14 May, 2007

Poverty led to Kg Medan clashes ?

For such a multiethnic country, Malaysia has been blessed with little ethnic strife. In 50 years of independence, the country has had only three big ethnic clashes.(?)

The first — May 13, 1969 — a ‘wake-up call’, is the elephant in the room that no one talks about. The second, Kampung Rawa in 1998, was upsetting, but relatively non-violent. The third, Kampung Medan in 2001, resulted in six deaths.

A study, five years later, on Kampung Medan has just been completed. And, as ANIZA DAMIS finds out, these ethnic clashes are symptoms of poverty and social neglect
THE story of Kampung Medan is a sad one.

On March 9, 2001, a social disagreement between two groups, Malay and Indian, led to racial clashes that took three weeks to calm down.

The final tally of that incident: Six dead and more than 400 detained.

For Malaysians, who pride themselves on being multiethnic, tolerant and more than happy to celebrate the festivities of other races, the flare-up in Kampung Medan was a blip that marred the country’s harmony.

To the outsider, the incident at Kampung Medan is but an example of the "undercurrents" that run beneath the country’s multiethnic makeup, ready to be let loose by those who would let go of their self-control and revert to the laws of the jungle.
But is the issue really about racial differences, and are Malay- sians inherently racist?

Associate Professor Dr Mansor Mohd Noor doesn’t think the problem is racial.
The problem, he said, was poverty.

"If you are poor, you have the same problems. This is our problem, not a Malay or Indian problem," he added.


Having led the Universiti Utara Malaysia team into two studies on the Kampung Medan incident — the first time soon after the incident, and the second time at the end of last year – Mansor said Kampung Medan was a socio-economic problem that manifested itself in racial terms.

"Even though the conflict seem-ed to be racially-based, issues of urban poverty, marginalisation and social neglect were the factors that caused the conflict," said last year’s report, commissioned by the National Unity and Integration Department.

"Kampung Medan was a chain of problems, not just one problem," said Mansor, who is UUM’s Public Management and Law faculty deputy dean.

Poverty and marginalisation, he said, led to a breakdown in society.
"The people of Kampung Medan had no social life and no social activity. If you reach that level, it will explode.

"The people who were involved in that incident came from the low-income group. They had poor self-esteem, no social activities, no link between them and the government, and no link with the community."

What’s even sadder, he said, was that the residents were "double victims". Not only were they poor, jobless and marginalised, but they were also the victims of violent ethnic conflict.

The study — by a team comprising Mansor, Associate Professor Dr Puvenesvary Ravantharanathe Muthiah, Mohd Ainuddin Iskandar Lee Abdullah, and Mohd Dino Khairi Sarifuddin — surveyed the racial unity of residents of Kampung Medan.

Among others, the survey looked at problems in daily life and at the national level to see whether the problems that the residents faced were ethnic-based, or whether they were problems that they all shared, irrespective of ethnicity.

A questionnaire was answered by 87 Malays and 57 Indians. Most were from the low-income group.

Out of seven problems the two ethnic groups faced in their lives, cost of living was the primary concern for both races.

Racial problems featured sixth for Malays, and fifth for Indians.

National problems that concerned the respondents were corruption, social problems, joblessness and leadership crisis, not religious issues or racial problems, which were considered unimportant.

And problems that plagued the village consisted of social problems among youth, lack of infrastructure and poverty.

And in challenges in daily life, although cost of living and welfare and schooling of their children were a worry, dealing with the government was the greatest problem for both ethnic groups.

Although the percentage of those who reported these problems might only comprise between 20 and 30 per cent of the Kampung Medan population, the report surmised that the existence of these problems meant that respondents lived in an environment of poverty, with a culture of being poor and marginalised from mainstream society.

"This was a millstone around the neck of these residents, which prevented them from achieving social mobility," said the report.

"This might result in this neglected group becoming anti-government, with a tendency (kecenderungan) to solving their problems in an extremist and militant manner."

Although the incident was linked or attributed to ethnicity, it did not involve the Chinese community. This, the study said, "shows that the country’s success in developing the nation to the extent that poverty management among Malays and Chinese has reduced the risk of conflict between the two ethnic communities".

Mansor said rich Malays, Chinese and Indians could use the public space to deal with their problems, but poor Malays and Indians did not have access to this luxury.

So, instead, they expressed themselves in terms of ethnicity and religion.

