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Ethnic Issues to the Fore in Malaysia

The much-awaited announcement that Malaysia will go to the polls on March 8, 2008 was made by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the Malaysian Prime Minister, on February 12, 2008. Kula Lumpur was rife with rumours for many days that the Malaysian Government was contemplating such a course of action.

Malaysian government is not legally required to dissolve parliament and hold elections until May 2009. Then why this desperate hurry? Observers of the Malaysian scene point out that the Government is determined to seek a fresh mandate before Anwar Ibrahim, former Deputy Prime Minister, will become eligible to contest (by mid-April). The controversial Anwar, with considerable following within and outside the country, was barred from contesting polls and assuming any formal position for various charges including corruption and sodomy. Equally important, according to the calculations of the ruling party, popular discontent is likely to increase in coming months over rising prices, possible economic recession, growing corruption and authoritarianism.

It has been rightly said that every issue in Malaysia, whether political, cultural or economic, had always been and would continue to be dominated by ethnic considerations. While ethnicity will continue to dominate, the nature of political discourse is changing from time to time, depending upon the changing political dynamics. In order to put the issues in proper perspective, it is necessary to highlight certain political realities.

The Malays feel that they are the indigenous people (Bhumiputras) and, therefore, they have a special claim for dominance in the political and cultural life of the country. The British colonialists upheld this claim and ruled the country in the name of Malay Sultans, on whom sovereignty vested. At the same time, as part of imperialist objectives, the British also encouraged large-scale immigration of Chinese and Indians for economic exploitation of the country’s resources. The existence of a plural society prevented the growth of nationalism in Malaya for many years.

The political awakening of the Malays, after the Second World War, following the introduction of the Malayan Union proposals (a unitary state to which the Sultans were to cede their sovereignty) and the unity that they forged under the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) had far reaching repercussions. Not only did it compel the British to withdraw the Malayan Union proposals, it also clearly revealed that the Malays would never give up their pre-eminent position in the political life of Malaya. While in later years, the Malay leaders did co-operate with the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) in the larger interests of Malaya as a whole, the dynamic leadership of Malayan nationalism had always remained in Malay hands. The Alliance, which was voted to power in 1955, was not an alliance of equal partners; it was an alliance in which the supremacy of the Malays was clearly established. The transformation of the Alliance into Barisan Nasional in the 1970’s, by incorporating various non-Malay political parties, further reduced the clout of the MCA and the MIC.

On the eve of independence in August 1957, the Malays and the non-Malays were roughly equal in numbers (Malays 49.8 per cent, Chinese 37.1 per cent, Indians 11.1 per cent and others 2.0 per cent). Over the years, the demographic structure has radically altered to the advantage of the Malays. Higher rate of natural increase and large-scale immigration of Indonesian Malays have contributed to the burgeoning of Malay population. The Bhumiputras (Malays plus the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak together) constitute nearly two thirds of the population, the Chinese constitute 23.7 per cent and the Indians 7.1 per cent.

An important clue to the understanding of the political economy is the social and political contract arrived by the elites of the three communities on the eve of independence. It was assumed that the economic predominance of the Chinese would be off set by the political supremacy of the Malays. It was believed that with the passage of time this equilibrium would give way to a more balanced one, the Malays would play a greater role in the economic life and the Chinese and the Indians would play a greater role in politics. The pre-eminent position of the Malays was enshrined in the Constitution – the retention of Malay sultanate, the acceptance of Islam as the state religion, constitutional provisions safeguarding the “special rights“ of the Malays and the acceptance of Malay as the national and official language. The major concession made to the non-Malays was the conferment of citizenship on them.

The fragility of the Malaysian political system came out into the open on May 13, 1969, when following the reverses suffered by the Alliance in the general elections, large scale Sino- Malay clashes took place in Kuala Lumpur. Emergency was proclaimed and when the democratic process was restored after amending the Constitution, Malay political power was further entrenched. The Royal Commission appointed to enquire into the riots was of the view that the crisis was due to the disenchantment and frustration of the Malays, who had not enjoyed the fruits of independence. In 1970, Malay corporate ownership was a meagre 2.4 per cent, compared with 63.3 per cent enjoyed by the foreigners, 22.4 per cent enjoyed by the Chinese capitalists and 10.0 per cent by unknown parties. While overall poverty incidence was high, 51.2 per cent in 1970, 76.0 per cent of them were Malays. A New Economic Policy (replaced by National Integrity Plan in 2004) was launched to bring about economic transformation, with particular emphasis on the development of the Malays. In the political sphere, democratic rights were curtailed; it was made a seditious criminal offence to challenge the special rights enjoyed by the Malays, the language provisions in the Constitution, institution of Sultanate and citizenship laws.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Mahathir (1981-2003) Malaysia underwent a fundamental transformation. From being a producer of primary commodities, it had become an industrialised country, virtually an economic powerhouse in the ASEAN region. Despite occasional hiccups, for example during the Asian economic crisis, the country registered an economic growth averaging 8.0 per cent. The absolute poverty level came down from 51.2 per cent in 1970 to 7.0 per cent in 2000. By 1990, the Malay share in the corporate capital went up to 19.2 per cent, Chinese 46.8 per cent, Indians 1.5 per cent, the nominee companies 8.5 per cent and the balance owned by the foreigners. What further endeared Dr. Mahathir was his strong criticism of American foreign policy in West Asia and Southeast Asia.

The negative side of the story was increasing authoritarianism. In addition to continuing criticism of the non-Malays about the pro-Malay and pro-Islamic policies, the discontent also spread to Malay middle class. The first to raise the banner of revolt was Tunku Razaleigh Hamzah, who in 1987 formed a secular Malay party, Parti Sengamat 46 (Spirit of 46). Subsequently Tunku Razaleigh was readmitted into UMNO. Far more important was the revolt led by Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, who formed a political party called Kedilan (Justice Party) under the leadership of his wife. The unfair trial meted out to Anwar Ibrahim, coupled with third degree methods inflicted on him, has earned him considerable good will in Malaysia and abroad. After his release, Anwar Ibrahim had been speaking in a democratic idiom, for widening the democratic space, tolerance of dissent and the establishment of a truly pluralist society, with emphasis on redistributive justice. The Malaysian public is eagerly watching how the new party will shape itself.

The fact of the matter is that today it is extremely difficult for opposition parties to function in Malaysia. The draconian Internal Security Act, which provides for detention without trial, had been frequently used against opposition leaders, Malay and non-Malay alike. As Anwar Ibrahim put it in a Conference in New Delhi, “What is an election if the political parties in the opposition do not have access to freedom of speech, assembly and movement necessary to voice their criticisms of the government openly and to bring alternative policies and candidates to the voters? Where I come from, the opposition is barred from the air waves, rallies are not allowed and opposition newspapers operate underground”.

Prof. Harold Crouch, an astute observer of the Malaysian political scene, has remarked, “it is hard to place Malaysia in a clear cut category between democracy and authoritarianism”. He concludes “Malaysia is neither democratic nor authoritarian… as the Malaysian political system has been balancing between repression and responsiveness”. Under these circumstances, the maximum that the opposition can expect in the next election is to deny two-thirds majority to the Barisan Nasional.

(The writer, Dr. V. Suryanarayan, is Senior Professor (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies.)

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