Tamil Features

Kabali & Malaysian Tamil History: “Indians Brought With Them Nothing But Caste. And It’s True.”

In Pa Ranjith’s Kabali, Rajinikanth plays Kabaleeswaran, a Malaysian Tamil man who takes to crime to protect his people. Oppressed, landless, and struggling with inter-generational poverty, for Tamils in Malaysia, the setting of this gangster tale is no work of fiction. It is a way of life.


A century ago, boatloads of Tamilians set sail for nearby Malaya, as slaves of the British Raj. The journey itself was fraught with risks, and many perished. The rest dreamed of a brighter future and better prospects in the jungles of Sabah and Serawak.

This was not to be.


The men, clad in simple dhotis tied around their waists, were put to work at Malaysia’s sprawling rubber plantations. Dense forests and mountains isolated them from the rest of the world. An ocean away from what they held dear, the Tamils spent all their time tapping rubber – slicing tree after tree, retiring only when their British overlord did.

Life on these estates was a torturous experience for most. Seventy-year-old Vell Samy’s ancestors lived and died tapping rubber. His great grandfather migrated to Malaysia in 1901, eager to start a new life. “We have roots in Thirunelveli. From what my thatha used to say, life was terrible in pre-independence Tamil Nadu. There was little to eat, no money – nothing. We are Harijans; for water, my great grandfather had to travel thirty miles everyday as they were not allowed to drink water from the communal pond. He made the decision to take his entire family abroad as life at home became worse. He thought moving to a new country would help.”

Things didn’t turn out that way, for even in Malaya, the caste system flourished. “There’s a saying here. Indians brought with them nothing but caste. And it’s true.” Separate housing was given to the Dalits, away from the rest. Little was done to improve their lives. Without proper medical assistance, many of them succumbed to a variety of diseases, though Malaria was most often the culprit.

As rubber production grew, the demand for cheap labour was higher than ever. Soon, another batch  of Tamilians arrived, to slice many more trees. And another, and another, till vast settlements of the people cropped up in many parts of Malaysia.  Today, nearly 7% of Malaysians are of Indian origin.  

Also, 70% of Malaysia’s gangsters are of Indian origin.


The close-knit Tamil communities in Malaysia tend to be small-scale replicas of the ones  in Tamil Nadu. Fiercely protective of their customs and religion, Tamils built a variety of temples in their newfound home. Of these, the Batu Malai temple and the Mariamman Temple are the most popular. Together, they draw up to 10,000 people daily. The Batu Malai temple, for instance, draws ardent devotees from all over the world. Several devotees pierce themselves with 108 vels, a sign of their devotion to Lord Murugan as festive crowds watch on euphorically. “Lord Murugan is the protector of the Tamil people. Every year the people in my grandfather’s estate would travel to Batu Malai and offer prayers there. Their requests were small. They often prayed for their health and safety. Now, the world has changed. We need to start asking for change. Our community’s wishes need to be heard!”


Little is known of their rich history and contributions to the advancement of Malaysia. According to Prof. Sunil Amrith of Harvard University, these histories were often forgotten as the Malaysian Tamils left no record of their lives. “In the case of Indians who moved to South Africa, alongside the indentured workers of the sugar plantations, there was a large component of intellectuals and merchants. That is why the South African experience is much more written about and Mahatma Gandhi ended up there,” he told a popular Tamil daily.

In 1929, reformist Tamil leader Periyar visited Malaysia for the first time, to attend the All Malaya Tamil Conference. The visit, held amid protests by sections of the Tamil community over his rabid atheism, helped the reformist movement gain a foothold among Malaysian Tamils. Periyar toured many rubber estates, and held 29 rallies all over Malaya. “Why suffer the throes of casteism in a land where everyone has the chance to be the master of his own destiny?” he asked. “Forge ahead. Seek education. Strive for economic strength. That’s all that matters.”

Periyar’s visit led to the formation of Adi Dravidar Sangam in 1929 in Batu Pahat and Johor Bahru, the Tamilar Sirthirutha Sangam (Tamil Self-Respect Association) in 1930, the Pan Malaysian Dravidian Association, and eventually the Malaysian Dravidian Association in 1946. Magazines, newspapers and journals like “Kudiarasu”, “Viduthalai”, “Puratchi”, and “Pagutharivu” published by Thanthai Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement in Tamil Nadu were imported in bulk, and five local publications promoting his ideology sprouted up.

Reformists AC Suppiah and Sarangapany collected almost RM 20,000 for the visit. Vell Samy’s grandfather contributed RM 1000 towards this event, a princely sum in those times. “For the longest time, thatha had the receipt framed on his wall. We still have a photo of Periyar in all our homes. For us, he is God. So is Ambedkar.”

