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History 101: Famous Malaysian Indians & Their Major Achievements

Indian Tamil Rubber Estate Old Photo History

Malaysia’s rich cultural tapestry is woven together by the diverse communities that call this beautiful country home. Among these communities, the Indian diaspora has played a significant role in shaping the nation’s history and development since achieving independence, known as Merdeka, in 1957. Image source: Aliran

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Another racial statement from the Old Man and it is not the first time, the Old Man has come out with sensitive, dumb & controversial statements.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is of the view that Malaysian Indians and Chinese are not completely loyal to the country as they still want to identify themselves with their respective countries of origin.

“There are people who consider themselves (as) Indians or Chinese. They do not speak the local language at all.

“They have their own schools, their own language, their own culture.

“So, they are different from the original people who founded this country,” he said during the interview, which was uploaded to Thanthi TV’s YouTube channel on Jan 11.

Later during the interview, the host pointed out that apart from speaking Tamil, Malaysian Indians also speak Malay very well and that they are committed to Malaysia.

“Malaysian Indians do not speak Malay as their home language. They speak Tamil,” said Dr Mahathir.

When the host asked Dr Mahathir what is the problem with Malaysian Indians who do not speak Malay as their home language, the latter replied that: “The problem is that they cannot be assimilated”

During the interview, Dr Mahathir was also asked if Malaysian Indians and Chinese should completely shun their religion and practices to behave like Malays in order to assimilate.

“Yes.. Many of them have done that. Many people… Of Indian origin, Arab origin, even European origin, who are now completely Malay that speak Malay all the time… They practise Malay customs and tradition.”

Dr Mahathir was also asked on why he did not raise such an issue when Umno had a political coalition with MIC and MCA when he was the president of the party.

“Yes, under my leadership, I am prepared to work with other people but not prepared to accept them as the owners of this country,” he said.

(Source: NST)

In summary, what the Old Man is telling the whole world is that Malaysian Indians and Chinese must abandon their religion and practices that they have practised since their ancestral time and just embrace Islam. Then he tells Malaysian Indians and Chinese to embrace Malay practice but one asks how much of it has been overtaken by the Arab culture & practice.

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Video narration: Explore the untold tale of how Malaysian Indian Tamils played a pivotal role in the nation’s growth during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, working in rubber and oil palm estates. Witness the challenges they faced when these estates were sold, forcing a mass migration to the city without proper education and job skills.

The Early Indians

The Indian presence in Malaysia dates back centuries, with historical records indicating trade and cultural exchanges between the two regions as early as 290 BCE (that is about 2,313 years ago).

Timeline of Indians in Southeast Asia

The following is a timeline of some of the major events and kingdoms that illustrate the history of Indians in Southeast Asia. Note that this is not a comprehensive list and that there may be some overlaps or discrepancies in dates due to different sources and interpretations.

290 BCE – 15th century CE:

The Indianization period. This is the period when Hinduism and Buddhism spread across Southeast Asia and became integrated into local political systems. Some of the most notable Indianized kingdoms were:-

  • Funan (1st-6th centuries CE) in Cambodia and Vietnam
  • Chenla (6th-9th centuries CE) in Cambodia
  • Dvaravati (6th-11th centuries CE) in Thailand
  • Champa (2nd-17th centuries CE) in Vietnam
  • Srivijaya (7th-13th centuries CE) in Sumatra
  • Sailendra (8th-9th centuries CE) in Java
  • Khmer Empire (9th-15th centuries CE) in Cambodia
  • Pagan Empire (9th-13th centuries CE) in Myanmar
  • Haripunjaya (9th-13th centuries CE) in Thailand
  • Singhasari (13th century CE) in Java
  • Majapahit (13th-16th centuries CE) in Java
  • Sukhothai (13th-14th centuries CE) in Thailand
  • Ayutthaya (14th-18th centuries CE) in Thailand
  • Lan Xang (14th-18th centuries CE) in Laos
  • Lanna (13th-18th centuries CE) in Thailand
  • Pegu (15th-16th centuries CE) in Myanmar
  • Toungoo Empire (16th-18th centuries CE) in Myanmar
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Often ignored in this part of the world where ideas of ancient kingdoms only started with the on-coming of Islam is the fact that there have been several Hindu kingdoms and that the Chola Kingdom invaded them from India, influencing the local culture and people. 

