Thursday, January 31, 2008

Ethnic anger on the rise in Malaysia

Ethnic anger on the rise in Malaysia

By Thomas Fuller
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

KUALA LUMPUR: The customers of Malaysian Indian Casket, a small shop
on the outskirts of this modern and cosmopolitan city, come in all
different sizes: standard coffins clutter the entrance, child-size
boxes are stacked high on the shelves and extra-large models, those
for the tallest of the deceased, are stored in the back.

But there is no variety in the ethnic background of the clientele.

"All the customers are Indian," said Aru Maniam, a shop salesman.

In death as in life, Malaysians are divided by ethnicity. The
country's main ethnic groups - Malays, Chinese and Indians - have
their own political parties, schools, newspapers and, in the case of
Malays, a separate Islamic legal system.

For years this segregation was promoted as the best formula for social
harmony in a country that advertises itself as "Truly Asia," a place
where the palette of skin colors is as diverse as the mosques,
churches and Hindu and Buddhist temples that dot the landscape.

But in recent months ethnic relations here have deteriorated to a
level that many find alarming. After years of muffled tensions over
religious conversions, government funding for minority schools and a
longstanding system of special privileges for Malays, the dominant
group, ethnic anger has burst to the forefront of Malaysian politics.

In November, Indians, who make up less than 10 percent of the
population of about 25 million and are disproportionately poor, led a
protest march through Kuala Lumpur, the first large-scale ethnically
motivated street demonstration in almost four decades. They announced
a largely symbolic $4 trillion class-action lawsuit against the
British government, the colonial rulers, for bringing them as
indentured laborers to the region, "exploiting them for 150 years" and
allowing them to be marginalized.

The police broke up the demonstration with water cannon and tear gas
and arrested five representatives of a group called the Hindu Rights
Action Force, or Hindraf, which led the protests. The five men are
being held indefinitely and without trial under an internal security

"This is a country that is in search of soul, in search of a common
mission," said Charles Santiago, coordinator of the Group of Concerned
Citizens, an organization that seeks solutions to ethnic strife in the
country. Malaysians, he said, are feeling more threatened by common
problems such as crime and cost-of-living increases, but at the same
time are increasingly divided by ethnicity.

The past six months have seen an unusual number of street
demonstrations in Malaysia, a country where the police for decades
have systematically denied permits for demonstrations in an effort to
keep political quarrels off the streets. Frustration has grown with
the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who promised to
sweep away corruption and make government more accountable when he
came to power five years ago.

In September, the country's Bar Council marshaled thousands of lawyers
for a demonstration demanding judicial independence after a video clip
surfaced of a top lawyer apparently negotiating judicial appointments.
In November, a coalition of activist groups organized a demonstration
of at least 10,000 people calling for clean and fair elections. Last
Saturday, opposition groups demonstrated against rising prices of food
and fuel, the second such protest in six months.

The Indians' anger appears to have rattled the government the most.
Abdullah sought to woo back Indians by declaring the Hindu festival of
Thaipusam, which was celebrated Jan. 23, a federal holiday. A court
decision in a highly emotional dispute over whether an Indian man
should be buried according to Hindu or Muslim rites has been postponed

Analysts say race relations could become more tense as the country
prepares for elections, which are widely expected to be called for

"It will be a racialized campaign, there's no question," said Bridget
Welsh, a specialist in Malaysian politics at Johns Hopkins
University-SAIS in Washington.

An opinion poll made public last Friday by the Merdeka Center
( showed support for the government among non-Malays
plummeting. Only 38 percent of Indians and 42 percent of Chinese said
they strongly or somewhat approved of Abdullah's job performance, by
far the lowest rating for the prime minister. When he came to power,
he had an overall approval rating of 91 percent.

His overall approval rating in the new poll was 61 percent, a poor
showing for Malaysia, where the opposition is weak. Almost two-thirds
of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the way the government
was handling issues of ethnicity and inequality.

The survey, conducted by phone in December among 1,026 randomly
selected registered voters, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1

"Indian support for the government is the worst it's ever been in the
country's history," Welsh said. "It's profound. Indians have
traditionally supported the government the highest."

