Racial tensions simmer in Malaysia

Indians and Chinese want changes to laws they say benefit ethnic Malays.

Malaysia people and power feature

Indian and Chinese Malaysians say they are discriminated against

As part of People and Power’s Asian season, Aloke Devichand looks at the complexities of race and politics in Malaysia.

Outside the prime minister’s office in Kuala Lumpur, protesters risk imprisonment in order to voice their frustration at policies they say favour Malaysia’s Malay majority.

The demonstrators are mainly from the country’s Indian minority and believe Muslim Malays, known as Bumiputras, or “sons of the soil”, enjoy privileges which are not extended to them.

Discontent among Malaysia’s Indian and Chinese minorities has been simmering since 1971, when the ruling Umno party brought in its New Economic Policy (NEP).

The government believed that an affirmative action policy was needed to address the perception that Malays were marginalised at the time.

But 36 years later, many Indians say their lives are still bound by an affirmative action policy which favours Malays over the other races.

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“We buy a house and the Malays buy a house. Why are they given a seven per cent discount when we poor Indians don’t get any?” Vellay Mundiandy asks.

“They are human beings and we are human beings too. We are also Malaysian citizens just like them. They are Bumiputras and we are merely citizens.”

The Muniandys say such discrimination is already affecting younger generations and say that it is more difficult for non-Malay students to gain access to public universities.


The government denies such allegations and says its policies help families from all backgrounds, not just Malays.

“I think it would be wrong to consider the NEP as purely a Bumiputra agenda.  It is national agenda – it must be seen as a national agenda,” Najib Razak, the deputy prime minister, says.

“Public universities for example – we have departed from the quota system. We’ve gone for a meritocracy system. And as a result of that, the non-Bumiputras have a larger share of entries into the public universities.”

But critics argue such changes are cosmetic and the NEP allows ongoing discrimination.

“This issue of race and how it manifests itself is clear,” Charles Santiago, a political economist and activist who has campaigned against the NEP for years, says.

“If you are Malay and if you are interested in securing loans from the government – you will be given priority because you are Malay.

“If you have a situation where more then 90 per cent of the civil service is Malay – then it must be a product of some kind of discrimination. So the very fabric of this society is race based.”

The government says it is trying to recruit more non-Malays into the civil service, but that, at the same time, private-sector firms – many of which are owned by Chinese Malaysians – should reciprocate. 


The race riots of 1969 remain a
sensitive subject in Malaysia

In this climate of mutual mistrust, Malaysia’s races remain deeply divided.

“The state of affairs of integration amongst students is pathetic,” Santiago says.

“It’s pathetic because if you go to local universities or even public universities or even factories – you will see a group of Chinese on one side, Malays on one side and then you have a small group of Indians on the other side.”

In order to tackle this alleged polarisation of Malaysian society, the government launched a National Service training scheme in 2003.

Lee Lam Thye, the head of the scheme, says a recent survey proves it is succeeding in bringing young Malaysians closer together.

“About 86 per cent of trainees said when interviewed that NS had brought them closer together – in terms of in-racial and inter-cultural understanding,” he says.

Violent past

But some argue that if these students are to enjoy a future free of distrust and division, their country must first deal with its past, namely the race riots of 1969 that still cast a long shadow over Malaysia.

The violent clashes between Malay and Chinese Malaysians claimed almost 200 lives and, decades later, people remain divided about what caused the riots. 

Najib says the violence “was triggered of by some of the demonstrations that were conducted by the opposition parties.

“During which they taunted the Malays and they were quite abusive of the Malays – some of the words and language used was uncalled for. That really set the Malays against them and triggered off the racial riots”.

Kua Kia Soong, the head of a Chinese higher education college, alleges that records kept by the British high commission at the time raise serious doubts about the official history of the riots and says the country would benefit from an independent investigation into what happened.

“I think what’s important is for there to be a national commission of inquiry – and for there to be true national reconciliation in this country I think that history of May 13th has to be put right,” he says.

But Najib disagrees saying the incident is something that happened in the past and that Malaysians simply want to look forward.

Politics of race

Hishammudin Hussein brandished a
traditional dagger at the UMNO assembly

The ruling UMNO party at the time argued that by reducing inequality between the races, the NEP would help create a more harmonious society.

However, some say that its benefits never reached the people who needed it the most and that the UMNO hijacked the policy in order to purse its own interests in the country.

On the other hand, Chandra Muzaffar, a prominent academic, says statistics prove the NEP has significantly reduced poverty amongst Malays.

“In 1969, 49.3 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line. Today it is 5.8 per cent – I think it is a stupendous achievement. Which I think goes to show the NEP has reached the bottom people.”

But Muzaffar argues that this could have been achieved without a policy which discriminates along ethnic lines and that removing ethnic bias is difficult in a country where politics and race are so intertwined.

In 2005, and again last year, Hishammudin Hussein, the leader of the UMNO youth wing, brandished a traditional Malay dagger known as a kris during a speech at the party’s general assembly meeting.

This gesture has been interpreted by some as a threat to anyone who questions special rights for Malays although members of the government claim he was unfairly criticised.

New fears

Vellay Muniandy was praying
when he was attacked

But some Malaysians fear that that while race relations remain tense, there could be fresh outbreaks of violence.

As an example they cite several days of aggression in March 2001 when five ethnic Indians were killed and scores of people were wounded, the vast majority Indian. 

Vellay Muniandy was at his Hindu temple when a young man, armed with a knife, attacked.

 “The assailant struck the temple chief first. He said they are slashing us, run for your life. I ran and later tripped and fell,” Muniandy says.

“I realised the injury only after I got up and started running again. I saw the three fingers dangling from my palm.”

When Muniandy could not be present for work, the company told him to stop and he lost his job.

‘No-one to help’

The government says that the violence was not racially motivated, but was provoked by Indian gangs operating in the area.

Others say that the victims were not linked to gangs and were people from ordinary Indonesian families like Vellay Muniandy.

“The persecution of Indian minorities took place on March 8th 2001 and now we are in 2007,” Charles Santiago says.

“We have made five complaints to the Human Rights Commission. They refused to touch it.”

Even if the truth does come out, it may be too late for Muniandy.

“Especially after I was slashed, I thought they don’t values us anymore,” he says.

“I told my family that we should just go back to India. We are on our own in this country, we have to struggle for survival. There is no one to help us.”

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Source: Al Jazeera