10th – 13th centuries CE

The Chola invasions. The Chola dynasty was one of the most powerful empires in South India that expanded its influence over Southeast Asia through naval expeditions. During this period, the Cholas attacked and conquered parts of Srivijaya, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia. They also established trade relations and cultural contacts with these regions.

15th – 19th centuries CE

The Islamicization period. This is the period when Islam spread across maritime Southeast Asia through trade, migration, conversion and conquest. Some of the most notable Islamic kingdoms were:-

  • Malacca (15th-16th centuries CE) in Malaysia
  • Aceh (16th-19th centuries CE) in Sumatra
  • Mataram (16th-18th centuries CE) in Java
  • Brunei (15th-present) in Borneo
  • Sulu (15th-present) in the Philippines
  • Pattani (16th-20th centuries CE) in Thailand
18th – 20th centuries CE

The colonial period. This was the period when European powers, such as Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain and France, colonized and exploited Southeast Asia for their economic and strategic interests. They also introduced Christianity, Western education, modernization and nationalism to the region. The colonial period ended with the independence movements and wars that occurred after World War II.

However, it was during the British colonial era that large-scale migration of Indians especially from South India to Malaysia occurred. Indian labourers were brought in to work on various infrastructure projects, such as the construction of railways and rubber plantations. These early settlers faced numerous challenges, including language barriers and cultural adjustments. Despite these hardships, their perseverance and hard work laid the foundation for future generations to thrive.

Prominent Personalities and Their Achievements

The Indian community in Malaysia boasts an array of remarkable personalities who have left an indelible mark on the nation’s history. Here are a few notable figures (excluding the many MIC politicians) and some of the sectors in which they were involved are as follows:-

MIC Tun V.T. Sambanthan Malaya Indian Tamil Politician

The man who became the Prime Minister for a day, Tun V.T. Sambanthan was one of the key politicians who worked closely with Tuanku Abdul Rahman towards independence from the British. The decline of MIC started after V.T. Sambanthan had stepped down as the MIC President, more so after Samy Vellu had become the MIC president in 1979. Image source: The Star


  • Tun V.T. Sambanthan (1919-1979): He was one of the founding fathers of Malaysia and a key leader of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), a component party of the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN). He was instrumental in securing citizenship rights and political representation for the Indian community in Malaya and later Malaysia. He served as Minister of Works, Posts and Telecommunications from 1955 to 1974 and Deputy Prime Minister from 1970 to 1973.
  • Tan Sri Devaki Krishnan (1923-2024): She was the first woman elected to public office in Malaysia when she won a seat on the Municipal Council in Kuala Lumpur in 1952. She was also the first woman president of MIC from 1975 to 1977. She was a champion of women’s rights and social welfare. She was awarded the Panglima Setia Mahkota (PSM) in 1990, which carries the title Tan Sri.
  • Karpal Singh (1940-2014): He was a prominent lawyer and opposition politician who was known as the “Tiger of Jelutong” for his fiery speeches and fearless advocacy. He was the chairman of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a component party of PH, from 2004 to 2014. He was also a Member of Parliament for Jelutong from 1978 to 1999 and for Bukit Gelugor from 2004 to 2014. He was a staunch defender of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Malaysia.
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Forced to retire at the tender age of 40 years old just to satisfy the idiocy of supremacy of race is a big loss for the country for a navy man who had contributed much to the RMN and Malaysian sovereignty. Even to this day, such idiocy remains intact to some degree at every part of the Government when it comes to appointing the non-Malays to the highest position of the Government. The very suggestion that a non-Malay could be the Prime Minister one day almost caused riots in this country. 

