13 May, 2009

The Race Riots of May 13th still haunt Malaysia, 40 years on

In Malaysia, the coalition government dominated by the Malay UMNO party, is grappling with whether or not to dismantle the decades-old "affirmative action policy" favouring the Malays or Bumiputras.

Forty years ago today, race riots broke out in Kuala Lumpur - imprinted in the memories of Malaysians as "May Thirteen". The riots killed at least 200 people, and the trauma haunted Malaysians for years. Four decades later, have things improved, or is racial harmony being sacrificed for political expediency?

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speakers: Mohan Sankaran, director of the NGO, ERA Consumer Malaysia; Ibrahim Suffian is programmes director at the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research

SANKARAN: Looking at public opinion and how people relate to each other, race relations are much better than they were before, largely because more Malaysians now appreciate each other. The conditions which beset the various ethnic groups have largely improved, the level of insecurity is a lot lower now than it was before, at least within the dominant Malay community, but on the whole, I am optimistic that it is better.

LAM: Okay, well that's the view point of a Bumiputra, Ibrahim Suffian. To Mohan Sankaran. Mohan, you belong to the minority Indian community in Malaysia. How would you rate race relations, do you agree with Ibrahim that it has improved?

SANKARAN: Personally, I think I have to disagree with him to a certain extent. Race relations, if anything has deteriorated over the years, particularly over the last two decades. You can see from the various incidents happening in Malaysia. For example, the uprising of Indians last year of the Hindraf movement and also a lot of issues in relation to issues of conversion and things like that, which has happened. It's happened because we are not very happy with the ways with a lot of things have been happening in the past, so this is a reflection of it, that race relations is actually deteriorated.

LAM: You don't think that people have become a little bit more sophisticated and therefore a little bit more understanding of the political situation in Malaysia?

SANKARAN: I mean I do, I mean they do understand in general the political situation we are living in. However, I mean these political situations should not also be used to also certainly depress certain groups you see.

LAM: And Ibrahim Suffian, do you think that the affirmative action, the pro-Bumiputra affirmative action policies of the past 30 years, that that in some ways have become counter-productive? There are certain quarters, including the Opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who say that perhaps it's time for Malaysia to rethink its affirmative action policies. What's your opinion?

SUFFIAN : I am in agreement with the view that affirmative action policy really needs a serious revamp, if not a total overhaul. I think what really has happened over the years in continuing from where Mohan left off, and I appreciate his comments, is that I think the Malay community, the Bumiputras in the country, is not a monolithic group. There is a significant proportion of the Malays who feel that there is a need for change in the way the country is run, that race is no longer the defining characteristic; that people should be assisted on the basis of need and merit and that's a growing view, and particularly being held by the younger generation of Malays, who were born after 1969. That's one thing and I think with respect to affirmative action, more Malays now, I mean from our surveys we have seen that more Malays are open towards having this policy as for all Malaysians, not just Malays, but all Malaysians who are need. And the main bone of contention, that colours the way people perceive race relations is how policies are being implemented by the government and the ruling party and then therefore there is a distinction between the actions of the ruling party, which frequently does things in the name of the Malay community, and the Malay community itself, so..

LAM: And, of course, the main ruling party, the primary component of the Barisan Nasional government is UMNO, the Malay based party. Do you think UMNO is fearful of altering the affirmative action program for fear of losing Malay votes?

SUFFIAN: I am pretty sure that is how they feel. The polling indicates that is how they feel as well, but I think what really is happening on the ground here in Malaysia, particularly over the last decade, over the last ten years is that more and more Malay feel that the assistance purportedly in their name is not reaching them, but reaching people mostly who are politically connected within the ruling party. So that is a distinction that at least we can see from the electoral results, at least about half of the Malays think otherwise from the main ruling party.

LAM: On Radio Australia, and the World Radio Network, this is Connect Asia and this morning we are looking at race relations in Malaysia 40 years after the 1969 May 13th riots. And our guests this morning are Mohan Sankaran, Director at ERA Consumer in Kuala Lumpur, and Ibrahim Suffian, a programs director at the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research.

Mohan Sankaran, if I can move to you now. In some quarters it is felt that it's not helpful to have various language schools in Malaysia, where the medium of instruction is in Chinese and Tamil schools where the medium of instruction is in Tamil. Do you still see the need for language-based education, certainly at the primary level in Malaysia?