Periyar visited the country for a second time in 1954. The All Malaya Dravidian Association took charge of Thanthai Periyar’s visit this time, and organised public rallies throughout Malaya. In every rally, thanthai Periyar told the masses that they were being suppressed in Malaya. In every rally, he asked the assembled Tamils to make Malaya their home and work towards the country’s progress. He urged them to seek education, and set up their own business, instead of remaining as labourers forever.

Soon, labour unions rose in almost all rubber estates. Salaries were regularised, and a new era was born.

Given the context of Periyar’s impact on the Tamil community in Malaysia, Pa Ranjith’s apology for not using a portrait of him in Kabali  (there are prominent portraits of BR Ambedkar throughout the movie) takes on added weight.


In the 1970s, Malaysia’s leadership came up with the New Economic Policy as a response to the Sino-Malay race riots in 1969. The policy had a stated goal: increase Bumiputra (native Malay) share of wealth from 2% to 30%. Lacking the wealth of the Chinese and discriminated against by Government policy, the Tamils in Malaysia were a disadvantaged lot.

Times have changed, and Tamilians are no longer slaves. But their lives are no better. Most continue to work on rubber and palm estates; or in daily wage positions. Few run commercial enterprises, and the ones that want to are hurt by Government policies. Until the 1990’s, a Malaysian Tamil, despite holding citizenship, needed a Bumiputra partner to start up a commercial enterprise.


With the Malaysian industrial revolution, and a string of policies for economic advancement, the Tamil people were also displaced from the jungles of Sabah and Serawak. It was the urban jungle they found themselves in now. Here too, they were ill-equipped for normal life. Velu, a cab driver, says“After two or three generations, we are just now moving from the plantations to the cities. That transition is tough. We can’t afford most things. We come from working-class backgrounds – farmers, mechanics, taxi drivers – and most of us here have had very little access to education.”

Most Malaysian Indians live in crowded tenements in Kuala Lampur. “There is no space to breathe, much less live. But this is how we lived in my grandfather’s time. So it is not that hard. Back then, the jungles closed in on us. Now it is the concrete blocks,” notes Vell Samy.

The Tamil leadership representing their interests at the National level has also failed the community. Clueless, and often bogged down by scandals within their ranks, party men seem focused on promoting their own personal agenda. The interests and aspirations of these oppressed people rarely find representation at the national level. 

The community’s declining political leverage at the national level has led to many difficulties. For young Tamil men and women, getting a decent education is nearly impossible. Tamil medium schools are aplenty, but do not prepare them for the job market. College admissions are heavily weighted in favour of the Malays; Tamilians often end up settling for obscure streams in lesser-known colleges. “The alternative is to send them abroad. Here, most people don’t have the money for their next meal. How can they afford a foreign school with its expensive tuition rates?” Samy asks.


Young Tamil men, forced away from the rubber estates they grew up in, and denied an education, increasingly turn to gangs for a living. These men are easy to prey on – gangs typically lure them away with promises of riches and brotherhood. For Malaysian Tamils who’ve grown up in a system that does nothing to help them, such a prospect is hard to walk away from. A gang member is typically paid up to RM 15,000 to peddle drugs. More money comes in the form of extortion and a ‘protection’ fee from local businessmen. “We were in the protection racket. There were many places that we used to pau (extort). We collected a lot of money. So RM101 wasn’t much. But whatever we earned, we would spend on drinking and having fun. It was a wasted life,” says a gang member.

Vell Samy remembers a time when such gangs tried to recruit members from his own family. “Usually, these gangs have people in every neighbourhood. They will go to the houses of young boys without dads, and give them everything they wish. Soon, they will mould them for a life in crime. With young girls too they’ll do the same. They will feed them drugs and get them hooked. It is so they will join their prostitution rings.”


The Government, instead of trying to eradicate crime, has focused on coming up with explanations. One popular reason is Tamil cinema. Officials with the Consumers Association of Penang have, on multiple occasions, called for bans on Tamil films and serials.

Many are moving away from their culture in a bid to establish a new life for themselves. According to Dr. M Nadarajah, a Sociology professor at the Stamford College, “the unfortunate direction of change would be the progressive loss of Tamil identity. In this context, we can see for instance a new phenomenon in Malaysia – dark brown-skinned Tamils taking on the behaviour of or, portrayed as, ‘blacks’!”

Kabali shies away from offering a solution to the plight of these people. One thing is clear, though: their fates cannot be decided by the actions of one man, no matter how powerful a gangster he may be.