In a multi-ethnic community, those who are poor, jobless and marginalised tend to resort to ethnic grouping to defend their own interests.

As a result, the ethnic dimension is raised, leading to tension and violence. So, it is this problem of development that is considered to be the cause of the ethnic conflict, and not ethnicity itself.

"(The) Kampung Medan (incident) is a problem of the urban poor," said Mansor, adding that the potential for discord could be shared by other places with the same socio-economic problems as those faced by the residents of Kampung Medan.

In Malaysia, a social conflict can turn to an ethnic and religious conflict, starting as a misunderstanding, then escalating and triggering rage that will end in violent conflict.
Because of this, said the report, attention needed to be given by the government.

Mansor said:"To have national unity, order must come first. We need to aim for zero conflict. But to have zero conflict, we must solve the problem of poverty."

A strong government policy was needed to tackle poverty.

Building low-cost flats and relocating squatters to them is a superficial solution that doesn’t address the problem of pulling the poor out of poverty.

"If we want social stability, the poor must be managed. There must be access to education, community-based activities and micro-credit."

The only way to tackle this, he said, was that there must be government sponsorship.

"The government must support education for the poor, perhaps by providing boarding schools for them.

"Just as we have Mara for Malays, we should establish something for non-Malays. We must make sure they have a fair shot at getting educated."

In addition, a community-based approach should be implemented to make sure the poor have access to social activities and recreation, and opportunity for healthy interaction.

On this, Mansor said, the National Unity and Integration Department was "on the right footing" by introducing Rukun Tetangga branches and keeping an eye out on conflict areas.

But, he said, tackling social problems like Kampung Medan required the help of all government agencies, especially the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and the Youth and Sports Ministry.

For Mansor, race and ethnicity were not stumbling blocks or problems.

"Don’t look at it in black-and-white. The tremendous colours that Malaysia has indicate harmony rather than conflict. We should celebrate diversity."


Green is okay, yellow is worrying, red is dangerous


IS the measure of unity to be found in peace, where a nation’s multiethnic citizens do not fight, or is it to be measured by friendship?

Some sociologists would argue that the polarisation over which we wring our hands, is in fact not polarisation at all, but just the status quo.

"Polarisation is when people who were once together are now apart. But, if you look back at the patterns of Malaysian society, you will see that Malays have always grouped with Malays in their residential and social arrangements, and so too with the Indians and Chinese," said National Unity and Integration Department director-general Datuk Azman Amin Hassan.

This arrangement, he said, might not be some people’s idea of unity, but was relatively peaceful. And this is the basic level of unity.

"There are other sociologists who believe that Malaysians should mix, that is, live in mixed neighbourhoods, go to schools which are mixed — and eventually, be in mixed marriages. This is another way of looking at unity.

"Neither theory is right or wrong, but each requires a different approach."

For a long time, unity was measured according to the perception of whether people thought that they were united.

But, said Azman, the instrument for measurement of perception had always been a problem: How do you measure perception?

This is why the department is now focusing on conflict.

"Conflict is easier to measure," said Azman.

The department has set up a "Traffic Light" system of measuring and pro-actively managing conflict.


In the system, there are three levels of conflict: Green, yellow (amber) and red.

Green is when an issue is raised, but there is nothing to be alarmed about. People might have disagreements, and there might be minor physical altercations.

Yellow is when an occasion has been boiling for some time, or it occurs several times in a short period. At this level, the physical altercation might result in serious injury.

If a situation reaches yellow, then the department will intervene, usually by having Rukun Tetangga (neighbourhood watch) step in, mediate and calm the situation.

The system, which is part of the National Unity and Integration Action Plan, has been up since June.

"As much as possible, we don’t want it to even reach yellow," he said, adding that the issue that concerned the department involved the controversy over apostasy and religious conversions, which lies between green and yellow.

Finally, the extreme is red. This is when there is serious injury or someone is killed.

In using this tracking system, the department relies on Rukun Tetangga.

"It is not easy for the government to just come in when there is trouble.

"That is why Rukun Tetangga works so well, because it is made up of locals, and who are known to the residents," Azman said.

Kampung Medan, for instance, did not have an RT branch before the 2001 incident, but it does now.

In the recent Kampung Medan study, it was found that Rukun Tetangga was one area of community activity that drew the most active participation from Malay and Indian residents.

By : Aniza Damis NST





Read also "Angan angan Mat Jenin. Or, The Delusions of A Walter Mitty"

BY M. Bakri Musa

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