Malaysia Racial Ties Fragile 40 Years After Riots

Sean Yoong, AP, May 10, 2009

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To be sure, Malaysia, a Southeast Asian nation of 27 million people, has been remarkably stable since the weeklong mayhem that began May 13, 1969. But as the country marks the 40th anniversary of the riots, its uneasy racial detente is coming under stress.

Ethnic Chinese and Indians, the two largest minorities, have become more vocal in demanding racial equality in part because of growing economic hardships, and Indians staged unprecedented public protests in November 2007. Mindful of the mounting disenchantment, a new prime minister is proposing a partial rollback of a main legacy of the riots, an affirmative action program for the majority Malays.

{snip} As Malaysians have grown wealthier and better educated, they have demanded a more open discussion of race, and the government has acquiesced to a degree. But the shift is also stirring old passions–the Malays and Chinese in particular don’t fully trust each other–and therein lies a risk.

Several Malay ruling party officials have pledged to defend affirmative action “to the last drop of blood,” and a top Malay newspaper urged Malays last month to “rise and unite.”

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The bloodshed of 1969, which took at least 200 lives, erupted when Malaysia was still emerging from the legacy of colonial rule, only a dozen years after attaining independence from Britain.

Racial divisions ran deep. The Malays held political power but were largely poor. The Chinese, many of whose ancestors immigrated in the 18th century, had prospered through trade and tin mining. Indians, mostly laborers, had little say in politics or business.

The riots were sparked by politics. Chinese opposition supporters, whose parties made sweeping election gains, held a victory march in Kuala Lumpur and jeered at residents in Malay neighborhoods. The Malays staged their own rally, and in ensuing clashes, mobs armed with pistols and knives roamed the streets, killed people of other races and torched their homes.

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Seeking to curb economic disparities, the government launched an affirmative action program in 1971 that enabled Malays to get into universities more easily, buy homes at reduced prices and enter business through rules requiring many companies to be partly Malay-owned. The main government-funded schools teach in the Malay language, while schools that use Chinese and Tamil get less aid.

Many Malays prospered. Their share of corporate wealth surged from 2.4 percent in 1970 to about 20 percent today, and they make up nearly two-thirds of the population.

The minorities say it is time to wind up the program. Chinese make up a quarter of the population and own about 40 percent of corporate equity. Indians are about 8 percent of the population and have a stake of less than 2 percent, while the remainder is mostly foreign ownership.

Complaints about affirmative action and religious disputes–such as the demolition of Indian Hindu temples on illegal sites by Malay authorities–became more apparent during the tenure of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who governed for five years from October 2003. He is credited with allowing more space for discussions of long-sensitive issues in the government-controlled media and on independent Internet forums.

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Many high-profile disputes are religious in nature. Minorities have complained that Islamic courts–not secular courts–are given jurisdiction in family disputes that involve both Muslims and non-Muslims. Some Malay Muslims consider these complaints as a threat to the status of Islam, the country’s official religion.

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In the capital of Kuala Lumpur, office workers from all races work together relatively amicably. Lunch crowds include Chinese women in skirts and Malay women draped in multicolored, loose-flowing dresses. Very often, they can be seen tucking into “dosa” rice pancake and curry, an Indian favorite.

Though most people still have friends predominantly of their own race, there is interethnic interaction and respect. For example, many Chinese avoid eating pork in the presence of Malay companions.

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History textbooks, referring to the May 13 riots, warn that racial harmony must be nurtured. The last deadly clash–between Malays and Indians–was in 2001 when six people were killed.

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[Editor’s Note: See also Jared Taylor’s essay on Malaysia, “Preferences for the Majority,” here.]

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