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Ethnic anger on the rise in Malaysia

Ethnic anger on the rise in Malaysia

Author: Thomas Fuller
Publication: International Herald Tribune
Date: January 30, 2008
URL: http://www.iht.com/bin/printfriendly.php?id=9604702

The customers of Malaysian Indian Casket, a small shop on the outskirts of this modern and cosmopolitan city, come in all different sizes: standard coffins clutter the entrance, child-size boxes are stacked high on the shelves and extra-large models, those for the tallest of the deceased, are stored in the back.

But there is no variety in the ethnic background of the clientele.

"All the customers are Indian," said Aru Maniam, a shop salesman.

In death as in life, Malaysians are divided by ethnicity. The country's main ethnic groups - Malays, Chinese and Indians - have their own political parties, schools, newspapers and, in the case of Malays, a separate Islamic legal system.

For years this segregation was promoted as the best formula for social harmony in a country that advertises itself as "Truly Asia," a place where the palette of skin colors is as diverse as the mosques, churches and Hindu and Buddhist temples that dot the landscape.

But in recent months ethnic relations here have deteriorated to a level that many find alarming. After years of muffled tensions over religious conversions, government funding for minority schools and a longstanding system of special privileges for Malays, the dominant group, ethnic anger has burst to the forefront of Malaysian politics.

In November, Indians, who make up less than 10 percent of the population of about 25 million and are disproportionately poor, led a protest march through Kuala Lumpur, the first large-scale ethnically motivated street demonstration in almost four decades. They announced a largely symbolic $4 trillion class-action lawsuit against the British government, the colonial rulers, for bringing them as indentured laborers to the region, "exploiting them for 150 years" and allowing them to be marginalized.

The police broke up the demonstration with water cannon and tear gas and arrested five representatives of a group called the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, which led the protests. The five men are being held indefinitely and without trial under an internal security law.

"This is a country that is in search of soul, in search of a common mission," said Charles Santiago, coordinator of the Group of Concerned Citizens, an organization that seeks solutions to ethnic strife in the country. Malaysians, he said, are feeling more threatened by common problems such as crime and cost-of-living increases, but at the same time are increasingly divided by ethnicity.

The past six months have seen an unusual number of street demonstrations in Malaysia, a country where the police for decades have systematically denied permits for demonstrations in an effort to keep political quarrels off the streets. Frustration has grown with the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who promised to sweep away corruption and make government more accountable when he came to power five years ago.

In September, the country's Bar Council marshaled thousands of lawyers for a demonstration demanding judicial independence after a video clip surfaced of a top lawyer apparently negotiating judicial appointments. In November, a coalition of activist groups organized a demonstration of at least 10,000 people calling for clean and fair elections. Last Saturday, opposition groups demonstrated against rising prices of food and fuel, the second such protest in six months.

The Indians' anger appears to have rattled the government the most. Abdullah sought to woo back Indians by declaring the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, which was celebrated Jan. 23, a federal holiday. A court decision in a highly emotional dispute over whether an Indian man should be buried according to Hindu or Muslim rites has been postponed indefinitely.

Analysts say race relations could become more tense as the country prepares for elections, which are widely expected to be called for March.

"It will be a racialized campaign, there's no question," said Bridget Welsh, a specialist in Malaysian politics at Johns Hopkins University-SAIS in Washington.

An opinion poll made public last Friday by the Merdeka Center (www.merdeka.org) showed support for the government among non-Malays plummeting. Only 38 percent of Indians and 42 percent of Chinese said they strongly or somewhat approved of Abdullah's job performance, by far the lowest rating for the prime minister. When he came to power, he had an overall approval rating of 91 percent.

His overall approval rating in the new poll was 61 percent, a poor showing for Malaysia, where the opposition is weak. Almost two-thirds of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the way the government was handling issues of ethnicity and inequality.

The survey, conducted by phone in December among 1,026 randomly selected registered voters, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.

"Indian support for the government is the worst it's ever been in the country's history," Welsh said. "It's profound. Indians have traditionally supported the government the highest."

With Chinese voters also angry at the government - mainly over its handling of the economy - Welsh says the government risks losing control of the state of Penang, where ethnic Chinese form a plurality, as well as a handful of parliamentary seats scattered across the country.

There is little risk that the coalition of Malay, Chinese and Indian parties known as the National Front, which has governed the country since independence from Britain in 1957, will lose its majority. Even though the coalition won only 64 percent of the popular vote in 2004, it controls more than 90 percent of the seats in Parliament, partly because after five decades in power the government has gerrymandered constituencies to its advantage.

But analysts fear that ethnic frictions could increase as Chinese and Indian representation in the government weakens.

Underpinning the anger of the Chinese and Indians is an affirmative action program in place for 37 years that favors Malays and other smaller indigenous ethnic groups collectively known as bumiputra, literally "sons of the soil."

Bumiputra make up 60 percent of the population but have 87 percent of government jobs. They receive discounts of 5 to 10 percent on new homes and have a reserved quota of 30 percent of any newly listed company on the stock market. Newspapers are filled with notices of government construction contracts exclusively reserved for companies controlled by bumiputra.

"It's completely unacceptable that you cannot get awarded a contract just because of the color of your skin," said Lim Guan Eng, the secretary general of the Democratic Action Party, the leading opposition party in Parliament. "That grates tremendously. We are treated as though we are third- or fourth-class citizens."

The bulk of the Chinese and Indians came or were brought to the Malay Peninsula while it was still a British colony to work in tin mines or on rubber plantations, although some Chinese, known as Peranakan, came as long as five centuries ago.

Yet Malaysia's ethnic classification is complicated by the fact that race is often an imprecise concept in Southeast Asia. Malays are a vaguely defined group that trace their ancestry to the Indonesian islands of Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra or as far as Arabia and India.

Lim points out that the father of Mohamed Khir Toyo, the chief minister of Selangor State, came from Indonesia. Yet his son is considered a bumiputra, while an ethnic Chinese person whose family has lived in Malaysia for centuries would still not qualify as indigenous.

The biggest losers in the current system are Indians, who, according to government statistics, make up 9 percent of the labor force but hold 16 percent of menial jobs and control just 1.2 percent of equity in registered companies in the country.

Indians are not aided by the affirmative action program, because it is based on ethnicity, not need.

More than economic issues, said Santiago of the Group of Concerned Citizens, Indians were infuriated by the highly publicized case of a Malaysian soldier, Maniam Moorthy, who died in 2005 and whose body was claimed by the Islamic authorities for Muslim burial.

The authorities claimed that Moorthy, who was born a Hindu, converted to Islam months before his death. Moorthy's wife, Kaliammal Sinnasamy, sued in a civil court to obtain the body, but the court ruled that it had no jurisdiction because the matter had already been decided in an Islamic court. A ruling on Kaliammal's appeal has been postponed indefinitely.

The case, one of at least a dozen similar ethno-religious disputes reported recently in Malaysian newspapers, became a cause célèbre among Indians.

"You can push us, you can cheat us, you can discriminate against us, but you can't tell us that we're not Hindus after we are dead," Santiago said.

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