Ain’t something new

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Ethnic anger on the rise in Malaysia

From IHT

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Malaysian Indian’s Protest

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KUALA LUMPUR: 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.
11 books on Islam banned

Malaysia has banned 11 books for allegedly giving a false portrayal of Islam, such as by linking the religion to terrorism and the mistreatment of women, an official said Wednesday, The Associated Press reported from Kuala Lumpur.

The government ordered the books – most of them released by American publishers – to be blacklisted this month “because they are not in line with what we call the Malaysian version of Islam,” said Che Din Yusoh, an official with the Internal Security Ministry’s publications control unit.

“Some of them ridicule Islam as a religion or the facts are wrong about Islam, like associating Islam with terrorism or saying Islam mistreats women,” he said.

The banned books include eight English-language ones, such as “The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and its Role in Terrorism,” “Secrets of the Quran: Revealing Insights Into Islam’s Holy Book” and “Women in Islam.” There are also three books written in the local Malay language.

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Well, this ain’t no new to all of us, Malaysians. The matter that regards every single one of us but has been left unsolved for years. Am happy to see some movements because that at least shows that we are voicing out for a change. Being outside of the country, reading at how and what other people from other parts of the world write about our country, it teaches you a lot on the question “What’s my real identity as a Malaysian ?”. I think somehow that this article is a good summary of what has happened lately and welcome to know my dear country who’s still on the search of a unified identity. What will be the solutions ? It is not something easy, that’s for sure. If not, the government won’t be taking such a long time to resolve everything but hey, I am still putting high hopes on our young country to move ahead in the future. Peace.

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4 thoughts on “Ain’t something new

  1. what a way to start an article. death according to races. sad. this is sad. there are so many things to worry about but malaysians are worrying about all these. when we learn and move forward… (-.-)v

  2. Well, we came out of the country and can see our country
    in a different perspective but for us who are still back at home,
    perhaps that’s the only thing we can see.
    If it is a problem to quite a number of people,
    then it is a problem.

  3. Sounds like “the land of people with good senses” has run out of it lately. At least in Indonesia we don’t make it a policy to segregate or discriminate our races (Our style is, anyone with money, he gets “afffirmative action” ha .. ha..).

  4. Hey Ari, nice having you here visiting.
    Well, about this “serious” problem, if you know our country’s history,
    then you will learn to understand why the policy is there in the first place.
    Actually, my ancestors (the Chinese, along with the other races like Indians) had
    agreed to the policy if they wanted to stay on in the country and
    be a part of Malaysia.

    We were “outsiders” who accepted the “condition”.
    Chinese came to trade and won a status in the economy of Malaysia at a fast pace
    and still are, so basically they won’t “complain” that much about the situation.
    Because we know if we have time to think, we should work hard to be somewhere up.
    Indians, as stated in this article, they were brought deliberately to be
    slaves by the British during their years making Malaysia its colony.
    Historically, in the beginning, they were forced to tap rubber for the British and
    they started slow in world of economy after independence and
    that’s mainly the reason why this situation is happening.

    We are a country, only 50 at age, finally or shall I say in the past decade,
    everyone is looking at whether the policy should be there or not
    anymore in this modern day where most of us are happy being Malaysians.
    Perhaps it still needs time to change the whole situation.

    Nothing changes overnight, but again this issue has been discussed for years
    and people who are pushed to the bottom of the society due to the policy
    are now finding it dreadful to be “segregated” so to say.
    It is a pretty sad thing that that’s the situation at Malaysia.
    But, most people forget about the condition.

    I always get disappointed when I have to stress that I am a “Malaysian Chinese”
    whenever I tell people that I am a Malaysian.
    http://www.vizu.com/vot/Current+Events/Business/Grab-bag/Travel/World/Malaysia/identity/ethnicity/poll-vote.html?n=73002

    Think of the following situation.
    Mr. A asks, “Where are you from ?” and I would say, “I am a Malaysian.”
    Mr. A looks at me with a funny look, scanning me from head to toe,
    “But, I met another Malaysian last week, he looks different than you do.”
    I would have to explain, “Well, we have 3 main races. I am Malaysian CHINESE.”

    But, in the case of Americans, like an American Chinese would say “I’m American”.
    People won’t bother to ask about their ethnicity,
    and would continue by asking, “So, which state are you from ?”.

    I am just hoping that one day I can actually be asked,
    “Which state are you from ? K.L ?” and I would happily smile, replying, “Yeah.”
    The reason to this could be that we are still not as popular as the States
    in the eyes of the world that we are a multicultural nation as well or perhaps our
    identity has not been established although we are 50 years old already.

    In Indonesia, not that I know much, most Chinese are fine if
    they don’t speak their mother tongue or not follow the traditional culture anymore.
    Plus, I guess a few years ago, I hear people burning down churches.
    Not race discrimination perhaps but other form of discrimination is happening
    everywhere, in any country I believe if we look carefully on the
    situation of each country.

    Thanks for sharing your two cents.
    Hope I had given a clear guide.

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