MALAYSIA - Malaysian authorities spotlighted a festering issue when they said ethnic Indians accounted for 71 per cent of 40,313 gang members in the country.
That sparked anger and fear in a section of the community who fretted about racial profiling, while still others gave nods of sad acknowledgement.
There are two million Indians in Malaysia and that disclosure speaks volumes about the struggles of some against poverty, lack of education and longstanding complaints of being neglected by the government and Indian leaders, community activists say.
In listing the names of 49 gangs last Thursday, Home Ministry secretary-general Abdul Rahim Mohamad Radzi said of the 40,313 gang members, 28,926 were Indians, 8,214 were Chinese and 1,923 were Malays. The rest were from Sarawak and Sabah.
Several Indian community leaders said it could not be true that the Malays, forming nearly 60 per cent of the population, had so few gang members when there were many "Mat Rempit" motorcycle gangs.
Others such as Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) youth secretary C. Sivarraajh fear that racial profiling of Indians will worsen. They pointed to many cases of Indian youth who have died in police custody.
But others acknowledged the problem.
"This is a fact, so let us sit down and solve the problem. This is not playing politics, this is a national issue," said lawyer S. Pasupathi, director of the MySkills Foundation that helps Indian school dropouts.
The authorities say the two biggest and most notorious gangs - Gang 04 and Gang 08 - are both predominantly Indian. Both are active in large, rich states such as Selangor, Penang, Johor and Perak.
Two weeks ago in Penang, police surrounded and shot dead five men they said were members of Gang 04 at a condominium.
Today's Indian youth problem goes back some 30 years to the time when many thousands of Indian families living and working on rubber and oil palm plantations began to be displaced when the estates made way for residential or commercial projects and highways.
On some plantations, generations of Indians were replaced by cheaper Indonesian and Bangladeshi workers.
"Most sociologists agree that the root cause is the displacement of plantation workers and its impact on the bottom 40 per cent of the Malaysian Indian community," said Dr Denison Jayasooria, secretary-general of rights group Proham.
He and other activists say the social support system broke down as families had to adjust to urban life. These included growing up in tiny flats, with children left at home while both parents go to work and many children not finishing school.
They also live in "bad neighbourhoods", where poverty and crime are rampant and young boys fall into the wrong company, said Mr V. Perumal, a security guard who lives in one such area in Jalan Loke Yew in Kuala Lumpur.
Other families had no birth certificates or identity cards, though many such cases have been resolved in recent years as both Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat sought to secure Indian support.
In Negeri Sembilan, lawyer S.V. Rajan said many cases of young Indians involved in petty crimes and gangsterism fit into the pattern of poor families displaced from estates.
The community's political leaders, led for a long time by MIC strongman S. Samy Vellu, were not seen to be responsive to their struggles, while Malaysia's strong economic growth from the 1980s well into the 1990s papered over the festering problem, activists say.
Further, the community's political leadership was divided, with five Indian-led parties in the BN coalition today. They bristled when BN secretary-general Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor recently suggested that they merge to better help their community.
"We are divided. Out there everyone wants to be party chairman or president but there is no good leadership," said Mr Velu Subramaniam, an adviser to Indian youth organisations.
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