Malaysian Chinese are flexing their political muscles, feeling the time is ripe to obtain a better deal for the minority community. In their most significant move yet, 27 Chinese clans and educational and community groups have formed a Civil Rights Committee with the aim of challenging the long rule of the Malay-dominated National Front government in Kuala Lumpur.
Booklets are being distributed to various parts of the country spelling out Chinese demands for improvement in political representation, economics, social issues, and culture and language education.
With predictions rife that a general election is imminent and with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad widely considered to be at his most vulnerable, the emergence of the committee could pose an unprecedentedly strong challenge to the 11-party National Front.
Chinese make up about 40 percent of the Malaysian population of about 15 million, and ethnic Malays compose about 55 percent.
While the Chinese traditionally have dominated the business world, the Malays have held the reins of power. Since racial riots in 1969, caused largely by Malays' resentment over their small share of the national economic pie (compared to that of the Chinese), the government has pursued policies that benefit Malays, while ensuring that the voices of other races are heard through representation in the National Front.
It has been a delicate balancing act that some Western analysts feel is beginning to wobble.
Dr. Mahathir has been promoting a plan to more than quadruple Malaysia's present population to 70 million. Ostensibly this is to give the country a powerful domestic base for industrial expansion. But many Chinese see it more as a plot to expand the Malay population in order to swamp Chinese influence.
One of the key issues identified by the Chinese Civil Rights Committee (CRC) is a provision of the Education Act permitting the conversion of vernacular schools -- where teaching is done in Chinese -- into institutions where teaching is done in Malay. The Chinese see this as an attempt to obliterate their cultural heritage.
Another source of resentment is the New Economic Policy, created after the 1969 riots to upgrade bumiputra (indigenous Malay) business skills and to give the sector greater economic power. This was quietly shelved recently because of a prolonged recession, but the Malaysian news media have been been ordered not to publicize the fact.
The economic policy was supposed to expire in 1990 after achieving a target of 30 percent Malay equity ownership (it is currently 18 percent), and the Chinese community is agitating for information on what will follow it -- prompting Mahathir's deputy, Ghafar Baba, to issue an assurance last week that the minority races would be closely consulted.
Politically, the Chinese committee's emergence represents a feeling that Chinese interests are not being fully observed and protected by the National Front.
The community's current chief representative, a political party called the Malaysian Chinese Association, appears to be losing popularity. It has suffered a severe blow through the current trial in Singapore of its president, millionaire businessman Tan Koon Swan, on fraud charges.
Another predominantly Chinese party in the front, the Malaysian People's Movement, has threatened to withdraw unless it receives a larger seat allocation for the next parliamentary election. At its annual convention last weekend, party president Lim Keng Yaik demanded an end to ``unbalanced'' pro-Malay government policies.
He also condemned government inactivity in cracking down on corrupt businessmen, many of them with alleged strong political affiliations to ruling group.
Such rumblings appear to represent a Chinese feeling that this is the time to put pressure on Mahathir. He appears vulnerable at this time because of public unhappiness with many of his policies. Analysts say the Chinese vote will be crucial to him in the next election.
The emergence of the CRC is not good news for the prime minister's party, the United Malays National Organization.
The new Chinese group has been openly rallying for the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam or PAS), whose growing influence is a source of deep government concern.
Although a strong proponent of Islamic fundamentalism, PAS is seeking to widen its political base with the non-Islamic (non-Malay) groups through a declaration affirming equal rights and privileges for all.