Wobbles in Malaysia's ethnic balancing act

An ethnic-Chinese push for equal rights is discouraged by Prime Minister Mahathir.

Resplendent in a silver-and-gray batik shirt, Ling Liong Sik shakes hands for what must seem the umpteenth time. For the president of the Malay Chinese Association, this Lunar New Year "open house" is the year's biggest event. "The Chinese are happy - or 98 percent of them at least," says Mr. Ling, the beaming host. "The stock market's rising again. Our companies are making money."

Across the country, an estimated 6 million ethnic Chinese - roughly a quarter of the population - are enjoying the celebrations of family get-togethers that traditionally last for 15 days. Yet this has been a holiday with an unpleasant difference, marred by concerns that Malaysia's long-standing record of inter-ethnic harmony could be under threat.

The issue prompted a warning last week from Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in his traditional new year's message. Given the country's heterogenous make-up, "no one community can be satisfied with its lot, and no one community will ever get all that it wants."

It may sound vague, but the warning was blunt enough to Ser Choon Ing, honorary secretary to Suqiu, a Chinese political pressure group that's had previous experience with Dr. Mahathir.

One day last August, Mahathir launched an impassioned attack on Suqiu, likening them to Communist subversives or Islamic extremists. His anger had been provoked by a 17-point appeal issued by the lobbyists in the run-up to parliamentary elections in late 1999. While many of the points addressed universal grievances like official corruption and bias in the media, others challenged the preferential treatment enjoyed by the majority Muslim Malays. "National unity," the document said, "must be based on the interests of all Malaysians irrespective of race."

Since the early 1970s, the New Economic Policy had been intended to enhance the then-feeble economic status of Malays and avoid the race riots that claimed some 200 lives in 1969. Suqiu argued that the NEP should be replaced by a needs-based system.

Then, one evening last September, Mr. Ser and colleagues at a hall on the outskirts of the capital found themselves under siege from some 200 members of the youth wing of the ruling United Malay National Organization. The protesters threatened to torch the building unless Suqiu revoked its appeal and issued an apology. Riot police arrived before any actual violence occurred.

Suqiu later withdrew the offending portion of its petition. "We had no intention to create tension," says Ser. "All we want is a just and fair society." He points out that similar complaints had been voiced by the Chinese in the past without an uproar.

On one level, many Malaysians would agree that the NEP has largely outlived its usefulness. The wealth gap between the Malays on the one hand, and the Chinese and Indian communities on the other, has narrowed substantially. The NEP "used to have tremendous support from the Malays," says sociologist Rustam Sani. In the early 1970s many Malays felt "that without special support from the government, it was quite impossible for [them] to enter business life or the professions. Today, the situation is very different."

Such understanding on the Malay side does nothing to ease the frustration of ethnic Chinese like Serena Lam. She was denied a college education because, she says, the quota system guaranteeing Malays at least 60 percent of university places meant there was no room for her. "They're not going to give more opportunities for the Chinese," she says. "It's just something you accept."

While race has long formed the backdrop to political life in Malaysia, some accuse the prime minister of trying to exploit the issue.

The government's "trying to win back the Malay community by unleashing racial sentiment," says Tain Chua of the opposition National Justice Party. "This so-called racial tension is a smokescreen to cover up the issues people are really concerned about - like corruption and the state of the economy."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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