23 January, 2008

Malaysia, truly Asia?

India must engage Kuala Lumpur in addressing the marginalisation of its minorities

Speaking in 2002, at the fag end of his political career, Mahathir Mohammed said “We have tried to tell [the ethnic Malay majority] if you depend on subsidies, you are going to be very weak. But they don’t seem to understand. We tell them if you use crutches, you will not be able to stand up. Throw away the crutches, stand up straight …but they want the easy way out”

It was a spectacularly candid admission of failure by a man who was one of the most vociferous advocates of Malaysia’s “New Economic Policy”, a system of affirmative action that, despite its dubious constitutional validity, nevertheless dominates contemporary Malaysia’s socio-economic landscape. Malaysia’s Malay-Muslim majority — on account of being bumiputras or ‘sons of the soil’ — enjoys a comprehensive system of reservations and preferential treatment.

These include disproportionate quotas in educational institutions, public housing, and government jobs; car import permits and other licenses designed to generate easy economic rents; mandatory equity ownerships in businesses; and minimum ethnic-Malay shareholding to qualify for government tenders.

All these were part of a social contract stitched up in Malaysia’s first decade as an independent nation. Another part of the Malaysian social contract is reflected in the country’s politics.

The ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition comprises the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). In an implicit but open entitlement system, leaders of these parties are not only accommodated in the Cabinet, but certain cabinet portfolios are also ‘reserved’ for them.

By virtue of being the MIC leader and the only ethnic Indian in the Malaysian cabinet, Samy Vellu is officially projected as the sole representative of the 1.8 million (7 per cent of the total population) ethnic Indians.

But the stability that Malaysia bought this way began showing signs of unravellings over the last decade. By the late 1990s, UMNO’s political dominance was seriously challenged by Islamic fundamentalist political parties. To ward off this challenge, UMNO itself significantly strengthened its Islamic credentials.

Islam as traditionally practiced in South East Asia has been syncretic, as the region lies at the crossroads of civilisations and trade routes.

But the assertion of the Islamic identity in recent years exacerbated the long-standing resentments among the ethnic minorities.

The ethnic Chinese who still control vast areas of the economy are safeguarding their economic future by migrating and investing abroad.

But for a majority of the ethnic Indian community (most of whom are Tamil-speaking Hindus), poverty and a lack of skills means that there is nowhere to go.

In many ways, the recent demonstration by this marginalised minority is a manifestation of its lack of faith in the MIC to represent its interests.

Despite the call by some protest leaders, the Indian government must refrain from officially intervening in what is essentially Malaysia’s domestic affair.

Indian civil society has been alert to the goings-on in Malaysia. Sections of the Malaysian civil society — cutting across ethnic groups — have also spoken out both against the affirmative action policy in general and the marginalisation of the ethnic Indian minority in particular.

Indeed, Malaysia’s policy of institutionalised discrimination is inconsistent with the ASEAN charter that it signed late last year. The Indian government must engage Kuala Lumpur to safeguard the interests of Indian nationals and investments.

Reports of Malaysia banning recruitment of Indian nationals must be taken seriously.

India must ensure that its nationals are fairly treated when reported plans to reduce the number of foreign workers by 0.5 million are implemented over the next few years.

The civil society and Indian diaspora organisations should make sustained efforts to enhance the capacities and skills of the Malaysians of Indian origin to improve their socio-economic position.

For its part, Malaysia must recognise that its public image in India has suffered a
severe setback in recent months.

This could prove costly to Malaysia, not least because negative public opinion can make it harder for the Indian government to make concessions in negotiations over trade and investment.

In this era of globalisation, whether or not its treatment of its minorities hinders its bilateral relations with India will primarily depend on Malaysia’s concrete actions to address the underlying issues.


By Mukul G Asher,DNA

(The writer is professor of public policy at National University of Singapore.)

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