29 November, 2006

Malay Ethnic Assertion Unnerves Minorities

"Malay rights cannot be challenged, otherwise the Malays will run amok and the May 13 (1969) riots will happen all over again.''

"The non-Malays are challenging us, it is time to raise our voices and defend the race and Islam.''

"We are willing to risk lives and bathe in blood to defend our race and religion. Don't play with fire. If they mess with our rights, we will mess with theirs.''

These words uttered over five days at the annual congress of the ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO ) from Nov 17 have shaken public confidence in the party of not only non-Muslims but also from many among moderate Muslims. All Malays are deemed Muslim under the laws of the land.

Suddenly, over one mid-November weekend, ethnic distrust was in the air and the racial divide widened dramatically in this constitutionally pluralistic country. , Once proud of their country's tolerance, many non-Malay and non-Muslim Malaysians are trying to figure out whether the time has come to pack their bags.

The fear and insecurity was all the more because these chauvinist utterances came not the from ‘lunatic fringe' but from top leaders of the UMNO, the country's premier pro-Malay party that has been in power since independence in 1957 and is widely held up as "level headed, responsible and standing for a plural society."

UMNO congresses are widely watched by political analysts, foreign investors and diplomats because opinions expressed at these meetings often translate into government policies later.

Instead of debating the faltering economy or worrying about rising religious intolerance, UMNO leaders mostly from the Malay hinterland, brandished the keris -- a wavy Malay dagger -- thumped their chests and attacked minority Chinese and Indians for "demanding" equality and an end to affirmative action policies that favour Malays.

The floor comprising some 3,000 grassroots Malay leaders cheered the speakers.

Abdullah himself, famously patient and mild mannered, got caught up and shouted ‘Hidup Melayu, Hidup Melayu' (Long Live Malay, Long Live Malay) at the end of the meet.

For some non-Muslims such public displays confirm that Islamisation and Malay ethno- centric nationalism are on the rise with Abdullah seen as either unwilling or unable to check 'extremism'.

"There is now suddenly a sense of fear and uncertainty. What do these words really signify? Is this the end of Bangsa Malaysia," said opposition leader Lim Kit Siang referring to a hypothetical ‘Malaysian Race' that is supposed to emerge, over time, from the racial potpourri that is Malaysia.

"Malaysians feel excluded and threatened," Lim told IPS.

After the shock came the balm as UMNO leaders led by Abdullah rushed to assure the people that the speeches did not signal a hardening of government policies towards non- Malays.

They blamed the spike in public anger on the live telecast of the offensive speeches which, they said, was unfortunate.

Others viewed the live telecast as having unexpectedly given Malaysians, who mostly read heavily censored mainstream newspapers, a ringside view of "raw, unvarnished Malay anger''.

"The speeches are the work of a few disgruntled individuals not that of UMNO or the government," said Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak. "We must not give great weight to the speeches," he told Bernama, the official new agency, assuring Malaysians that the nation belonged to all races.

But the damage was done and the fear and hurt runs deep despite those assurances.

"I got the message...it simply means we non-Muslims cannot question the special status of Islam and Malays," said accountant Mark Ong. "If we do, it will be met with violence," Mark told IPS echoing the sentiments of many others.

While the government dismissed the fiery speeches as "one -off" sallies, political scientists warn it signals the deep seated grievances of the Malays, who form 60 percent of the population of 27 million. Chinese and Indians, who began migrating here in the early 19th century, make up 26 percent and 8.0 percent of the population, respectively.

Although Malays dominate national politics and the economy many Malays remain poor and resentment among them is rising largely because the government's affirmative action policies benefited the "Umnoputras" or Malays who are in UMNO or close to its politicians.

Led by opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim -- who was labelled as a traitor by the UMNO delegates -- more Malaysians also want affirmative action either ended or extended to all poor Malaysians and curtailment of the "Umnoputras."

In addition a debate on apostasy and on the boundaries between Shariah law and secular rights has sharpened religious differences and heightened suspicions among the various races.

