Independence celebrations emphasise unity but tensions remain below the surface [Reuters]

Malaysia marks 50 years of independence on Friday with a show of national unity. Ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian performers will come together in a day of colourful celebrations.

 

National unity has pre-occupied Malaysia's
leaders since independence in 1957
But the parades and performances mask a country questioning its multicultural traditions.

 

Today ethnic Malays make up slightly more than half of the population – about 27 million – but control less than 20 per cent of the economy.


The minority Chinese form about 24 per cent of the population but own 40 per cent of the nation's wealth.

 

In an attempt to address this divide, in 1971 the government set up its New Economic Policy, giving ethnic Malays preference in jobs, education and business.

 

But instead of closing the economic gap, many believe the policy, known as the Bumiputra system, has widened the rift between the races.

 

Colonial Malaya

 

The twin towers are an icon of Islamic capitalism
and a symbol of modern Malaysia [EPA]
The iconic Petronas Twin Towers, loomimg high over Kuala Lumpur, are a striking reminder of how far Malaysia has come since independence.

 

Malaysia, known as Malaya back then, was a very different place in 1957.

 

The departing British empire left behind an extremely diverse infant nation, comprising large communities of ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians.

 

More than half of the country lived below the national poverty line, the bulk of whom were ethnic Malays.

 

From the very beginning, national unity was a preoccupation for Malaysia's leaders.

 

Fifty years on, Malaysians are still struggling to find the best ways to get along with each other.

 

Images of the diverse cultures are exploited to promote tourism.

 

Malaysia, the slogan goes, is "truly Asia".

 

Tensions

 

Subramanian has felt the harsh side
of enduring ethnic tensions
But below the surface tensions are simmering, having burst into racial riots in the past.

 

In 2001, Subramanian, an ethnic Indian handyman, was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 

"Two motorbikes with four persons suddenly attacked me… I was wounded," he recalls.

 

"I saw their hand. They were holding a knife about four feet long. I ran to escape but they still chased me and chopped."

 

The New Economic Policy was designed as an economic affirmative action programme favouring ethnic Malays, but it was at the expense of other communities.

 

Expression for change

 

People were also not allowed to express their views on racial or religious issues.

 

That has all changed now, but the issue still stirs controversy.

 

Ethnic harmony is a theme of
government tourist promotions
Last month Wee Meng Chee, an ethnic Chinese, posted a rap song on the internet based on Negaraku, the national anthem.

 

In the homemade video he criticises the government for promoting the interests of ethnic Malays.

 

The video caused an outcry in the Malaysian media, with demands from some areas that he be charged under the country's sedition laws for his perceived disrespect.

 

Musa Hitam, a former Malaysian deputy prime minister, hopes the new openness under the current leadership will be positive.

 

"This sort of expression of dissatisfaction, even based on racial feelings should and could be used in order to improve ourselves," he told Al Jazeera.

 

Malaysia now is one of the richest nations in South-East Asia and is on the verge of ending absolute poverty.

 

As a resuly many people are openly asking if the affirmative action laws favouring ethnic Malays are really still necessary.

 

Right approach

 

Many young Malaysians still do not
socialise with other races [Reuters]
Chandra Muzaffar, a social scientist and former opposition politician, says Malaysia's greatest achievement is inter-ethnic peace, which he says is not the same as unity.

 

"It's not a question of doing this because we're in the 21st century... it is the right approach for all times."

 

What is needed, he says, is "a non-ethnic approach, where the overriding concern is by looking at a person's socio-economic situation, at the needs and realities."

 

So what of Malaysia's plan to foster unity in the next 50 years?

 

The government has launched a national service programme aimed at bringing together young people of all races specifically to encourage more social mixing.

 

But a Saturday night out at Kuala Lumpur's hotspots does not show much mixing between the races, something young Malaysians are aware of.

 

But there are possible signs of changes. One young woman said her generation wanted to break down the racial stereotypes – of Malays as farmers, Chinese as businessmen and Indians as shopkeepers.

 

In another 50 years time, she says, she hopes that everyone would work together as Malaysians and not as different races.

 

In Malaysia, race relations have always been an issue but the question is how the leadership will stop tensions from boiling over again.

Source: Al Jazeera