Military & Police

  • Tan Sri K. Thanabalasingam (1925-now): He was the first Malaysian to be appointed chief of the Royal Malaysian Navy in 1967. He had a distinguished military career that spanned over three decades. He was also the person who designed RMN’s current ensign. He was awarded the Panglima Mangku Negara (PMN) in 1968, which carries the title Tan Sri.
  • Emily Koshy (1934 – now): first Malaysian Indian woman police officer joining the police force in 1955, along with six other women of different ethnicities. She specialized in crime prosecution and handled cases of burglary, rape, murder, molestation and domestic abuse. She also had the privilege of leading a platoon of female police officers in the first-ever Merdeka parade.

Art & Music

  • K. S. Maniam (1942 – 2020): He was a Malaysian writer who wrote in English and explored themes such as identity, culture, history and belonging in his novels, plays and short stories. K. S. Maniam was widely regarded as one of the most prominent and influential writers of Malaysian literature in English. His works have been translated into several languages and have been studied by scholars around the world.
  • Tan Sri Lakshmanan Krishnan (1922-now): He is widely regarded as the father of the Malay film industry and the mentor of the late Tan Sri P Ramlee, a Malaysian film icon. He has directed more than 30 films and worked with many Malaysian movie stars such as Datuk Maria Menado, the late Kasma Booty and the late Datuk Mustapha Maarof. He received the Merdeka Award in 2016 for his outstanding contribution to the education and community category. He is also a pioneer in the genre of horror films in Malaysia and Singapore.

Tan Sri Dr M Jegathesan Indian Flying Doctor Sports Runner Asian Games

The photo shows the good doctor in the 200-meter heats at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. It was reported that his National 100-meter record of 10.38 seconds and 200-meter record of 20.92 seconds had stood unbroken for about 30 years and 49 years respectively. Image & information source: Buletin Mutiara


  • Tan Sri Dr M Jegathesan (1940- now): He was once the fastest man in Asia, nicknamed “The Flying Doctor”. He won seven gold medals at the Asian Games and represented Malaysia at three Olympic Games. He later pursued a career in medicine and served the government health service for 32 years including the posts of Director of the Institute for Medical Research and Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Health, Malaysia.
  • Datuk Dr Jagjit Singh Sambhi (1924-2021): He was a pioneering cardiologist and one of the founders of the National Heart Institute (IJN). He was instrumental in developing cardiology services in Malaysia and performed the first coronary angiogram in the country in 1971. He also trained many local cardiologists and established the Malaysian Cardiac Society.
  • Tan Sri M. Mahadevan (1929 – now): He is a renowned psychiatrist and hypnotherapist who has made significant contributions to the field of mental health in Malaysia and beyond. He is the former government chief psychiatrist, the founder of the Malaysian Psychiatric Association, and the co-founding member of the Malaysian Society of Clinical Hypnosis. He became the first psychiatrist to head the Department of Psychiatry at Hospital Kuala Lumpur.

Economy & Business

  • Tan Sri Tatparanandam Ananda Krishnan (1943 – now): He is one of Malaysia’s wealthiest businessmen and philanthropists. He started his career as an oil trader and later diversified his interests into telecommunications, media, energy, and property. He is the founder and chairman of Usaha Tegas Sdn Bhd, a private investment company that owns stakes in Maxis, Astro Malaysia Holdings, Bumi Armada, and other major companies in Malaysia and abroad.
  • Tan Sri Datuk G. Gnanalingam (1949 – 2023): He was the executive chairman of Westports Malaysia Sdn Bhd, one of Malaysia’s leading port operators. He joined the company in 1994 and transformed it into a regional hub for container handling and transhipment. He is also credited with introducing innovative marketing strategies and enhancing operational efficiency at the port.
  • Tan Sri Dr Sir Ninian Mogan Lourdenadin (1947 – now): He is the principal shareholder and CEO of MBF Holdings, a Malaysian services conglomerate operating in Malaysia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Australia. The company has interests in finance, health care, property development, retail, and hospitality. He is also a trained and certified doctor who graduated from the University of Malaya.
  • Prof. Jomo Kwame Sundaram (1952 – now): He is a prominent Malaysian economist who has served as the United Nations assistant secretary-general for economic development from 2005 to 2012. He is also a professor emeritus at the University of Malaya and a senior adviser at Khazanah Nasional Berhad, Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund.

