The newly-elected Malaysian government has appointed the southeast Asian country’s first ever Sikh minister.
On May 21, Gobind Singh Deo was sworn in as the minister of communications and multimedia. The 45-year-old lawyer is part of the new cabinet instituted by the country’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who wrested power from incumbent Najib Razak in a closely-watched election earlier this month.
Deo hails from a family long involved in Malaysian politics. His late father, Karpal Singh, the “tiger of Jelutong,” was a prominent and popular lawyer and member of parliament representing Jelutong, a constituency in Penang in northwestern Malaysia. Like his siblings, Deo has held key positions in the Democratic Action Party (DAP), besides serving as a parliamenteraian from Puchong constituency. He’s often referred to as the “little lion of Puchong,” and made headlines back in 2009 after being suspended from parliament for a year for accusing Najib, then the deputy prime minister, of being involved in a murder case.
Deo’s appointment is a milestone for the Sikh community in Muslim-majority Malaysia, which traces its origins back to the 19th century. The first Sikhs to arrive in the country (pdf) were reportedly Bhai Maharaj Singh and his follower Karak Singh, two freedom fighters sent away from colonial India by the British. In later years, many more would migrate from India to Malaya as soldiers and policemen working for the British. In 1890, they built Malaysia’s first gurdwara in the state of Selangor.
Author Ranjit Singh Malhi has argued that the community’s history in Malaysia has often been neglected, even though it played a key role in the country’s economic development. Until the 1920s, it was mostly Sikhs who owned and operated bullock carts, the primary mode of transportation, he told The Star newspaper last year. When motorised vehicles were introduced, they were reportedly among the first to launch lorry and bus companies. Over the years, the Sikhs expanded into fields like medicine, academia, and law.
Malaysia doesn’t have official numbers on its Sikh community, but estimates peg it at around 75,000 today, or around 0.25% of the population.
As minister of communications, Deo’s first order of business is reportedly to repeal Malaysia’s controversial Anti-Fake News Act, adopted by the Najib-led government just last month. The bill gives the government sweeping powers to imprison those charged with creating or spreading “fake news” for up to six years, and impose fines of as much as $123,000. The law’s adoption was widely viewed as a threat to free speech in the country.
“Media freedom is my priority,” Deo told reporters after his swearing-in ceremony, according to news agency Bernama. “The media churning out news and publishing companies are bound by the existing laws so we have to look at it that way and we have to find ways to improve the freedom of press in the country. And I am committed to do so.”