Malaysia: Back To The Future

As the country recovers from its latest outbreak of racial violence, its political leaders are seeking new ways to ease ethnic tensions. A Web exclusive

March 21, 2001 - The friends and relatives of A. Ganesan were afraid to go to his funeral. "They were too scared," says Lalitha, the Malaysian-Indian nurse who is now Ganesan's 23-year-old widow. "They thought there would be more trouble."
TROUBLE? More than 30 years since the watershed clashes that left hundreds of Malaysian-Chinese dead, Malaysia is once again grappling with the specter of racial violence. This time it's between the country's Malay majority and Indian minority. And while this month's events - which claimed the life of Ganesan, among others - did not reach the ferocious levels of 1969, the outbreak has placed fresh pressure on the Malaysian government to find a new approach to an old problem.
        The current tension erupted March 10 after an Indian attending a funeral accidentally drove into the corner of a tent at a Malay wedding party. It may have seemed a minor dispute among neighbors in the 100,000-strong Kuala Lumpur community of Taman Medan, but it quickly degenerated into racial rage. Toughs armed with long knives and iron bars rampaged through the neighborhood for four days, attacking Indians at random.
       The aftermath: six dead (five of them Indian); dozens injured and more than 200 people arrested. For Malaysian leaders, the violence brought disturbing echoes of the past. "When I first heard about the incident, my first thought was May 13 [1969]. The first priority was to stop it from spreading to the whole country," recalls Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
        Indeed, early signs did suggest the violence was spreading. Several incidents around the country were seen as race-based - even though they may not have been linked.
        Aggravating matters were complaints from Indians that the Malay-dominated police were slow to intervene in the violence against them. Parameswary Batumalai, 28, an Indian resident of Taman Medan, recounted being jarred awake at 3 a.m. by the screams of an Indian neighbor on his way home. Police reportedly stood by as four young men with sticks beat the father of four to death. Batumalai later told reporters that police prevented other residents from intervening too.
        Local newspapers - fearful of a Malaysian law prohibiting comments that could incite racial ill will - did not report the race of those involved. The context, however, left little doubt among observers that both police and attackers were Malay, the victims Indian.
        The charge of police partiality was another disturbing echo from the past. Although there has never been a full accounting of the events of May 1969, Chinese-Malaysians believe that out-of-uniform Malay police and soldiers themselves took part in the killing of that time.
        Perhaps even more difficult than restoring confidence in authorities, is the task of repairing shattered community relations. "The saddest thing is that my assailants were my neighbors, with whom I had played when I was young," says Suresh, a 19-year-old vocational student with slash wounds on his body and head. "I just want them to be the same again."
        That's not likely anytime soon. In spite of "unity programs" devised by the government after the trauma of 1969, Malaysians still tend to see their fellow citizens through racial prisms. There are race-based political parties and an educational system that allows young people to spend their formative years without necessarily socializing or learning each others' languages. Indian-Malaysians tend to be at the bottom of the pile. Many are descendants of indentured rubber tappers who have been displaced from plantations turned into golf courses during the sustained economic boom of recent years. Lacking the government largesse showered upon the Malays - or the Chinese mutual help networks - Indian-Malaysians are well on their way to becoming an urban underclass.
        "We had better not kid ourselves that we have been successful in managing our race relations," says Abdul Razak Baginda, who heads a local policy think thank.
        Malaysia's leaders have had a varied response to the recent violence. While a group of 46 Malaysian organizations have called for a permanent race-relations commission, the government has promised to pursue more vigorously its policy of "positive discrimination." That concept forms the basis of the New Economic Policy (NEP) devised in response to the 1969 riots.
        A more radical proposal suggests the scrapping of all the race-based privileges that Malays (and other indigenous people known as bumiputras, or "sons of the soil") currently enjoy. These benefits, which range from reserved university placement to 30 percent ownership of all public companies, are aimed at giving Malays a larger stake in what used to be a Chinese-dominated economy. (Malays make up about 55 percent of Malaysia's 22 million people, Chinese 30 percent and Indians 8 percent. The remainder are bumiputras.)
        "How can you build up sound race relations when there is no racial equality in this country," says Palanisamy Ramasamy, a political science professor who is one of the most vocal supporters of this plan. "As long as Indians and Chinese feel like second-class citizens, [it's] impossible."
        Still, the abandoning of privileges is an idea that is slowly gaining support - even if change is some time off. A broad coalition of Chinese organizations was recently forced to back down on similar proposals after being menaced with ugly street demonstrations. Even some Malay intellectuals recently have argued that the system of privileges is becoming a liability, spawning a debilitating sense of entitlements that will hold Malays back.
        In Malaysia's current highly polarized political atmosphere, though, a calm assessment of such proposals seems far-fetched, especially as the ruling coalition and the opposition contend for the loyalties of a divided Malay majority.
        Nor is Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad - whose 1970 book "The Malay Dilemma" inspired the NEP and boosted his rise to political power - considered likely to allow any dramatic changes before his promised retirement in 2004.
        For now, the violence is supposed to be over. Some 600 heavily armed riot police are still posted in volatile squatter slums and a local newspaper gleefully reported last Monday that two recent Malay weddings held there the previous weekend took place without incident.
        But security, it seems, may be in the eye of the beholder. The relatives of the widow Lalitha are not convinced. Nor is the younger of her two sons. Three-year-old Srisankaran keeps pointing to his father's photograph - and insisting that he take a ride on a motorbike to find him.