Another article examining the tense relationships between Malays (migrants to the land now know as Malaysia) and other ethnic groups, with religion as another fault line dividing the population
Malaysia: Overcoming ethnic fears
If ethnic controversies have become more pronounced in Malaysia, it is partly because ethnic consciousness has been increasing among all communities since the early seventies. Within the Malay community, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was partly responsible for this. So was Islamic resurgence which in a sense was linked to the NEP since rapid Malay urbanization in those decades reinforced the community's attachment to certain religious forms, symbols and practices that set it apart from the non-Muslim communities in the country. By and large, they tend to be exclusive and ethnic-centered in their outlook and approach, now strengthened by the global environment. The subjugation and oppression of Muslims in various parts of the world, often accompanied by their stigmatization and demonization, are much starker today than ever before, creating a situation where Muslims are convinced that they are under siege.
Among the non-Malays and non-Muslims, negative reactions to both the NEP and Islamic resurgence have resulted in an upsurge of commitment to their own ethnic identities and interests. There are quite a few non-Malays in various sectors of society who partly because of their own experiences with the NEP in particular bear deep communal grudges which are not conducive towards social harmony. It is resentment whose significance cannot be underestimated since a huge portion of the Chinese and Indian populace is already third or fourth generation Malaysian and therefore more conscious of the promise of equality embodied in the nation's Constitution.
These attitudes have been further aggravated by the situation in the school system. With the switch from English to Malay as the main medium of instruction in national schools in the early seventies, the vast majority of Chinese in the 7 to 12 age group now attend state run Chinese primary schools, thus depriving themselves of the opportunity to mix with Malay and Indian Malaysians at a critical stage of their lives.
As with the Malays, there are also global forces impacting upon the non-Malay mind. Islamic and Muslim demonization is often accepted as the truth by many non-Muslims and non-Malays in the country. They refuse to see demonization as a tool, employed by the powerful to not only denigrate their adversaries but also to camouflage their own hegemonic designs over the land and resources of the demonized.
It is important to emphasize that there are also some perennial forces at work which tend to keep the ethnic temperature high. The political manipulation of ethnic sentiments is one such force. It has been shown that in most multi-ethnic societies politicians on both sides of the government-opposition divide just cannot resist the temptation of exploiting ethnic issues in order to enhance their electoral standing, sometimes to conceal and camouflage widening income disparities and social iniquities within a particular community.
The fundamental fears of the Malays are linked, directly or indirectly, to their position in what was historically a Malay polity. They are afraid that in spite of all the constitutional provisions and public policies, they could one day lose control over their own land because of their perceived inability to compete with the economically more robust Chinese. If that happens, not only will the Malays cease to be politically preeminent but some of the principal Malay characteristics of the Malaysian nation would also be jeopardized. This fear has acquired an added dimension in recent times due to the rapid economic globalization and Malaysia's own position as an open economy in this increasingly borderless world. The pressures upon the Malay community to compete in both the domestic and international arenas have multiplied.
Sections of the non-Malay communities also have their own particular fears. They have for a long while complained about discrimination against them and they regard the NEP and the constitutional provisions that underlie the policy as inimical to the interests of the non-Malays. They are equally concerned about what they perceive as their lack of political clout. UMNO, they feel, dominates the ruling Barisan Nasional. Some non-Malays are also of the view that their languages, cultures and religions are not accorded the prominence they deserve.
A significant segment of the non-Malay populace has concluded from all this that Chinese, Indians and other non-indigenous Malaysians are 'second-class citizens'.
Assuaging the fears
To assuage these fears within the community which are largely unfounded, Malay leaders should show the community through honest and rational analysis that the Malays have made tremendous economic and social progress in the last 49 years. In almost every profession today, Malay participation is significant, compared to the situation 30 years ago. Likewise, in the upper echelons of commerce and industry there are a number of Malays whose hallmark is their competence and ability.
The primary reason for this success is the vast expansion of opportunities for the Malay masses through education and not through ethnic quotas and special privileges per se. To put it differently, it is the state's commitment to social justice, and not its ethnic agenda, that is mainly responsible for the upliftment of the Malay community.
Malay leaders should assure their community that neither Malay political preeminence nor institutions are under any threat from the non-Malay populace. The vast majority of non-Malays accept that a Malay core within a multi-ethnic national leadership is vital for national stability and harmony. What is important is for that core to be just and fair to all communities.
But it is not just Malay leaders who should dispel the unjustified apprehensions of the Malay community. Chinese and other non-Malay leaders can also give a helping hand. Chinese Chambers of Commerce at national and state levels and other trade and manufacturing bodies operating within the community can take proactive measures to assist Malays, other Bumiputras and even Indians to establish small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Since non-Chinese business people have always found it difficult to access the production, supply and distribution networks of SMEs, aid from Chinese businesses could provide a breakthrough. Malays and other non-Chinese should also be given opportunities to occupy the upper echelons of Chinese dominated corporations.
The overall situation of the non-Malay communities is better than it is made out to be by some of their ethnic champions. The Chinese remain as ubiquitous in the economy as they were before the NEP was launched in 1971. The Chinese rich continue to dominate the upper crust of the economy. Non-Malays are also actively involved in the civic and political life of the nation. Apart from playing leading roles in trade unions and NGOs, Chinese, Indian and other Malaysians are at the helm of a number of political parties both in the ruling coalition and in the opposition. Since independence non-Malays have become an integral and essential part of the nation's political process.
It would be too simplistic to suggest the rescinding of the NEP or the abolition of Chinese medium schools as the remedies. For even if the NEP is not there, the underlying fears and aspirations of the Malay-Bumiputra community related to its economic strength and resilience would still have to be addressed. Similarly, the Chinese school has become a metaphor for the community's sense of ethnic security and identity. This is why any effective, long-term solution should seek to overcome fundamental fears and apprehensions of all communities.
If the State is sincere about strengthening the Malay economy in the coming years, it is justice that should be its central concern. What this means is that it should harness all its energies to tackle what is undoubtedly the single most important challenge confronting the Malay economy: the challenge of widening economic disparities within the community. The state should also go all out to combat the pervasive rentier culture which has inhibited the growth of genuine entrepreneurship. Eradicating both corruption, which has emasculated the economy, and abuse of power should also be its national priorities. None of these goals would require ethnicizing the economy.
If it is important for non-Malays to develop some empathy with the idea of a Malaysian nation that had emerged from a Malay polity, it is imperative that Malay leaders convince the Chinese and Indian communities that they are committed to the evolution of a social order that will be less and less preoccupied with ethnic policies and more and more devoted to an all-embracing vision of justice that focuses upon our common humanity.
Only when justice supplants ethnicity will it be possible to overcome the current challenges facing Malaysia and ethnic fears be laid to rest.
By Chandra Muzaffar, President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST)
Asiaviews, August-September 2007