31 January, 2007

Malaysia's half-century of independence overshadowed by race tensions

This year should be a time for celebration in Malaysia as 2007 marks the country's 50th anniversary of independence from colonial ruler Britain and the birth of the multicultural nation.

But instead many are lamenting an alarming slide in race relations which the milestone has highlighted, along with the rising influence of Islam which has alienated ethnic Chinese and Indian citizens.

"There is a general sense on the ground that things are getting out of hand," said civil rights activist and lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar. "It's causing a lot of fear and consternation and tensions are rising."

Malik, who has received death threats for his efforts to protect religious freedom in the Muslim-majority nation, takes issue with the government's tourism-brochure portrayal of a peaceful multi-ethnic Malaysia.

"My fears are that we'll become even more racially divided, the economy's going to plunge, the Islamist aspects will become even more pronounced, and what you'll have is a wholesale dismantling of the rule of law," he said.

"And you'll see a country imploding, and that's not a very good prospect."

As the nation prepares for a huge party on August 31, half a century after the first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman joyfully declared "Merdeka" or independence, many are wondering what went wrong.

Ethnic Indian activist Waytha Moorthy recalls that during his childhood, his father used to invite friends of all religions to their home to celebrate the Hindu festival of light, Diwali, to eat, drink and socialise.

"But now currently I see my nieces and nephews, they do not have any Muslim friends, and they all complain they can't develop a relationship with the Muslims," he said.

Much of the unhappiness centres on positive discrimination policies introduced in 1971 to raise the status of Muslim Malays who make up 60 percent of the population against 26 percent ethnic Chinese and eight percent ethnic Indians.

Despite the leg-up, "bumiputras" or "sons of the soil" -- as Malays and members of indigenous groups are often called here -- continue to lag far behind the Chinese, triggering calls for an overhaul of the system in which the big winners have been Malay entrepreneurs who cash in on an array of subsidies.

Political commentators say Malaysia must stop obsessing over how to divide the nation's wealth, and instead focus on how to boost the economy so that all will benefit.

"I hope that the challenges of globalisation will make all Malaysian leaders face up to the harsh truth that if we do not get our people to unite together as Malaysians, then we will all suffer," said opposition leader Lim Kit Siang.

"What is happening now in many areas -- in nation building and racial and religious polarisation, and on international competitiveness -- we seem to be losing steam."

Apart from the economic squabbles, an ugly new theme has emerged recently with clashes over the rights of non-Muslims which some say are being sidelined as Islamic authorities exercise their influence.

The cases of mountaineering hero M. Moorthy who was born a Hindu but buried as a Muslim despite his family's protests, and Lina Joy, who is trying to have her conversion from Islam to Christianity recognised, have been landmark cases.

Hindus are also complaining that their right to worship is being compromised, and anger has flared over what they say is the demolition of thousands of temples over the past decade to make way for development.

The government, which is determined to prevent a repeat of bloody 1960s race riots, has introduced education reforms and a national service programme aimed at encouraging the races to mingle.

But meanwhile some of the most racially charged rhetoric has been coming from the ruling party itself.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has said that the ethnic divide is a "disease" that must be tackled openly, and appealed for the anniversary celebrations to emphasise national unity, but many are nonplussed.

"I think it's embarrassing that after 50 years, we have a weaker judicial system, a weaker parliamentary system, the corruption index is lower -- you name it," said Imtiaz.

"So we'll have a big parade and we'll all be out there waving our flags as we always do, but it means very little I think."
(by Sarah Stewart via Yahoo! news alert)

Compare with another metaphorical news that goes :"
Malaysia takes pride in racial, religious harmony as it marks 50 years of independence" What's your take?

As investors stay away, Malaysian policy comes under spotlight

Why are foreign investors hesitant about going to Malaysia? Could it have something to do with the affirmative action bumiputra policy, which favours Muslim Malays in business, jobs and education?
The question was asked of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in an interview with Financial Times (FT). The same issue also cropped up separately at a conference on the country's outlook for this year.
The diagnoses were exact opposites.
Mr Abdullah felt that the decline in investments had more to do with the rise of China and India, which were sucking in much of the available money. The bumiputra policy, he said, was not even a factor.
In contrast, Mr Ramon Nava-ratnam, president of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Malaysia, felt that the policy was harming the country and denting investor confidence.
"This will affect confidence, this will affect investment and affect growth and then, worse still, affect our ability to distribute wealth," said Mr Navaratnam, a former treasury official who noted at a conference on the 2007 outlook for Malaysia that race relations in Malaysia were at an all-time low.
"Private investment has been declining. If we don't recognise these issues and do something about it, we'll be like ostriches putting our heads in the sand."
He claimed that the policy, while well intended, has been abused. "Corruption and poor implementation have resulted in an elite getting wealthy, while marginalising poorer Malaysians."
Mr Abdullah's take on the policy was completely different. He said it was still necessary in the country, as there were pockets of Malay Muslims who were still at a disadvantage.
He said that the policy had never been a factor in foreign investments.
"No, it's not a problem. Previously, they invested their money when foreign direct investment was so high ... that was a time of rigorous implementation (of the bumiputra policy). They (the investors) were not offended. They were not opposed to that. Why should they be now saying: Oh, you have this policy, so we will leave."
Mr Abdullah's FT interview also touched on the issue of Islamic extremism, and suggested that the international community stem the tide of extremism by tackling it at its "root" cause.
He noted that even in a moderate country like Malaysia with its wide-ranging social policies, Islamic extremism could become a threat.
"The Muslims are being looked after with all sorts of policies ensuring their progress, increasing their economic participation, providing education for the children, as we do also for other children. From that point of view, they are satisfied," said the Malaysian Premier.
He acknowledged, however, that dissatisfaction can arise despite well-intentioned social policies, especially given the prominence of issues that affect the "Umma" — the world Muslim community — such as the Middle East situation.
"As I have said before, what is happening now in the Middle East has even made the moderates angry. That is no good," he told FT.
Mr Abdullah, the current chairman of the world's largest Muslim grouping, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, added: "I have always said if you are talking about terrorism, let us examine the root causes. Trying to resolve terrorism without examining its root causes is like trying to fertilise the fruits and not the roots."
(Today Online)



Blogger kittykat46 said...

In my daily work, I'm heavily involved in issues related to Malaysia's ability to compete in the International economy.
Actually both of the PM and Navon Navaratnam are correct.
The reality is China and India are like giant magnets pulling in investors either in labour intensive industries or looking to tap their huge internal markets. Malaysia has a relatively small economy, and we are a fringe player compared to those two. But its still up to us whether we become a successful fringe player or an irrelevant one. If we don't fix the problems as a nation, the future could be very bleak for everyone.
Foreign investors in Fully export-oriented industries actually face few restrictions with regard to the NEP. Their concerns with competitiveness revolve around government red tape, slow and inefficient government procedures (which leads to corruption) and declining standards of education and skills among schooleavers and graduates.
But Malaysia can no longer count on export industry as the primary engine for growth. All the labour intensive industries are going to China and places like Vietnam. We need to move up the value chain, but our workforce skills are not up to it.

When it comes to foreign investment in the service sector and manufacturing for the local market or mixed local/export, the NEP is a very significant Turn-Off for foreigners. The full force of the NEP related restrictions is still in place here. Bumiputra shareholding, interference in management decisions, hiring quotas, tons of red-tape.
The policies are frozen time from the 1970's.

Rafidah Aziz was quoted as telling foreign investors that we will stick to our NEP policies and they can take it or leave it. We know what the answer is to that - they simply decided to park their money elsewhere.

January 31, 2007 9:56 PM  

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