The Penang Hindu Association (PHA) believes that the Malaysian Indian population could soon be facing a different kind of fear – one that is demographic rather than cultural or economic.
An analysis of the census report by the Malaysian Department of Statistics on the ethnicity breakdown of the population of Malaysia over the years shows that the ethnic Indian population in Malaysia has been slowly declining across the decade.
The population statistics for the ethnic Indians that stood at 7.3 percent in 2010, dropped to 6.7 per cent in 2020.
The latest census done by the Malaysian Department of Statistics shows that, as of July 2023, only 6.6 percent of the population of Malaysia are ethnic Indians. This decline is more pronounced than that of the other races and if this trend continues, the possibilities of losing their demographic status as the third largest ethnic group in Malaysia is real and apparent. This worrisome status would also pose a threat to the existence of Tamil schools, where low enrolment would be reason enough for their closure.
In addition, PHA also fears that the declining Hindu population, which comprise the highest percentage in terms of religious affiliation among Malaysian Indians, will result in the decreasing number of worshippers visiting the Hindu temples.
This context can be used by the authorities as a reason for the closure of Hindu temples in the affected areas.
In looking at the possible causes of this decline, PHA sees the marriage dilemma factor as the root cause.
This factor leads to the reluctance of many young ethnic Indians to get married and to start a family at an early age.
This non-committal perspective is more significant among the career-minded, middle-income ethnic Indians, who choose to focus on their career rather than on their marriage in order to be financially stable.
Unfortunately, by the time their financial expectations are met, many would have reached their thirties or beyond, and at this stage, they assume that finding a life partner to start a family would be difficult as they have already crossed the ideal age of marriage.
As such, they decide to remain single, and this profoundly contributes to the decline in the population of ethnic Indians in Malaysia.
The issue of being financially stable has also driven ethnic Indian youths in the B40 group to shy away from marriage as they consider it an added financial burden.
PHA found that many single Indians of marriageable age in the B40 group were financially insecure.
Many such youths say that with ageing parents and family members to manage with a meagre salary, marriage was out of question.
To make ends meet, some even had to resort to loan sharks.
Being put in such a situation, getting married and starting a family is a topic which they prefer to avoid.
The married group, on the other hand, prefer to have smaller families as they take into consideration the cost of living that seem to be on an infinity rise.
They also attribute this preference to the increasing property prices that prevents them from buying bigger units to comfortably raise a family of at least four.
Taking into account these factors, they decide on having a small family to remain financially stable and to provide the best they can for their children.
In extreme cases, they may even decide not to have any offspring.
The lack of education security for the Indian children could also be seen as another factor for the decline in the population of ethnic Indians in Malaysia.
Many married Indian couples choose to have smaller families, as they need more assurance that their children would be receiving quality tertiary education when they have completed their secondary schooling.
Currently, they see their children having limited alternatives once the quota has been met at public tertiary institutions.
Alternatively, choosing private institutions would be a tough decision considering the fees, which is beyond the reach of many, even among the M40 Indians.
Although PTPTN would provide the initial financial support, paying back the study loan is another added financial burden to manage after graduation.
With these taken into consideration, the size of the family is affected.
In addition to these, Penang Hindu Association does not deny the influence of external factors, concerning the attitude towards marriage, that contribute to the declining rate of ethnic Indian population in Malaysia.
The western culture portrays a lifestyle where materialism and individualism are highlighted while showcasing couples having fewer children as a desirable standard of family life in current times.
This foreign culture suggests to the young minds that marriage is a time-draining activity where they would have to share their time with their significant other.
It also suggests that one could do something more resourceful in their career, their business, or even their education, by remaining single or to be committed into marriage without creating a family.
These values have somehow impacted the mindset of young ethnic Indians to adopt, resulting in the traditional arrangement of marriage in Indian families undergoing significant changes over time.
The decision- making autonomy held by parents to arrange their children’s marriage at an ideal age is gradually being replaced with the children being the sole and final decision makers, as suggested in the western culture.
PHA sees the consequence of this power shift reflecting on the demographic decline among the ethnic Indians in Malaysia with lesser children being born through the union of marriage as the unmarried move towards the aging population group.
In seeking possible answers to reverse the population decline, Penang Hindu Association finds a possible solution in promoting the institution of marriage among ethnic Indians who are single, and encouraging them to have bigger families.
On the specific role played by PHA, the concern narrows down to the Malaysian Hindu population. In playing this specific role, PHA is of the opinion that Hindu temples need to take on an added responsibility by widening their role to include talks on the sacrament of marriage and also provide services on marriage counselling.
Such talks could help create awareness that, apart from having a life partner to love and to care for through thick and thin, marriage could also help lessen the financial constraints with the inclusion of another income earner into the family.
This would create financial security within the family unit without being trapped in the clutches of the loan sharks.
The desire to own a bigger housing unit to raise a bigger family would also no longer be beyond reach with the availability of joint loan facilities involving both the husband and wife.
Clearly, this awareness would help alleviate the fear of having a bigger family.
As a Hindu based NGO, Penang Hindu Association is collaborating with Sri Meenakshi Sundaraeswarar Temple, Penang, to share the responsibility to organise a matchmaking programme called ‘Suyamvaram’, which literally means ‘matchmaking event’ in Tamil.
This is a non-profit programme which is specifically for marriage-minded Hindus who are single, divorcees (with or without children), widowers/widows (with or without children) and also for single parents and the physically challenged Hindus.
The primary aim of this programme is to create opportunities for marriage-minded Hindus to meet for the purpose of marriage, with the hope that the institution of marriage would create the institution of family.
This programme was initiated in 2022 with a number of success stories.
It will be organised again this year on the 16th of September at the Sri Meenakshi Sundaraeswarar Temple, Penang. Application forms have been sent out and the response has been encouraging.
With the continuation of this programme annually, PHA hopes that it will be among the factors that will help slow down the demographic decline among ethnic Indians in Malaysia.
The British colonial policy brought the ethnic Indians to Malaya between the 19th and 20th century to work as labourers in the rubber plantations.
At that time, rubber and tin were seen as the twin goddess of wealth of Malaya and were inextricably linked to the economic prosperity of the nation.
Together with a hope for a better life, the Indians brought with them their colourful culture and exotic cuisine that characterised the Malayan cosmopolitan society.
Over time, the Indian population increased, with most choosing to be settled permanently, having large families, and with a vision for an independent and prosperous Malaya.
Fast forward to the 21st century, things have changed quite drastically.
The ethnic Indians have dropped to the bottom of the economic and political hierarchy in Malaysia and many fear that there is little or no avenues to voice their grievances.
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