In his article on Malaysian Indian artists published in the Penang Monthly, Ooi Kok Chuen writes of J. Anu and myself both being of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. This observation, in the context of the question of Malaysian Indianness, raises two concerns pertaining to blood ties, one intimate and familial and the other, public and communal.
The first is a fact – I am proud to note that Anu and I are not only members of the same community, we are of the same family. Anu’s mother Gana, whom I call Acca, is my cousin, and this relationship is celebrated in an image of the Koboi Balik Lagi series of the Koboi Project.
The second is a question that underpins Ooi’s own pertinent question – ” WHY ARE THERE so few artists of Indian (including Singhalese) descent in Malaysia?.” It is this – Who is Indian in the Malaysian context? As I have noted in a previous post, Ceylonese Tamils in Malaysia have historically tried to preserve a distinct identity from Malaysian Indians. We have our own organization, the Malaysian Ceylonese Congress (MCC), that has been traditionally aligned to Barisan National. Although the MCC is not a registered political party, it had, until 1981, a senator in the Malaysian parliament’s upper house, the Dewan Negara. However, as Suhaini Aznan notes, Malaysians do not recognize the difference between Indians and Ceylonese and in the 2000 census many Ceylonese were counted as Indians. In this light, MIC seems to have invited the Ceylonese to join up with the Indians but, as Aznan notes the Ceylonese declined. He explains, after Datuk Dr N.K.S. Tharmaseelan, president of the MCC, “every race wanted its own identity to survive.”
It is my own opinion that Malaysian Tamils of Ceylonese origin should, to the extent that the Malaysian Indians will accept us, be absorbed into the category and identity of ‘Indian’. It is not a question of renouncing ones Ceylon Tamil background but, rather, of integrating it into the wider Malaysian Indian mosaic. Regardless of my own identification, however, the question remains, “are Ceylonese Tamils included in the category ‘Malaysian Indian’?” The question of Indianness does not stop here. It is clear from Ooi’s placing ‘including Singhalese’ within parenthesis in his question, that even he feels his placement of this other Ceylonese community within the Indian category is questionable. And then there is the question of the Mamak or Indian Muslims – it is unclear if they would all be equally happy with the highlighting of their belonging to the Indian category, as some might be in the process of transferring their identity into the ‘Malay’ category’.
Returning to the first concern, that of family, artist T. Selvaratnam is related to both Anu and myself, but that is a story for another blog post.