Ironically inter-racial resentment and tensions that had lain hidden under the long rule of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad are surfacing now after his successor, Abdullah, began easing on the tight controls.

After taking over in 2003, Abdullah allowed reasonably open debate even on contentious issues like Islam and the Bumiputra affirmative action policy.

The debates were dominated on the one hand by non-Muslim fear of creeping Islam and on the other hand by Muslim fear that secularism and pluralism would dislodge Islam from its pedestal as the official faith.

The tensions are made worst by a shrinking economy which has fallen from a high of 9 percent in recent years to under 5 percent this year and projected to be lower next year. Foreign investment, a mainstay of the economy, has dropped 17 percent to just 3.7 billion US dollars this year.

Abdullah is easing Malay fears over his ‘Islam Hadhari' or Civilisational Islam which stresses moderation as well as technological and economic competitiveness.

On the economic front he has changed direction from infra-structure growth to giving priority to agriculture, biotechnology and tourism as new growth areas.

But on both fronts -- Islam and the economy -- his directions are contested not just from within the party but also by his mentor-turned-rival, Mahathir Mohamad, who has vowed to force him down.

But UMNO, the party Abdullah heads, is dragging its feet preferring the old ways -- saber rattling, racism and continuance of lopsided policies that kills competitiveness and breeds contempt for law.

Non-Malays on the other hand fear that Islamisation and Malay ethno-centric nationalism is on the rise under Abdullah who they see as either unwilling or unable to check the "extremists."

With the races drifting apart, political analysts say, this month's UMNO congress may well be a turning point for the country.

"We were moderate and praised for our tolerance and economic achievements," said lawmaker S. Kulasegaran. "Now all that has gone under a cloud."

Over the Internet the discussion is less polite and the anger palpable.

"Is it time to pack our bags again?" asked Ay Yuen on Malaysiakini, an independent news website, where the sudden plunge in race relations is endlessly debated.

"Where do we go from here?" asked another writer displaying the dilemma that has gripped non-Muslims.

(Source:IPSNEWS-Baradan Kuppusamy)


Persistent friends - PM John Howard on whistle-stop visit to Malaysia

JOHN Howard's arrival in Kuala Lumpur today is a sign of the changed fortunes of Australia in Asia. His Malaysian counterpart, the gentle Islamic scholar Abdullah Badawi, is as unlike his predecessor, the redoubtable Mahathir Mohamad, as Howard is unlike his predecessor, Paul Keating.

When Abdullah came to Australia last year, it was the first official visit by a Malaysian prime minister to Australia in 21 years, although Mahathir had an informal stop-off of a couple of hours in Brisbane on his way to New Zealand in 1996.

The Abdullah visit was historic for several reasons. It coincided with a visit by Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, almost as noteworthy as having presidents George W. Bush and Hu Jintao in town at the same time. And Abdullah agreed to the start of negotiations for a free trade agreement between Australia and Malaysia. This is a complex negotiation, now hitting the tough sections, but is expected to be finished by mid-2007.

That would give Australia free trade agreements with the three high-growth, substantial economies of Southeast Asia: Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.

The Australia-Malaysia relationship is one of exceptional depth and variety, despite an astounding capacity for political contretemps at the very top.

Under Keating, there was a tendency among some commentators to feel that we had just discovered Southeast Asia. In fact the relationships go back, in very intimate ways, at least 60 years and often across the centuries.

Certainly Australia was intimately involved in the progress to independence of Malaya in 1957, in its security both before and after independence, in the writing of its constitution, in its joining the UN and in the education of its citizens.

Australian troops participated in the counter-insurgent campaign to quell the communist uprising known as the Malayan emergency, which began in 1950 and was not over until 1960, although the bulk of the fighting had stopped long before.

Australian troops also supported Malaya in its conflict with Indonesia in the early 1960s, known as the Confrontation.

