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MALAYSIA: Racial Melting Pot on the Boil

Analysis by Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Mar 21 2007 (IPS) - Asia’s melting pot, Malaysia, is celebrating 50 years of independence from British rule but against a backdrop of mounting racial disquiet fuelled by race-based politics, redundant policies that divide and discriminate and affirmative action that favours native Malays over minority Chinese and Indians.

Half a century into nationhood, the ideal of a ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ – that promised a blended Malaysian race that was to have climbed out of the melting pot – is still nowhere in sight. Instead there is a clash between resurgent Islam and the secular constitution.

Even Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi admitted recently that the major races that make up this unique country are drifting apart owing to racial and religious divisions and built-in discriminations.

”The situation is worrisome,” Badawi told Malaysians during a televised address last December, appealing for racial understanding, tolerance and national unity.

Foreign travellers who only see peace, stability and development are unaware that racism and discrimination pervade every aspect of Malaysian society.

The country’s first ever survey of race relations conducted last year confirmed that, below the façade of unity and peace, racism, discrimination and religious bigotry run deep.

For instance all political parties are race-based and champion the cause of their particular race. Playing the “race card” is a sure and tried method to advance politically.

The education system is heavily segregated with nearly 90 percent of Chinese students studying in Chinese vernacular schools and as large a proportion of Malays preferring national schools or Islamic schools where the Malay language and Islam are emphasised.

Inter-racial mistrust, resentment and condescending attitudes are common features of daily life, as the race relations survey showed.

Despite these setbacks, nowhere in Asia can one find so many different races and cultures calling one country home. Besides the majority Malays, other racial groups include Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Europeans, Eurasians and dozens of ethnic and aboriginal communities.

A potpourri of religions co-exist from the majority Muslims to Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Sikhs and numerous native belief systems.

“We coexist, even live together but we live separately in our own worlds,” said opposition lawmaker Kula Segaran from the minority Indian community that makes up about 8 percent of the population of 26 million and is the most disadvantaged economically.

“The outward peace and stability is not built on justice or meritocracy but made possible by fear and other drastic measures,” Segaran told IPS. “An expanding economy with tremendous wealth creation had hid the warts…as the economy slows, the warts are surfacing.”

“We celebrate 50 years of independence as a nation but the people are further apart than ever,” Segaran said. “We don’t know each other, we go to different schools, have people from our own races as friends and live separate lives.”

Malay Muslims, about 60 percent of the population, were the most backward economically at independence in 1957 but, through “Malays-first” policies, have advanced on many fronts and today form a sizeable middle-class.

Despite the advances, Malay wealth is in the hands of a politically well connected elite while in the rural areas of the country the Malay poor predominate.

The Chinese who first arrived as labourers to work the tin mines, now form 25 percent of the population and are economically the most vibrant – controlling some 60 percent of the economy.

At the core of racial divide is the New Economic Policy or NEP which was originally designed to eradicate poverty irrespective of race, create wealth and ensure economic equality.

However, in its implementation, Malays benefited over other races – including in preferential employment, education, scholarships, business, access to cheaper housing and assisted savings.

Originally designed to last for 20 years, the basic policies of the NEP have continued under different names, sparking envy and resentment between Malays and non-Malays. Non-Malays have come to accept the discrimination as the price they have to pay for peace and stability.

But as the economy shrinks and wealth contracts and a new generation of Malaysians come into their own, many are unwilling and unable to stomach the discrimination that is institutionalised.

“I was born here, I am a citizen, why should I be treated as second or third class,” said law student Amarjeet Singh, who did not make it to the local university despite having good grades. “We simple can’t continue with these unfair policies,” he told IPS.

Even some sections of the Malay leadership led by former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad have said that unfair advantages given to Malays have made them uncompetitive. He called the aid “crutches” in a major speech a year before he retired in 2003, calling for the aid to be reviewed.

Badawi also believes the “crutches” have to go, but a class of Malays have arisen with powerful political clout who have enjoyed these privileges and see them as their birthright and demand their continuation.

Although the political will to make major changes is missing, the government has taken steps to close the divide. But critics say it is only curing the fever without killing the cause of the infection.

One experiment in racial integration is the “Vision Schools” where students from all races share sports fields, assembly halls and canteens, but attend classes conducted in their own languages.

Another initiative is a compulsory national service programme for 18-year-olds that was started in 2004.

It puts youths from different racial background under a single roof. Students are chosen at random and taken to camps for three months to learn teamwork and absorb one another’s cultures.

But the experts say racism is too deeply entrenched in official policies and the socio-political system for such “half hearted” measures to make an impact.

On the political front, opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim, on a political comeback after six years in prison, is campaigning on a platform offering affirmative action for all needy Malaysians and an end to race politics. But it is left to the voters to decide.

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