Arab Street, home to many minority Malays in Singapore
KUALA LUMPUR/SINGAPORE (Reuters) -- Singapore and Malaysia are once again bickering over race relations, raising the political heat in a region scarred by ethnic conflict, but the mood on the street is strangely indifferent.
The island of Singapore is home to mostly ethnic Chinese, while the population of its big neighbor to the north is mainly ethnic Malay. The two races have a long history of tension and sometimes violence.
The latest row was sparked by Singapore's patriarch, Lee Kuan Yew, who accused Malaysia and Indonesia at a public forum of "systematically marginalizing" their Chinese minorities.
Malaysia, which has a large Chinese minority, is especially angry and demanded an apology from former premier Lee, 83. Former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad also joined in, accusing Singapore of marginalizing minority Malays.
Lee did apologize to Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for the "discomfort" caused by his remarks. But he did not retract the comments, prompting an icy response from Kuala Lumpur to the apology.
While their leaders bicker, reaction from people on the streets of the two countries is muted.
Both minorities -- Chinese in Malaysia and Malays in Singapore -- appear tired of racial politics and deny they are being held back by their respective governments.
"It's not true that we are sidelined. The Chinese can live comfortably in this country," said a 65-year-old fabric-seller in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown. He would only give his name as Lee.
"We can earn a decent living here," added Goh Mia Lee, 46, as he tended the counter of a small grocery store.
The official Malaysian figures support him.
Chinese make up 25 percent of the Malaysian population but own about 40 percent of the stock market. Chinese households earn an income almost twice that of the average Malay household.
Malaysia's Chinese may be at the margins of political power -- the Malay ruling party bars Chinese from joining and there is virtually no prospect of a Malaysian Chinese becoming premier -- but they are at the center of business and the economy.
It is this very success at creating wealth that is at the source of racial tensions and has been since Chinese came to work in colonial-era Malaya's tin mines more than a century ago.
The same is also true of racial tensions in Indonesia, where Chinese merchants were the target of racial violence in 1998.
Malaysia and Singapore came together as one in 1963 but the troubled union lasted just two years before Singapore's Lee walked out of the Malaysian Federation after squabbling between his Chinese-dominated party and the main Malay party.
In 1969, economic disparities between Malays and Chinese were blamed for race riots that killed hundreds in Malaysia.
Malays still refer to Chinese at times as outsiders and to themselves as "sons of the soil". In Malaysia, they remain wary of the Chinese making political advances and have kept a stranglehold on power since independence from Britain in 1957.
Malaysia has pursued pro-Malay affirmative action for three decades, but they still lag behind the Chinese in terms of wealth.
"In certain areas, the Malay situation needs more attention," said political analyst Chandra Muzaffar. "In the corporate sector, the Malay and Indian participation are quite small."
He said Malaysia on the whole had done quite well in managing race relations, though tensions were inevitable. "In a multi-racial society, you can't run away from it. It's a very, very complex issue if you look at the ethnic mix," he said.
In Singapore, Malays also rate poorly on important measures.
Malays there make up 13 percent of the population but represent barely three percent of university graduates. Malay household income lags both the Chinese and Indian communities.
Mahathir has accused Singapore of sidelining its Malay minority, noting the city state prevents Malays from serving in sensitive military posts. Ordinary Malays in Singapore do grumble about some policies but many don't see themselves as victims.
"I definitely think Singapore's better than Malaysia in terms of racial equality, but mindsets here have to be improved," said 20-year-old Malay student Hana Suri, when stopped on Singapore's Arab Street and asked about Mahathir's criticisms.
Arab Street is at the center of Singapore's Malay community, which is predominantly Muslim. It is overlooked by a mosque and its shops sell Muslim head-scarves, robes and prayer mats. The area was once the home of Malay royalty.
Another Malay student, Rabiatul Adawiya, 22, also felt Mahathir was wrong: "I have had equal opportunities in education, the meritocratic system here definitely works."
Lee and Mahathir, old sparring political partners, have retired as leaders, but the two nations continue to bicker over issues dating back four decades.
"I hope for the leaders to say something smarter," said Muhammad Hafez, as he walked along Arab Street. "How would ageing politicians who are not on the streets know what's going on?"