Modi's $1 million grant for Malaysian Indian students is a small step

As much as the assistance is welcome, efforts to increase their inflow into India should be prioritised.

 |  4-minute read |   24-11-2015
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While attending the 13th ASEAN-India Summit and 10th East Asia Summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a financial assistance of $1 million to India-Students Trust Fund for the benefit of Malaysian Indian students. What does it mean for the educational aspirations of Indian community, who comprise about seven per cent of the 30 million population of Malaysia? Is pledging an amount of about four million Malaysian Ringitt (about Rs 7 crore) more of a symbolism than substantial help?

Firstly, a cursory look at Malaysia's history will help us understand the position of Malaysian Indians. Significant influx of Indians to Malaysia occurred during the colonial era when the British facilitated the inflow of Indian labour and other staff on acquisition of few states in Malaysia. Major inflow also occurred during World War II, when British Indian forces and Netaji's INA were fighting in the north-eastern sector against and with Japanese forces respectively. Along with Indians, the ethnic Malay and indigenous tribes form 70 per cent, followed by the Malaysian Chinese who comprise 23 per cent of the population.

Malaysia achieved Independence in 1957 and saw bloody racial riots in 1969. It was then that the effort to bring equality in spheres of education, job and other sectors was taken by providing reservations for Malays, who, along with the indigenous population are called as Bumiputeras, which roughly translates to "son of the soil". A National Education Policy was adopted in 1971, which favoured the Bumiputeras considerably against the other two minorities.

Secondly, let us look at the education system of Malaysia, a country that is at the top half of middle-income group of countries and is slated to get into the high income group by 2020. Malayasia borrowed its education system from its erstwhile rulers, the British. It follows the 6+3+2+2 education pattern, with six years of compulsory primary education beginning at age six, three years of lower secondary education, two years of upper secondary, and two years of pre-university senior secondary study. This is followed by tertiary or higher education.

While the Malaysian government has officially moved from race-based reservations to merit-based reservations in 2002, not much has been translated into action. In the year 2013-14, 41,573 university seats were up for grabs of which the Malays occupied 77 per cent, Chinese 19 per cent and Indians a mere four per cent seats. Meritocracy cannot be the sole differentiating factor in the above case because reports of Chinese students securing the maximum possible 4.0 CGPA score being denied seats, and Indians, who are prominent applicants to white-collar jobs, prove otherwise.

Thirdly, let's look at the issue of scholarship in education. While the government sponsors education up to the secondary level, higher education is not free - it is an expensive commodity in Malaysia. Besides government ministries and agencies, banking sectors, private organisations and education providers, there are many other sources of financial aid in Malaysia.

However, ethnic minorities are disadvantaged since the major scholarship schemes of the government, be it JPA or MARA are biased towards Bumiputeras. Malaysian PM Najib Razak, who incidentally heads Cabinet committee on Indian community, had announced Indus Education Fund for Indian students in November 2014, but its details are lost on the Malaysian Indians, among whom there has been growing disenchantment with the current regime.

While the Indian high commission grants a few scholarships (ISTF, GCSS, etc), they reach the hands of the affluent and politically connected. In light of the situation, prime minister Modi's scholarship assistance is a welcome step in extending a helping hand to the Indian community in Malaysia. With details about the Trust Fund unavailable and where it costs a fortune for higher education (about 4,00,000 - 5,00,000 RM to study medicine), the assistance would help only a few. The onus is on the scholarship disbursing agency, Indian high commission in this case, MIC, the Indian-dominated political party, which is part of the ruling coalition and the citizenry to spread awareness about availability of such grants to the poorest of Malaysian Indians who toil for long hours in agriculture.

As much as the assistance is welcome, efforts to increase Malaysian students' inflow in India should be prioritised. The brain drain that is occurring due to their reservation policies needs to be tapped by India. There are many vocations where India can provide quality education at lower rates to Malaysians of all races. Partnerships among educational universities need fostering as these would facilitate knowledge and manpower transfer. Malaysia is pivotal to India's strategic interests and both countries share a long history.

Boosting ties in the field of soft power like education will go a long way in strengthening such ties.

(I am grateful to my Malaysian students of MMMC, Manipal, for inputs for this piece)


Sambit Dash Sambit Dash @sambit_dash

The writer is a teacher at Manipal University.

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