran leader was instrumental in strengthening the political supremacy of Malay Muslims and for establishing the stronghold of race-based politics in Malaysia, despite his ancestral roots in the Indian subcontinent.

Mahathir’s grandfather, Iskandar Kutty, reportedly migrated to the Malay Peninsula from a place called Pathanamthitta in present-day Kerala to work as a palace bodyguard of the Sultan of Kedah, the Muslim royalty of the peninsula. He later married a Malay woman.

Some say that Mahathir emerged as a vocal proponent of Malay rights to assert his Malay identity.

In the run-up to this month’s elections, former deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi took a dig at Mahathir’s Indian ancestry. Hamidi alleged that the latter was identified as “Mahathir a/l Iskandar Kutty” on his identity card. The word “a/l”, meaning “son of”, is a naming convention used by those of Indian origin, whereas Malays identify as “bin”, which also means “son of”.

In a 2013 paper titled Othering the Malay in Malaysia: A Planned Consequence of Politics?, Malaysian human rights activist Angela M Kuga Thas wrote that Mahathir was not perceived as an ethnic “pure-bred” Malay by some after he was first appointed prime minister. The leader’s approach to politics too was considered “un-Malay”.

A 2009 column on Malaysiakini, an independent news website reputed for its anti-establishment views, criticised the two-time prime minister for describing his father as a Malay and for suppressing his Indian roots.

However, Mahathir had clearly acknowledged his South Indian ancestry in a 2011 autobiography titled A Doctor in the House: The Memoirs of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Changing politics

Before this year’s elections, Mahathir, who returned to the polls as a frontrunner more than a decade after his retirement from mainstream politics, admitted that he had ignored the interests of the Indians and set up a task force within days of coming to power to address the challenges of high poverty levels and statelessness among them.

Some observers believe that this is another sign that race-based political parties are losing support among voters in Malaysia.

“There are early indications that in this elections ethnic Indians voted overwhelmingly for Mahathir and his coalition,” said Gomez.

Mahathir’s election victory certainly marked the first real regime change in Malaysia since its independence from British rule in 1957. But the new government may not immediately reform the core policies such as the Bumiputera status for Malays and the recognition of Islam as the country’s only official religion, observe some political commentators.

The nonagenarian political strongman seems to have a long way to go before those meaningful reforms.

Suruchi Mazumdar is a communication scholar and former journalist, and currently teaches at O.P. Jindal Global University in India.