SANKARAN: I think there is a need to maintain this vernacular education system in a sense that it is also help these groups, to preserve their culture and identity. This has to be maintained in my view.

LAM: What about you, Ibrahim?

SUFFIAN: I agree, in a sense that vernacular education is part of the country's heritage and that the various communities, cultures in Malaysia need to have space for them to practise their language, learn their culture. But I think what really is at stake is the improvement in the quality of national schools, so that at the end of the day, Malaysians have a choice, on whether they want to send their children to vernacular schools or the national streamed schools, so I think people need to be given a choice and there is room for pluralism, not just in the politics, but also in the educational choices that families can encounter.

LAM: And of course the main medium of instruction in Malaysian schools as far as I understand is Bahasa Malaysia. Do you think it is helpful perhaps for the schools to offer more courses - courses perhaps to include the learning of Chinese or the learning of Indian, or the learning of Tamil. What do you think Mohan?

SANKARAN: Yeah, I think the national type schools should incorporate this as a mandatory subject, rather than leaving it optional, because right now what is happening is they do provide Tamil and Chinese language classes. However, these are optional. And also some schools, they offer, some schools they don't, because due to some of the students who are interested in taking up these courses. I mean the language classes. So I think if the government at one point in time, they were saying they were going to make it mandatory for all groups to learn their mother tongue.

LAM: So, but Suffian, I realise of course that you can't speak for the entire Malay community in Malaysia, but do you think there is interest there within the Bumiputra community to pick up Chinese as a second language or pick up Tamil as another language?

SUFFIAN: I think there is some space for that. As it stands right now, about 10 per cent of the enrolment in Chinese vernacular schools are actually Malays and that's a large number of people, several thousand. So there remains I think a significant proportion of the Malay community that can appreciate the value of learning another language. There is a growing sense of confidence within the Malay community that learning another language, being involved with in activities in students from another culture enriches them rather than takes them back.

LAM: Mohan, what is your anecdotal experience of the way Malaysian Indians feel? Do they feel hard done by, do they feel left behind in a way, by Malaysia's economic miracle?

SANKARAN: Yeah, because if you really look at the equity proportions, I mean I think the Indian minority groups they are the least group, which is benefiting from the equity of Malaysia. So in a way, I think the government should also look into ways to improve on the equity standing among these races, especially the Indian community, because that was one of the issues was raised at the last general election.

LAM: Mm, It has been said by some people that the Indians generally are not that interested in doing business. Do you think that's a misrepresentation?

SANKARAN: I think it is a misrepresentation, because we are working in the grounds with the community, so we actually know what is happening in the ground. And the general sentiment on the ground is that they are having a lot of difficulties in securing business loans. Banks are not coming forward to provide business loan and there is a lot of restriction in applying for loans. And the government has actually from time to time has announced that there is going to be these funds being set up to assist these groups. However, it has not been channelled down to the ground you see, so it remains as a policy, so the actual implementation is not being seen.

LAM: Gentlemen, unfortunately, I will have to wrap it up now, but when I was last in Kuala Lumpur, I was quite impressed by the fact that you go to any food court and you see Malays cooking Chinese dishes, but in a Halal way and Indians serving Malay food and then the Chinese doing food from another culture. Do you think perhaps the key might lie in the grassroots to encourage this kind of cross cultural exchange, if you like?

SUFFIAN: Well, I am of the view that I think there isn't much of a problem at the grassroots level, because the relationship between people-to-people is actually pretty good. But I think what remains in Malaysia is that there are structural impediments to improve race relations, largely resulting from state policies and the way state policies are being implemented. And I think the way forward is that if we have greater room for democratic change and reforms to take place is that the ordinary person on the street has a chance to have his or her voice heard, then I think there is more room for improvement in terms of the way all Malaysians, regardless of race or religion are being treated.

LAM: So that seems to be a fairly optimistic forecast there. But Mohan, I'll give you the last word. Are you optimistic that Malaysia would look to the future with greater racial harmony and if so, what are the ingredients you think that are needed to ensure that Malaysia faces the future with racial harmony?

SANKARAN: I think I tend to agree with Ibrahim, that at the grassroots level I think race relations is okay, but what I think we need is one national road map to replace the affirmative action which is currently being practised. It should be abolished and we need to replace it with a comprehensive and wholistic plans to help those marginalised in respect of race and religion. So in that way, I think we will be able to see more improvement in race relations in Malaysia, that will be a way forward.

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( Source:"
Race riots haunt Malaysia, 40 years on" )

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