It says something about the dexterity and judicious ambiguity of Australian diplomacy, even back then, that while Australian soldiers and Indonesian soldiers were fighting each other, Canberra managed to maintain an embassy in Jakarta and a working relationship with Indonesia.

The diplomatic cables also show that early on, as Singapore was moving towards independence, the Menzies government favoured its incorporation into Malaysia because it felt that the Chinese of Singapore were likely to go communist and would be much better off under the wise leadership of the Malay aristocrat class, whom the Menzies mandarins found congenial.

But it was a Malaysian commoner, the first commoner to be prime minister, who put the burr in the saddle of Australia-Malaysia relations.

Southeast Asia has seen some extraordinary national leaders, and none more so than Mahathir, who seemed to harbour some generalised political hostility towards Australia. There are many stories, most of them apocryphal, about where this hostility might have come from. There are stories he was badly treated at an Australian airport and, before he was PM, of being invited then dis-invited on a distinguished visitor program.

Others suggest that Mahathir's experience of colonialism, with the British on top, the Malay aristocracy as their ineffectual collaborators, the Chinese in the middle as merchants and the ordinary Malays on the bottom, left a chip on his shoulder. In this version Mahathir, like many Southeast Asians, saw Australia as colonial lieutenant, a second-class Britain, and his anti-colonial angst was redirected towards Australia.

Mahathir was prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and in that time oversaw large-scale economic and social development in Malaysia.

There were plenty of PM-to-PM spats. When Malaysian courts sentenced Australian drug smugglers Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers to death in 1986, Bob Hawke described it as barbaric, which upset Mahathir and was seen as condescending by many Malaysians.

Mahathir's spats with Keating were legendary. Keating has argued that this had little to do with personal differences and reflected a clash of visions for the nature of East Asian regionalism. Mahathir wanted regional institutions to exclude the US and Australia, Keating wanted the US and Australia included.

At first Mahathir and Howard looked as though they might reach a better understanding, but Mahathir was deeply uneasy about Australia's role in East Timor's independence in 1999 and reacted strongly to The Bulletin's attribution to Howard of the sentiment that Australia could be the US's deputy sheriff in Southeast Asia, a suggestion Howard quickly repudiated.

Then, after the events of 9/11, Mahathir became increasingly anti-American and especially opposed to the Iraq war. Australia was damned by association.

For much of Mahathir's prime ministership, Abdullah was his foreign minister. After former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was sent to jail in 1999, Abdullah became Mahathir's deputy. In all that time, and in all those spats with Australia, Abdullah never expressed any view different from Mahathir's.

However, he never used Mahathir's fiery rhetoric and was by nature a much less polarising figure. Australian officials and politicians hoped that when he became PM, the bilateral relationship could progress politically to match bountiful trade and military links.

Australia was not disappointed. While Abdullah never formally repudiated the Mahathir approach and began cautiously, increasingly he distinguished himself from his predecessor. He let Anwar out of jail, he halted some of the mega-projects associated with Mahathir, he turned down the volume on the anti-Western rhetoric and he embraced a new partnership with Australia.

This was a serious breakthrough for Canberra and changed the diplomatic outlook in Southeast Asia.

In an interview with me last year, Abdullah acknowledged the difficulties of the past, but underlined his commitment to a new chapter with Australia. "I describe Australia-Malaysia relations as continuing to mature," he said. "I don't think what happened then will affect what we do now. If you look at Australia-Malaysia relations, there is increasing co-operation in many areas."

Eventually, Abdullah even agreed to Australia joining the inaugural East Asia Summit held in Kuala Lumpur at the end of last year. While the real value of the EAS is yet to be established, Howard was impressed with how Abdullah handled the show and made Australia welcome.

It is a tribute to the odd mixture of pragmatism and theatricality of Mahathir that despite all the vicissitudes in the political relationship, the defence co-operation and people-to-people relations between Australia and Malaysia never soured and they have continued to prosper under Abdullah. Australia is the No.1 overseas destination for Malaysian students. This, too, reflects a long history, going back to the Colombo Plan and the foreign ministership of Percy Spender.

