Friday, February 29, 2008

Abdullah's power may be curbed by Malaysia minorities -- Bloomberg

Abdullah's Power May Be Curbed by Malaysia Minorities (Update1)

By En-Lai Yeoh and Stephanie Phang

Feb. 29 (Bloomberg) -- After Vella Murugan's third application for a government-subsidized mortgage was turned down in September, he decided he would back the opposition in Malaysia's March 8 election.

He blames the rejection on his Indian ancestry. ``I see my Malay neighbors with the same salary as me getting loans all the time,'' said Vella, 38, a laborer from a Kuala Lumpur suburb who earns about 800 ringgit ($245) a month, just above the official poverty line. Indians ``have a lack of opportunities.''

Malaysia's biggest minorities -- Indians and Chinese -- have become more vocal in airing such grievances, taking a toll on Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's support. In November, Vella joined 10,000 other Indians to protest Malaysia's legalized discrimination system, the largest ethnic demonstration in Kuala Lumpur since 1969.

``We love being part of Malaysia, but the government has to know how we feel,'' Vella said.

Come election day, ``some non-Malays might feel that they need to vote for the opposition because of what they have seen and felt,'' said Mohamed Mustafa Ishak, international studies dean at Universiti Utara Malaysia.

Indians and Chinese together are a third of Malaysia's population of 27 million. If enough vote against the ruling coalition, it would lose the two-thirds parliamentary majority it has had for more than 30 years -- a free hand that consolidated Malay power.

Emboldened Opposition

Even if Abdullah's super-majority remains, a close call may embolden the opposition. The coalition won 64 percent of the vote and 90 percent of the parliament's seats in 2004, and it is unlikely to lose control completely.

Approval for Abdullah, 68, among Indians fell to 38 percent in December, from 79 percent in October, according to a survey published by the Merdeka Center, an independent Malaysian research group. His rating among Chinese fell to 42 percent from 47 percent; among Malays, it dropped to 76 percent from 84 percent.

Race long has been Malaysia's main political issue. Abdullah's United Malays National Organisation led the fight for independence from Britain, which succeeded in 1957 with a new constitution that promised Malays special rights. Since then, UMNO has governed with junior Chinese and Indian partners in a coalition now called the National Front.

Bloody Backlash

In 1969, after urban Chinese and rural Islamic opposition groups won a majority of votes and more than a third of parliament, Chinese victory parades prompted a bloody backlash by Malays and emergency rule.

The government in 1971 created an affirmative-action policy that gave Malays educational, housing and job preferences to correct ``imbalances'' in an economy then dominated by British and Chinese.

Abdullah has said that ``disparity in income and wealth'' among ethnic groups ``persists and must be addressed.'' Today, Malaysia still funds preferential business loans for Malays. It's difficult for some non-Malays to get into public universities. Chinese complain that they aren't allowed to set up more Mandarin-language schools.

The government's destruction last year of 80 Hindu temples -- allegedly built illegally -- helped spark the Indians' Nov. 25 protest, which authorities broke up with tear gas and water cannons. The Hindu Rights Action Force, the event's organizer, likened the temples' demolition to ``ethnic cleansing.'' Islam is Malaysia's official religion.

Drag on Growth

Opposition parties, including the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, say pro-Malay policies are a drag on growth and should be replaced with programs to help the poor of all races.

``To many Malaysians, this general election is the last hope for change,'' wrote DAP official and lawmaker Lim Kit Siang, 66, on his blog Feb. 24. The results will determine if ``all Malaysians, regardless of race or religion, can have an equal place under the Malaysia sun.''

The government counters that Abdullah's coalition is the best choice for stable growth. From the end of British rule to 2005, Malaysia's economy grew an average 6.5 percent a year; the government predicts the same rate for 2008, up from 5.9 percent in 2006 and 6.3 percent in 2007.

``Ask the man on the street,'' said Radzi Sheikh Ahmad, home affairs minister and UMNO secretary-general. ``He will tell you the economy is doing well, and everyone is benefiting.''

Assuaging Non-Malays

The prime minister has tried to assuage non-Malays' concerns. In December, the government promised not to demolish Hindu temples without a good reason. Land for new temples and other incentives are planned for constituencies with high percentages of Indians, coalition officials said. Abdullah last year also eased investment rules favoring Malays in part of the southern state of Johor to attract foreign money.

Hindraf spokesman S. Jayathas rejected the promises, and said the group, whose leaders are being detained without trial, is calling on its supporters to vote for any opposition party next month, including the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party.

``There is always the thought that we are not doing enough, especially for the non-Malays,'' Abdullah told the Star newspaper in an interview published Feb. 3. ``Our promise was to develop the nation as a whole, and taking into consideration the need of every Malaysian and making sure that no one would be left behind.''

The ruling coalition is ``working very hard'' to woo Indian voters, said Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, political analyst at the National University of Malaysia. ``In the end, the people may not translate their unhappiness with the economic governance into votes, as they are more concerned about their personal security, which many feel only the ruling coalition can offer.''

To contact the reporters on this story: En-Lai Yeoh in Kuala Lumpur at ; Stephanie Phang in Kuala Lumpur at

Last Updated: February 28, 2008 22:41 EST

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