17 December, 2007

Ethnic Indian anger shakes Malaysia's foundation of racial stability ?

The unusual outpouring of anti-government dissent has shaken the foundations of Malaysia's reputation as a stable nation where three disparate races - Malays, Chinese and Indians - live in peace. "It was a watershed event," said S Nagarajan of the Education, Welfare and Research Foundation, a nonprofit group that represents impoverished ethnic Indians. "It showed that Malaysians have overcome the fear of authorities. Even we were surprised by the scale and the spirit of the people."

This newfound boldness has government leaders worried about the country's fragile racial unity.

"It is easy for such a rally to become a racial issue or elicit responses from other races and evolve into a major conflict," said Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said.

Behind this concern is fear that overt ethnic tensions could scare away investors who form the bedrock of Malaysia's booming economy.

Analysts warn that anger among disgruntled Malaysians is reaching a boiling point over discrimination against minorities, lack of religious freedoms, and political interference in the judiciary, unfair elections and corruption.

"It is a cry for attention," said Abdul Rahman Embong, a prominent sociologist who teaches at the National University of Malaysia. "We cannot take the issue of disaffection by various people for granted."

Besides complaining in coffee shops and grumbling on blogs, Malaysians have few avenues for venting, as the state controls the media and does not allow open discussion on racial issues. Public gatherings of more than four people require permits; anyone deemed a threat to public order faces arrest.

The most worrisome problem for the government is the sense of disenfranchisement among ethnic Indians, who form about 8 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people. Malay Muslims, who control the government, are 60 percent and Chinese are a quarter of the population.

Most Indians are descendants of indentured ethnic Tamil laborers brought by British colonials in the 19th century to work in rubber plantations. They were poor then, living in shacks and earning daily wages. Not much has changed.

In fact, the Indians say they are worse off now, thanks to a 1971 affirmative action policy favoring Malays in jobs, education, government contracts and businesses. The ethnic Chinese grumble too, but they are less affected and most have flourished in private enterprise, controlling a large part of the national economy. The government denies Indians are discriminated against, and says their living standards have vastly improved.

Government officials cite statistics to prove their case: The average monthly household income of Indians in 2004 was 3,456 ringgit (US$1,000; euro675), compared to the 2,711 ringgit (US$775; euro520) earned by Malays; about 2.9 percent of Indians lived below poverty line in 2004 compared to 39.2 percent in 1970. But community leaders and activists dispute the official figures, saying they understate the poverty level among ethnic

Indians and do not reflect reality: 90 percent of Indian workers are low-skilled laborers with little education who are treated with contempt by those in authority.

Indians are also stereotyped as alcoholics and gangsters. According to Nagarajan of EWRF, Indians make up 5 percent of the civil service now compared to 21.5 percent in 1969. Only about 1.2 percent of corporate equity has been in the hands of Indians for the past three decades.

Exercising freedom of assembly and expression in a country that is supposed to be a democracy is viewed by the present administration as opposition that must be stopped.

The arrest of eight people, on the day I was flying into Japan, at a peaceful march to uphold freedom of assembly and mark International Human Rights Day is also bemusing because this is the same administration that signed, in November this year, an Asean Charter that, among others, aims to promote human rights.

What seems to be happening, for me, is a clash of cultures. While civil society groups try to push for a culture of openness and respect for dissent, the government remains strapped to the notion of a monoculture where everyone must think and behave in the way that the government wants.

Hence, the public expression of dissent is seen as defiance against the authorities that can lead to disorder, a threat to national security, or worse still, somehow linked to ‘terrorist’ groups or a Western agenda bent on destabilising Malaysia .

Thus far, it would also seem that the government has resorted to a homogenous set of conventionally harsh responses when dealing with differing views, including the use of tear gas, water canons, propaganda, arrests and the threat and use of the Internal Security Act.

But new strategies are clearly required to manage a heterogeneity of values and ideals that may not be reflective of the official mindset.

For example, the International Herald Tribune (IHT) ran on its front page on Dec 10 a report with pictures that had as its headlines: ‘A campaign of brutality: Foreign labourers hunted down in Malaysia’. The abuse of migrant workers and asylum seekers by Rela may not be viewed as a human rights violation by Kuala Lumpur and may not find its way into the Malaysian press, but there’s little that can stop the news from making the headlines elsewhere.

Notable, too, was the news item about the Dec 9 arrests in Kuala Lumpur on the second page of the IHT. While in Malaysia the government may think it is able to control what expressions are allowed, including through strict media controls, increasingly these controls are meaningless.

Homogeneity may indeed make control easy. But if heterogeneity is increasingly synonymous with resilience, those in power might do well to rethink their strategies and responses to opposing views

Jacqueline Ann Surin - The Other Malaysia

Read also :

A Legacy the Country Can Do Without- M Bakri Musa

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