There are more than 250,000 Malaysians who are alumni of Australian universities, an astonishing figure for a nation of 26million.

Today there are about 19,000 Malaysians at Australian educational institutions in Australia and another 14,000 at Australian educational institutions in Malaysia.

The defence and security relationship is equally important. It operates under the auspices of the Five Power Defence Arrangements that were set up in 1971 to reassure Malaysia against possible Indonesian aggression. The FPDA is a collective security agreement, a rare thing in Asia, and commits Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Malaysia and Singapore to provide for the defence of the Malaysian peninsula (that is, Malaysia excluding its two Borneo states) and Singapore against external aggression.

Australia's air force has had a presence at Butterworth, near Penang in northern Malaysia, ever since and the FPDA provides an integrated air defence for the whole peninsula.

Whether or not this deters any potential aggressor from attacking Malaysia, it provides priceless intelligence for the Australian system and is deeply valued by the Malaysians. When then Malaysian defence minister Najib Tun Razak was asked at the height of the Keating-Mahathir row whether the FPDA would be adversely affected by the prime ministerial ructions he said: No, that's just politics, security is something else.

These days counter-terrorist co-operation is the key ingredient in the Australia-Malaysia security relationship. Canberra has a high opinion of Malaysia's performance in this area. Kuala Lumpur takes extremism seriously and has clamped down on it.

Howard particularly admires Abdullah's commitment to moderate Islam. Howard is attracted to moderate, pragmatic, serious Asian leaders who, like him, spurn soaring rhetoric.

Australia regards the Malaysian national leadership as an important force in the battle against Islamist extremism, a view shared by the US. In a recent interview with The Australian, the US ambassador for counter-terrorism, Hank Crumpton, singled out Malaysia's Prime Minister as a pivotal figure in the struggle for moderate Islam.

Western intelligence agencies are, however, concerned with the cross-border flow of extremists from southern Thailand who are waging attacks on the Thai state. There is no suggestion of any Malaysian government complicity, but there is clearly a degree of support among northern Malays.

Similarly, the tenor of Malaysian Islam seems to be growing ever more conservative, even as the Government stoutly battles outright extremism. Some analysts believe that although Mahathir was a doughty opponent of extremist Islamism, his relentless anti-Western rhetoric has fed a popular paranoia in Malaysian Islam, which even Abdullah finds difficult to counter.

It is possible Howard could face some hostile demonstrations in Malaysia.

There is also disunity in the ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation. Mahathir has become a fierce critic of Abdullah, accusing him of trampling down dissent. Mahathir earlier this month suffered a heart attack and is temporarily out of action, but there is a roiling atmosphere within UMNO, not to mention the much more extreme Islamic fundamentalist party PAS, which could find some expression in anti-Howard gestures.

Howard has a genuine friendship with Abdullah and this unlikely partnership of two low-key but persistent leaders is comfortable and relaxed.

Mr Howard will promote the benefits of a free trade deal between Australia and Malaysia, which has been in negotiation since the visit by Dr Badawi last year.

Australia is Malaysia's biggest foreign education provider and Mr Howard will present scholarships to a number of Malaysian scholars.

He will also address a lunch hosted by the Malaysia-Australia Business Council.

The Australian News
The Age


A police report being lodged against Lim Kit Siang

Utusan Online - Mapan buat laporan polis terhadap Kit Siang

Majlis Angkatan Permuafakatan NGO Malaysia (Mapan) hari ini membuat laporan polis berhubung kenyataan Setiausaha Agung DAP, Lim Kit Siang yang mempertikaikan pembinaan kompleks Istana Negara baru pada sidang Dewan Rakyat Selasa lepas.

Pengarah Sekretariat Mapan, Dr. Izham Nayan berkata, kenyataan Lim itu seolah-olah mencerminkan sentimen anti institusi raja negara dan hak Yang di-Pertuan Agong yang tidak boleh dipersoalkan.

