Ethnic-religious tensions "fuelled by politicians"

From AKI - Adnkronos international of August 05, 2006

Kuala Lumpur, 4 August (AKI) - Malaysia's various ethnic groups have no problems interacting in public but are wary of private issues such as interracial marriages, Dr. K. Anbalakan of the School of Humanities at the Science University of Malaysia, told Adnkronos International (AKI) citing a survey on ethnic relations conducted recently. "We asked people about interracial marriages, living near mosques or temples, working with other ethnic groups and so on. The findings showed that people were open in public, but had reservations about things like religion and culture," he said.
The survey comes at a time when Malaysia is experiencing a rise in racial and religious tension.
Anbalakan, who teaches a government-compulsory course on ethnic relations, said there is need for more dialogue and that ethnic and religious sentiments were often fuelled by politicians or specific groups.
"A student learns about unity and thinks that life is fine. But once he enters the real world and experiences the dichotomous policies between bumiputera and non-bumiputera, he will form a different view of ethnic relations," he said, citing Malaysia's New Economic Policy (NEP) introduced in 1970.
The bumiputeras, or the Malays and indigenous communities, make up 60 percent of the 24 million Malaysians and are granted privileges under the 1957 Federal Constitution, which include quotas for the following: admission to government educational institutions, qualification for public scholarships, positions in government and ownership in business.
The NEP introduced interventionist pro-bumiputera policies and was aimed at correcting the economical imbalances between the racial groups.
Malaysia's other large ethnic groups are the Chinese and Indians with 26 and 7 percent of the population respectively. These groups are considered non-bumiputeras.
In Malaysia ethnic tension often blends with religious tension as the various ethnic groups identify with a religion. Malay-bumiputeras are almost exclusively Muslims.
An example of recent tension include the pro-Islam protests against a civil society-led forum to discuss constitutional rights and freedoms of religion and the general uproar against one university who taught a module on ethnic relations now withdrawn - containing factual errors, stereotyping ethnic communities and blaming the 1969 ethnic riots in Malaysia to the Chinese-based opposition party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP).
To keep a lid on the souring tension, last Sunday the government issued a directive to the public and the media to stop all discussions on religion and race.
Anbalakan feels that the ban is counter productive.
"On the one hand, you want people to unite and understand each other, on the other, you prevent them from talking. There are dirty linen that should not be washed in public, but we cannot hide all our problems, because there will always be things that are sensitive," he said.
In defiance of the government, a new group calling itself Youth For Change (Y4C) have initiated an alternative and free course on ethnic relations with lecturers such as deposed deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, film maker and writer Hishamudin Rais and socialist leader Dr. Syed Husin Ali.
Y4C coordinator Lee Khai Loon said Malaysians have not achieved true integration because of the many laws that prevent people from discussing race relations, including the law curbing political activism among university students and the Internal Security Act, a preventive detention law, introduced at the end of the communist insurgency in 1960.
"How can we talk about unity when most people still feel comfortable mixing within their own ethnic community and don't want to get out of the comfort zone?" he asked. (Fsc/Gve/Aki)

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