Malaysia restricts an activist press. Prime minister justifies curbs as needed to avert racial turmoil

The widespread ethnic frictions which have rocked post-colonial Asia from India and Sri Lanka in the west to Fiji in the east have re-surfaced in yet another Asian country - Malaysia. Government proposals to sharply crack down on Malaysia's press freedoms have illustrated that Western concepts of press independence - already weak in the region - can be extremely tenuous in an area where political rivalries and ethnic strife intermingle.

This is especially true in Malaysia, where the six-year-old government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad faces vocal discontent from some of the Chinese who make up a third of the population. Malay rivals have also challenged Dr. Mahathir's power, amid charges that corruption and favoritism have crept into his Malay-dominated government.

He is also under pressure to endorse more strongly the growing Islamic revival taking place among many Malays. Malays make up close to half of the population. (Indians who arrived under British rule make up most of the balance.)

Mahathir's government is soon expected to present Parliament with tough press sanctions, unveiled last week. The steps involve loss of publishing license, as well as fines and prison sentences of up to three years for printing false and malicious reports.

An official of the Malaysian National Union of Journalists said the proposals are a possible tool for selective clampdown on particular publications. He describes them as so vague that they could hamper investigative reporting, make coverage ``stale,'' and force journalists to rely on ``government handouts.''

The government press clampdown began Oct. 28, when it revoked the licenses of two dailies run by Chinese editors, the Star and Sin Chew Jit Poh. The biweekly Watan also was closed for carrying reports ``prejudicial to national security and public order.'' That clampdown came as local papers and especially the Star moved toward more aggressive coverage of opposition activities.

This relationship of vigorous newspaper coverage and political activism troubles the prime minister. Earlier this fall a government sweep invoked emergency powers to arrest more than 100 political opposition figures for indeterminate detention. The detentions were necessary to avert racial violence, the government said.

Mahathir has justified a New Economic Policy (NEP) as necessary partly to prevent a replay of the 1969 race riots between Malays and Chinese. It is aimed at encouraging the spread of business wealth to the less developed Malays, in hopes Malay advancement would defuse resentment toward the Chinese, who had been allowed to migrate to Malaya under British colonialism.

But in recent years, economic slowdown has meant fewer resources are available for both groups. There has been growing Chinese concern that Malaysia's education policies restricting use of Chinese will make it hard for Chinese to keep their culture. Government policies to shift economic power to Malay businessmen sometimes have drawn criticism for encouraging corruption.

In a recent interview in the Hong Kong magazine Asia Week, Mahathir expressed concern that growing competition among newspapers in Malaysia has encouraged the press to pick up racial issues.

Critics suggest the prime minister's warnings about possible racial violence are exaggerations designed to justify a drastic clampdown necessary to preserve his waning powers.

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