Malaysia's lingering ethnic divide

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Mar 7 19:45:52 UTC 2009

 Malaysia's lingering ethnic divide

By Robin Brant
BBC News, Malaysia

Malaysia's prime minister has ordered his government to take a fresh
look at recruitment levels of non-Malays, after thousands of ethnic
Indians took to the streets to protest against what they say is years
of discrimination. At least 10,000 people gathered in central Kuala
Lumpur last week to demonstrate against the unfair treatment they say
they have had to endure. Police used tear gas and water cannon to
break up the marches. The level of support was unprecedented, but,
aside from the numbers involved, what has particularly concerned the
Malaysian government is the ethnic division the protest highlighted.

Modern Malaysia is built on the co-existence of three ethnic groups -
Malays, Chinese and Indians. The protesters were Indians, who make up
around 8% of the population, railing against the Malay majority, who
account for about 60%. The country has quotas that ensure preferential
treatment for Malays looking for work or those who want to set up a
business. The Indians say this means they lose out.

Fears realised

P Uthayakumar is one of the lawyers who lead the Hindu Rights Action
Force (Hindraf) - the organisation behind last Sunday's protest march.
Along with two colleagues, he was arrested and charged with sedition
before the event, but later released without charge.
He says discrimination was something Indians have always been worried
about. "The term of reference of Malaysia's independence was equality
for all communities, and there were many fears of the Indian community
51 years ago, just before we achieve independence," he said. Now, 50
years on, as Malaysia looks forward to a new era of development, Mr
Uthayakumar says those fears have become a reality. "There was even
one suggestion made... that we would be completely at the mercy of the
Malay [Muslim] majority. Today it has become completely true," he

Unequal funding

The marchers were calling for fairer treatment. Education is a key
complaint. They say their Tamil-speaking schools do not get the same
money as other public schools, which means the level of teaching is
lower. But in the area of the capital where the Indian community is
centred, 21-year-old graduate and telecoms engineer Tavan Aysan said
he had done very well out of Malaysia's education system. "In my case
I didn't face that sort of a problem,' he said, but added: "It could
be my luck."

But the people around us as we spoke, getting on with their work,
illustrated the problem many complain of. There were men cooking on
the pavements as street vendors, and others weaving startlingly bright
flower petals into beautiful garlands. In modern Malaysia, the place
where Apple makes its mice and Sony assembles many of its gadgets,
flower arranging is not the way to a comfortable future.

Heightened anxiety

The two million Indians in Malaysia are predominantly Hindus, and the
Hindraf campaigners say there has been religious discrimination too.
Hindu temples have been torn down to make way for new buildings
without proper consultation, they claim. All of this would be valid
grounds for complaint in the eyes of many governments but in Malaysia,
protests are not acceptable. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi warned
people that taking to the streets was not "the proper way" in
Malaysia. “ They are concerned because of the multi-racial element in
this country... it can grow into something which cannot be controlled
”  Dr S Subramaniam MIC Secretary General

Even some Indians disagree with the cause of the Hindu Rights Action
Force. Those Indians are the ones in government. The Malaysian Indian
Congress (MIC) is a founder member of Malaysia's coalition government,
the Barisan Nasional (National Front), which has governed the country
in some form since its independence 50 years ago. MIC Secretary
General Dr S Subramaniam said that street protests were "a culture
which is totally foreign to this country". "The people of this country
are not used to it," he said. "They are concerned because of the
multi-racial element in this country... it can grow into something
which cannot be controlled."

Concern about racial tension boiling over is not just because of what
might happen, but because of what did happen. Hundreds died in racial
riots in Malaysia in 1969, when the country was barely a decade old.
The government sees any attempt to replicate that unrest as a threat
to the nation itself.

'Social transition'

But there is also a contemporary political element to these protests.
A general election is coming here, probably in the new year, and the
race card is a vote winner, although you are unlikely to hear many say
that overtly. At the recent annual assembly for Umno - the main party
of Malays and the main party in the governing coalition - the
politicians warned people not to challenge Malay rights, which lie at
the foundations of modern-day Malaysia.

Mr Uthayakumar said that the protest rallies would go on if the prime
minister did not begin a dialogue with his organisation.

Further marches are planned across Malaysia over the coming weeks,
part of separate campaigns for different causes.

But it is clear that some in this country now seem to have got the bug
for demonstrating.

The key difference with last weekend's protest was that it was a
protest rooted in ethnic division.

That is why it is such a cause for concern for Malaysia's government.
Story from BBC NEWS:

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