Human Rights

  • K Thamboosamy Pillay (1850 – 1902): He was a prominent pre-independence businessman and community leader, who was involved in various fields such as mining, rubber, transport and education. He was one of the founders and original trustees of Victoria Institution, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in Malaysia. He was also the founder of the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur, the oldest Hindu temple in the country.
  • Irene Fernandez (1946-2014): She was a social activist and founder of Tenaganita, a non-governmental organization that works for the rights of migrant workers, refugees, and women. She was also involved in various campaigns against human trafficking, domestic violence, and HIV/AIDS.

Punch Gunalan Sports Indian Malaysia Badminton

The photo shows Punch Gunalan after winning the All-England men’s doubles in 1971 and his Commonwealth Games gold medal with his partner Ng Boon Bee in 1970. Image source: Free Today Malaysia


  • Govindasamy Saravanan (1971-now): He is a former racewalker who won the gold medal at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, becoming the first Malaysian to win a gold medal at the event. He also competed in two Olympic Games (1996 and 2000), and won four gold medals at the Southeast Asian Games.
  • Nashatar Singh Sidhu (1937-2015): He was a former javelin thrower who competed in two Olympic Games (1964 and 1968), and won two gold medals at the Asian Games. He also held the national record for javelin throw for 36 years, until it was broken by Muhammad Irfan Shamsuddin in 2014.
  • Datuk Punch Gunalan (1944-2012): He was a former badminton player and coach who was one of the best doubles players in the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He won a silver medal at the 1970 World Championships with Ng Boon Bee and also won several other titles, such as the All-England Open, the Denmark Open, and the Malaysia Open. He later became a coach and an administrator for the Badminton Association of Malaysia and the Badminton World Federation.
  • Dauk R. Arumugam (1953-1988): He also known as Spiderman, was a goalkeeper who played for Selangor FA and the Malaysia national team. He was widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in Asia and won several trophies and awards.
  • Datuk Rajamani Mailvaganam (1943 – now): She is one of the most celebrated female athletes in Malaysia’s history. She won seven gold medals at the Southeast Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games from 1965 to 1969, in various events such as 100m, 200m, 400m, 80m hurdles and 4x100m relay. She also set several SEAP Games records along the way. Rajamani was honoured as Malaysia’s Sportswoman of the Year in 1966 and 1967 for her outstanding feats.

Final Say

As we celebrate the 67th anniversary of Malaysia’s independence this year, it is timely to look back at the history of Indians in Malaysia and appreciate their role in shaping the nation’s identity. The Indian community has been part of Malaysia’s journey since pre-colonial times when traders, merchants, and missionaries from India established contacts and exchanges with the local kingdoms.

After independence, the Indian community continued to play an important role in Malaysia’s nation-building process. The Indians had contributed to the economic growth and diversification of the country, excelling in fields such as business, science, technology, engineering, medicine, law, arts, and sports. They also enriched the cultural and social fabric of the nation, bringing their unique traditions, languages, cuisines, music, dance, literature, and festivals to the Malaysian mosaic.

They also supported the national agenda of unity and harmony, embracing the principles of multiculturalism and tolerance. They also engaged in various forms of civic and political participation, advocating for their interests and rights as well as those of other marginalized groups.

Today, the Indian community is an integral part of Malaysia’s identity and destiny. They are proud Malaysians who cherish their heritage and identity as well as their loyalty and commitment to the nation. They are also global citizens who connect with their counterparts in India and other parts of the world, fostering mutual understanding and cooperation.

As Malaysia faces new challenges and opportunities in the 21st century, the Indian community is ready to contribute to its vision and aspirations. They are confident that their skills, talents, and values will enable them to adapt and thrive in a changing world. They are also hopeful that their achievements will inspire future generations of Malaysians to pursue their dreams and potential.

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