‘‘Mempersoalkan perkara ini dianggap biadab, menghina dan mencabar kewibawaan rakyat negara ini,’’ katanya kepada pemberita selepas membuat laporan di Balai Polis Dang Wangi di sini.

Beliau berkata, tindakan tersebut seolah-olah mencabar perlembagaan Malaysia yang berasaskan sistem beraja yang harus dipertahankan.

Seramai 16 anggota pertubuhan bukan kerajaan dari Persatuan Pengguna Islam Malaysia dan Kongres Indian Muslim Malaysia hadir ketika laporan dibuat.

Selasa lepas, persidangan Dewan Rakyat gamat apabila Lim, yang juga Ketua Pembangkang dan Anggota Parlimen Ipoh Timur, meminta kerajaan menjelaskan mengenai kelulusan pembinaan kompleks Istana Negara baru bernilai RM400 juta berhampiran Jalan Duta.

Pada 13 November, Menteri Kerja Raya, Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu mengumumkan rancangan kerajaan untuk membina istana baru berharga RM400 juta bagi menggantikan Istana Negara sekarang.


Singapore, Malaysia must end bickering: Najib

WHILE the deputy prime ministers of Singapore and Malaysia made contrasting speeches at a seminar in Kuala Lumpur, there was a common theme about the need for more economic cooperation and cross-border investment.

Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak called for an end to what he said was the incessant bickering between the two countries.

Mr Najib described the bilateral relationship since 1965 as 'lurching from grudging civility to outright acrimony', but went on to commend the actions of his boss Malaysian premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who succeeded Mahathir Mohamad in 2003, and of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Mr Najib said that with new leadership in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, there 'has been a palpable thaw'.

'We must raise our political will to work together where we can and accommodate each other in areas where we cannot,' he told a London Business School-organised business forum on the Challenges of Expanding in Asia. 'We have no real choice. If we choose to remain aloof, to go it alone, we risk being torn apart by competition.'

While Mr Najib devoted himself exclusively to the Malaysia-Singapore agenda, Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng cast a wider net and spoke on the Republic's economic involvement with Asia and the Middle East.

Even so, Mr Wong extolled the growing economic interdependency between the two countries. 'Singapore investors make up the second largest group of investors in Malaysia,' Mr Wong said. 'I also understand that, as of October 2006, Singapore companies are the single largest participants in the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) behind Malaysian companies.' MSC is the high-tech zone in Selangor.

Meanwhile, both leaders touched on the RM47 billion (S$20 billion) Iskandar Development Region in south Johor. Mr Wong hoped that when it was set up, 'there would be more opportunities for cooperation between our two countries'.

Mr Najib likened the development of both Malaysia's Iskandar and Singapore's integrated resorts 'as a practical example' of how the two countries could invest in each other's future.

'The Singapore government, through Temasek or GIC (the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation), is most welcome to participate in the future growth of Iskandar. This will, in turn, feed into greater economic activity for the South Johor region which will surely benefit Singapore,' Mr Najib said.

'At the same time, were Genting to be chosen for Singapore's integrated resorts, it will surely bring economic benefits that would be enjoyed by both Singaporeans and Malaysians.' (Malaysia's sole gaming company Genting is a front-runner for Singapore's second integrated resort with casino project, on Sentosa.)

Even so, Mr Najib inserted a cautionary note in his otherwise conciliatory speech. Elaborating on the growing cross-border deals between the two countries, he said the acquisitions of Malaysian interests especially by Singapore state-controlled entities 'have far outweighed' the acquisitions of Singapore companies by Malaysians.

He said the deals include the purchase of Singapore stockbroker GK Goh by CIMB Bank of Malaysia as opposed to Temasek Holdings' acquisition of a significant interest in Malaysia's Alliance Bank.

'I am hopeful that there will be a greater degree of reciprocity from Singaporean authorities in facilitating more Malaysian acquisitions of assets in Singapore,' Mr Najib said.
By S Jayasankaran - The Business Times)

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