ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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From Servitude to Underclass

The Empire’s South Indian ‘Coolies’ in Postcolonial Malaysia

Malaysian Indians form 7% of Malaysia’s population and 80% of them are descendants of the British Empire’s “coolies.” Though an integral part of the nation’s polity, they are a marginalised underclass. The roots for this lie in colonial capitalism and the postcolonial state’s race-based policies, which displaced them from their traditional plantation and public sector work enclaves, into low-paying jobs and poor housing. Successive governments have failed to ameliorate their suffering, offering them only political expediency for electoral gains. The coolies’ plight can be resolved through a class-based policy strategy that addresses the root cause of their social and economic precarity.


In 2020, Malaysian Indians formed nearly 7% of Malaysia’s multiracial population of 3.26 crore (DOSM 2020). After the Malaysian Chinese, Indians form the country’s second largest minority community. The ancestral root of about 80% of Malaysian Indians is in the British Empire’s Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and ­Kerala). Among the Malaysian Indians, the Tamils are the largest community, followed by a relatively smaller number of Telugus and Malayalees. The majority of Malaysian Indians are fourth, fifth or even sixth generation descendants of ­Indian “coolies,” brought to the Straits Settlements and British ­Malaya (Peninsular Malaysia) on the part of British colonial capitalism.

The empire’s coolies were recruited under the indentured kangany (headman) systems, characterised as “a new system of slavery” (Tinker 1974). As British colonial capitalism penetrated into Malaya after the 1870s, more and more coolies were brought in larger and larger numbers as temporary ­sojourners, to expend surplus value and contribute towards the accumulation of capital at the metropolitan centre. On ­arrival, the coolies were deployed to various plantation ­enclaves that replicated “total institutions” across the country, and bonded to labour under harsh working and living conditions for subsistence wages. The bonded coolies—under surv­eillance and repression—had to labour to eke out a meager living in the fast expanding European-owned and managed plantations and the colonial state’s infrastructural projects. They were engaged in the construction of buildings, roads, railways, drainage, irrigation works, agricultural experime­ntal stations and public facilities, to support the growth of the colonial economy.

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Updated On : 3rd May, 2021
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