Either by accident, evolution or as God’s creation humans inhabit earth. Despite many physical and physiological commonalities humans always want to be considered different from others esp. in terms of physical features, race and other such external habits and culture. The Malays, Chinese and Indians in Malaysia are no different. Each community has prejudices, its own pride and of course stereotyping of others. I am going to outline what little I have read and experienced personally on these matters.
Let us begin with the “tuans” - the Malays. Mostly earlier immigrants themselves from the borderless Malay archipelago of earlier times, Malays consider themselves the true natives while not ignoring the aborigines as the “more” original denizens. As most islanders anywhere in the tropics, Malays are also prone to a more “take it easy” life and are not inclined to hard labor or work unless absolutely necessary as in the planting of padi or catching of fish. They are also more prone to sensual pleasures that can involve activities like dancing, music making or just idling away with empty talk (borak2) and have a very in-built resistance to “saying no” to pleasurable things from drugs to sex. However, a Malay is just as proud of his heritage like any other Lim or Khan or Nair. He can even run amok if you hurt his pride or his leader so beware.
Well we move on to the Chinese. It is generally accepted that earliest Malaysian Chinese to arrive here were emissaries of the Ming emperors. Their visits here were just to show them their superiority and glory of China to which our Melakan sultans immediately acknowledged and even sought protection from their then overlord - Siam. This protection of a weak person from another toughieor bully has even become a profession in Malaya – the protection racket that continues till this day. But most if not all Malaysian Chinese of today are not descendants from the Ming emperors. They are descendants of people who escaped harsh lives and conditions in China to “cari makan” here. They soon became organized communities doing whatever economic activity they undertook. There was much communal cohesion among Chinese which we can even see today, even worldwide. They had their own secret societies, funeral and massage parlors, coffee and makan shops, dhoby shops and similar joints to support their community which indulged mainly in tin-mining and vegetable growing over here. As the initial waves of migrants were mostly men it has been claimed that the first Chinese females to arrive here were mostly comfort women. Used to hard work and united by language, color and physical features besides the inherited trend of toiling day and night, this community is known to have succeeded from rags to riches thorough sheer hard work and determination. The laxity or lack of religious restrictions for most Chinese also helped them to engage in any trade. It is no surprise then that more than 40 of the richest men in Malaysia today are from this community. Such economic “successes” have indeed also earned some degree of displeasure from the other two main communities even today in Malaysia. Now what about the Indians?
The earliest civilized foreigners to arrive in this region were the Indians as early as the 2nd century. Southeast Asia came under Indian influence starting around 200 BC until around the 15th century…a whole 13 centuries mind you. During this period, Hindu-Buddhist influence was absorbed by local polities. India had also established trade, cultural and political relations with other Southeastern Asian kingdoms in Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Malay Peninsula, Cambodia and to a lesser extent in Vietnam too. Their pervasive in almost all fields is well-documented and can be seen even today in Malay cultural practices and language. Gujarati Muslims also introduced Islam to the Malay Peninsula and other parts.
But these are not the Indians from whom our Malaysian Indians of today are descended from. They are descended from mainly two types of Indians whom the British brought over here. The smaller group, mainly from Kerala and Sri Lanka, were English educated and therefore served in clerical and supervisory positions initially and therefore served as a conduit of communication with the Tamils for the British masters.
However, the bulk of the “imported” Indians were hardcore menial workers from also very harsh backgrounds in India. With hardly any education, most of them were illiterates but these folks, both the men and women, could work like mules. They were also the ones who turned the Malayan secondary jungles and forests into rubber plantations. They were also the ones who laid the basic infrastructures such as roads, telecommunications, railways, ports and the various other public works and utility boards. The Malays called this group somewhat condescendingly as “ keling kaman”. To provide some form of rest and recreation for this group to unwind from a hard day’s work, the British introduced toddy shops for them in the estates and towns. Tamil schools were also started to allow some degree of primary education which also seldom got them anywhere. Such was the reputation of the Indians that even the BTN has reportedly referred to Indians en bloc as “si-botol”. By virtue of their darker color and lower socio-economic status other Malaysians also tend look down on Indians in general….forget Anandakrishnan and Tony Fernandes. Of course, the English educated Indians had beers and whiskies and at times even behaved more British than the British themselves eben till today.