With Chinese voters also angry at the government - mainly over its
handling of the economy - Welsh says the government risks losing
control of the state of Penang, where ethnic Chinese form a plurality,
as well as a handful of parliamentary seats scattered across the

There is little risk that the coalition of Malay, Chinese and Indian
parties known as the National Front, which has governed the country
since independence from Britain in 1957, will lose its majority. Even
though the coalition won only 64 percent of the popular vote in 2004,
it controls more than 90 percent of the seats in Parliament, partly
because after five decades in power the government has gerrymandered
constituencies to its advantage.

But analysts fear that ethnic frictions could increase as Chinese and
Indian representation in the government weakens.

Underpinning the anger of the Chinese and Indians is an affirmative
action program in place for 37 years that favors Malays and other
smaller indigenous ethnic groups collectively known as bumiputra,
literally "sons of the soil."

Bumiputra make up 60 percent of the population but have 87 percent of
government jobs. They receive discounts of 5 to 10 percent on new
homes and have a reserved quota of 30 percent of any newly listed
company on the stock market. Newspapers are filled with notices of
government construction contracts exclusively reserved for companies
controlled by bumiputra.

"It's completely unacceptable that you cannot get awarded a contract
just because of the color of your skin," said Lim Guan Eng, the
secretary general of the Democratic Action Party, the leading
opposition party in Parliament. "That grates tremendously. We are
treated as though we are third- or fourth-class citizens."

The bulk of the Chinese and Indians came or were brought to the Malay
Peninsula while it was still a British colony to work in tin mines or
on rubber plantations, although some Chinese, known as Peranakan, came
as long as five centuries ago.

Yet Malaysia's ethnic classification is complicated by the fact that
race is often an imprecise concept in Southeast Asia. Malays are a
vaguely defined group that trace their ancestry to the Indonesian
islands of Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra or as far as Arabia and India.

Lim points out that the father of Mohamed Khir Toyo, the chief
minister of Selangor State, came from Indonesia. Yet his son is
considered a bumiputra, while an ethnic Chinese person whose family
has lived in Malaysia for centuries would still not qualify as

The biggest losers in the current system are Indians, who, according
to government statistics, make up 9 percent of the labor force but
hold 16 percent of menial jobs and control just 1.2 percent of equity
in registered companies in the country.

Indians are not aided by the affirmative action program, because it is
based on ethnicity, not need.

More than economic issues, said Santiago of the Group of Concerned
Citizens, Indians were infuriated by the highly publicized case of a
Malaysian soldier, Maniam Moorthy, who died in 2005 and whose body was
claimed by the Islamic authorities for Muslim burial.

The authorities claimed that Moorthy, who was born a Hindu, converted
to Islam months before his death. Moorthy's wife, Kaliammal Sinnasamy,
sued in a civil court to obtain the body, but the court ruled that it
had no jurisdiction because the matter had already been decided in an
Islamic court. A ruling on Kaliammal's appeal has been postponed

The case, one of at least a dozen similar ethno-religious disputes
reported recently in Malaysian newspapers, became a cause célèbre
among Indians.

"You can push us, you can cheat us, you can discriminate against us,
but you can't tell us that we're not Hindus after we are dead,"
Santiago said.

11 books on Islam banned

Malaysia has banned 11 books for allegedly giving a false portrayal of
Islam, such as by linking the religion to terrorism and the
mistreatment of women, an official said Wednesday, The Associated
Press reported from Kuala Lumpur.

The government ordered the books - most of them released by American
publishers - to be blacklisted this month "because they are not in
line with what we call the Malaysian version of Islam," said Che Din
Yusoh, an official with the Internal Security Ministry's publications
control unit.

"Some of them ridicule Islam as a religion or the facts are wrong
about Islam, like associating Islam with terrorism or saying Islam
mistreats women," he said.

The banned books include eight English-language ones, such as "The Two
Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and its Role in Terrorism,"
"Secrets of the Quran: Revealing Insights Into Islam's Holy Book" and
"Women in Islam." There are also three books written in the local
Malay language.

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