On Being A Malaysian Tamil 6

Despite my origins in Jaffna, I am far removed from the Tamils of Sri Lanka in my lived identity. I am a Malaysian first and, as a Malaysian, my ethnic identification is with the wider group of Malaysian Indians. Historically Ceylonese Tamils have tried to preserve a distinct identity as Malaysians and officially we are not classified as Indians. Nevertheless, I believe that it is appropriate and meaningful that, to the extent that the Indians will accept us, Ceylon Tamils should join Indian Tamils and be absorbed into the identity of ‘Malaysian Indian’. I do not renounce my Jaffna background. Rather, I feel it should be integrated into the wider Malaysian Indian mosaic. With my recent immigration to British Columbia, I am even further removed from my Sri Lankan Tamil identity.

The LTTE fought a vicious war for a Tamil homeland. They exchanged terror for terror with the Sri Lankan state actors and proxies,. They valiantly fought the mighty Indian army. They even set up and ran up a de facto state but in the end they seemed to have pitted themselves against the whole world. They were utterly defeated and now the ordinary Tamil people are picking up the pieces after an alleged genocide, under the demeaning conditions of a Sinhala occupation. Although I have relatives (my mother’s family) who were directly impacted by this war, I have generally lived my own life beyond the reach of the emotions raised by this communal tragedy. Nevertheless, I have followed the situation and when I reflect upon it closely, I feel the pain of my kith and kin!

Meanwhile the ongoing Malaysian LTTE fiasco seems quite perverse and unrelated to the Sri Lankan Tamil realities. So, I wonder, what does the LTTE signify in the Malaysian political scenario? Indian Tamils in Malaysia are mainly descendants of indentured labourers brought over to work in the rubber estates. Their fellows worked on tea estates in Sri Lanka. I must note, not without a sense of shame, that the Ceylon Tamils have set themselves apart from the estate Indians in Malaysia. In Sri Lanka we let the estate Indians down over the issue of citizenship in the early post-independence decades. Nevertheless, the Elam struggle has been a potent signifier and catalyst of a cogent Tamil identity within Dravidian politics of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Tamil ethno-nationalists, have hoisted the Elam flag as their own. Their sense of Dravidian pride was invested in the Elam struggle and, one could say that with the LTTE destroyed, they have stolen its fire for their own political engines.

Now, in Malaysia the Indians are a minority. One that is caught within the discriminations of a postcolonial communalism. They are diminished in political agency vis a vis the Malay majority and even the Chinese minority. They have been, in the last decades seeking catalysts for a vigorous political mobilization. For instance, the Hindraf agitation centred around Hindu identity and temple demolition. Perhaps the symbols of the LTTE play a similar moral boosting and formenting role in Malaysian Indian politics. The ethos of the LTTE may have had its origins in a just cause in Sri Lanka but its xtreme violence is disproportionate to the situation faced by Indians in Malaysia.

With regard to the 12 Malaysian Indians recently arrested and charged with terrorism related offences, while their allegedly excessive engagement with LTTE symbols might reasonably raise the government’s concern, there has as yet been no charge that clearly suggests a resurgent global LTTE. Nor is there any sign in the charges of a Malaysian based LTTE organization being set up. The possession of LTTE paraphernalia, the promotion of the defunkt LTTE cause on social media and the commemoration of dead LTTE heroes do not, in my view, suggest anything more than an entanglement with Tamil pride, Tamil sorrow and Tamil myth. The suggestion by the PDRM (police) of massive financial movements, which might by indicative of an imminent LTTE revival has not been actualized by way a related charge against even one of the 12 detainees. ,,, More in On Being a Malaysian Tamil 7

On Being a Malaysian Tamil 1

I am a Malaysian of Jaffna Tamil extraction. My late father was a Seremban born Malaysian but my Mother, also now deceased, was a Jaffna girl. Just as the Malays of the peninsular index the notion of a homeland with the term Tanah Melayu, the Tamils of Jaffna use the term Elam. Unlike the Indians and Chinese populations of Malaysia, the majority of whom came under the auspices of the British, the Tamils of Sri Lanka are the descendants of the subjects of ancient Tamil Kingdoms. As such, they have a sense of attachment and entitlement to the land commonly found in those who have occupied and ruled for centuries. Neither the majority Sinhalese nor the minority Tamils are beholden to any compromise or ‘social contract’ that colours the way minorities belonging in Malaysia. I have observed the consequent violent Elam struggle from afar. I have experienced it vicariously through news of grandparents and aunties caught in the crossfire between the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam)and the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force), teenage cousins in being sent away to India and Canada as they reached their teenage years for fear of being killed by the SLA (Sri Lankan Army) or Forcibly recruited by the Tigers …. and there are many other such family situations that I have experienced vicariously, scenarios whose trauma I have felt through my mother’s emotional responses.

My father was a pragmatist and a dove, “Minority Tamils need to compromise with the Sinhala majority! Given the demographics of post-colonial Sri Lanka, armed struggle is futile ,” I can imagine him encapsulating his position. My mother however, was a Tigress at heart! Metaphorically speaking,that is! “They have taken away our language and now they will push us into to the sea!” She could not stand the injustices, indignities and the cruelties experienced by the Tamils and once the war had begun she was emotionally behind “our boys and girls” fighting with the LTTE! You have to recall that the LTTE was not designated as a terrorist organization in Malaysia at the time of this war of independence. (It is much later in 2014 that the designation was given, long after the war had been lost and the LTTE decimated in 2009). And my mother’s openly emotional allegiance meant serious arguments with my father. Although, I was more interested in questions of race, nationality and justice in my own Malaysian milieu, I absorbed all the contrasting positions and sentiments … more in On Being a Malaysian Tamil 2

Telinga Keling (1999)

Telinga Keling, Silver Halide Print, Niranjan Rajah, 1999. Permanent Collection of the National Visual Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur

Telinga Keling (1999) is in the collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in KL. It is currently on display again in a selection from the collection. ‘Keling’ is a today taken as a derogatory term for ‘Indian’ although, from its etymology, it is clear that this was not always so. The items obscuring my ears in the image are Malay sweets which are colloquially referred to as ‘Telinga Keling’ (Indian Ears). More formally and publicly, given our multi-racial Malaysian society, these cakes are referred to as called ‘penyaram’ or ‘denderam’. Ironically, this Telinga Keling sweet is quite likely to be of Indian origin. My mother used to make something that tastes exactly the same that we call it ‘athirasam’

The idea of the piece is that I can engage the Malay viewers regarding this juncture of ‘sweetness’ and ‘derision’ while excluding the others, who would likely be unfamiliar with its colloquial name. Of course, there’ll be some Indians who know, particularly those from Kelantan where the sweet is prevalent, but empirically speaking, during the opening of its inaugural exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, the Indians had no idea and kept asking, ‘Why did you insult yourself in this work? ’, The Malays, however, smiled and nodded in acknowledgement.

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