Sunday, March 23, 2008

What Outsider says about Malaysian Politics

Race Politics Hobbles Malaysia

By Simon Montlake

In the United States, a nation that likes to see itself as a color-blind meritocracy, debating the electoral prospects of Senator Barack Obama, an African-American, can be a delicate matter. No such decorum applies, however, in multiracial Malaysia, where federal and state elections take place this month. Race is the electoral x-factor, and it doesn't whisper: it screams. To cast a vote along racial lines is expected. Such habits are hardwired into a race-based party political system that has endured, almost unaltered, since independence in 1957. The country's current prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, who scored a big win in 2004, is betting that this system can deliver another victory on March 8. The question is at what cost to Malaysia's long-term prosperity and dynamism?

In Malaysian elections, ideological differences and personal mudslinging are secondary to communal and religious loyalties. Each party seeks to corral its racial constituency into the ballot box. Ethnic Malays are urged to support the Malay-led National Front coalition, lest the other races squeeze them out. To the outsider, such a scenario is farfetched: Malays, the dominant race by dint of population and native roots, command the heights of public life. Mr. Abdullah, like his predecessors, is a Malay-Muslim. Senior ranks in the civil service, judiciary and security forces are overwhelmingly Malay. But in the zero-sum game of Malaysian politics, to assert forcefully the rights of non-Malays is to challenge the political and economic status quo.

This explains the recent uproar over the emergence of the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, an Indian activist network. Its ability to mobilize tens of thousands of angry Indians last November was a challenge to Mr. Abdullah. In response, the courts jailed five Hindraf leaders. Hindraf has also turned the tables on the Malaysian Indian Congress, the junior partner in the governing coalition. Its veteran leader Samy Vellu knows that his position in the cabinet is contingent on delivering the Indian vote. Hindraf supporters are likely to desert his candidates, though. That puts a question mark over the mic's bargaining clout in a future coalition.

Yet far from forcing the government to address their long list of grievances, particularly economic marginalization, a protest vote by Indians may simply further weaken Mr. Vellu, their lone ethnic voice in the cabinet. Some Malaysian-Indian intellectuals even warn that Hindraf's tactics are election fodder for Malay politicians who seek to exploit and prejudices of their followers. In this scenario, a collapse in the government's Indian vote may be matched by a strong turnout by Malays.

Government aides defend the decision to imprison Hindraf leaders as necessary to prevent violence that may have resulted in another high-profile rally in Kuala Lumpur. Hotheaded Malays had threatened to take the fight to Hindraf supporters, these aides say, raising the specter of race riots. Such a risk cuts deeply in Malaysia, particularly for Mr. Abdullah's generation who recall deadly postelection racial clashes in 1969. So the price of stability and social harmony, to Malaysia's governing elite, could be the curtailment of civil and political rights.

But to some observers, the government's handling of Hindraf and other protest movements underscores Malaysia's leadership challenge. Malay politicians only know how to posture, heckle and, when in doubt, send in the riot police. The kinds of protests that pass off peacefully in Manila or Jakarta, where security forces have learned from experience how to contain crowds, are liable in Kuala Lumpur to end in chaos. Last November, while Malaysia's state broadcasters stood clear, foreign networks carried powerful images of columns of riot police breaking up the Hindraf rally with cannons and tear gas. Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin's response found its way to YouTube. The opinion of some was that any defiance of a government order --protests are routinely ruled illegal -- could be regarded as treasonous.

This mindset is increasingly prevalent among Malay politicians who tune out dissenting voices, says Bridget Welsh, assistant professor of Southeast Asian studies at Johns Hopkins University. A longtime Malaysia watcher, she argues that Mr. Abdullah has allowed Malay chauvinism to choke off the pragmatism that has long guided the country's policymakers. Instead of trying to tackle worsening race relations, the government is taking the opposite tack. "When they use force, it only backfires. Using force is all they know. Malaysia's government doesn't realize that criticism can be a good thing," she says.

Race determines much more than whom Malaysians elect to parliament. It determines where they live, pray, eat, socialize and school their children. The fault lines have hardened in recent decades, particularly in education and public service. Malaysia celebrates its diversity, slickly packaged for tourism, but social integration, it seems, isn't on the menu. Some analysts blame the spread of conservative Islam teachings that stress the separation of Muslims from non-Muslims. Once secular public schools now have Muslim prayer rooms. This trend began in the 1980s, when former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad tried to outflank pas, the Islamic opposition party, with more overtly Islamic policies. The current debate over the erosion of secular legal rights for non-Malays as Shariah courts assert their primacy on family law can also be traced back to Mr. Mahathir's office.

The foregrounding of racial politics over national identity isn't new or unique to Malaysia, of course. But a recent national youth survey conducted by the Merdeka Center, a nonpartisan organization, suggest that the views of young Malaysians are skewered by race, to an extent that a previous, less segregated generation probably didn't share. Asked whether they thought that Malaysia's government treated everyone equally, 58% of ethnic Malays agreed, while 37% disagreed. For Chinese and Indians, the answers were reversed: 59% and 58%, respectively, disagreed with the statement. Another question evoked a similar cleaving of youth opinion: Are Malaysians free to speak what they think without fear? While 67% of Malays agreed, only 44% of Chinese and 56% of Indians concurred. The polling was carried out before the Hindraf mass protest and subsequent crackdown.

Managing race relations is a challenge in any multiracial, multifaith society, and even countries that actively promote communal integration, such as the U.S., often stumble over racial and religious fault lines. Simply tag Senator Obama as a Muslim and watch sparks fly. For all the heat and passion generated by Hindraf and other protest movements, as well as the cut and thrust of electoral politics, Malaysia isn't a racial tinderbox. On the streets of Kuala Lumpur, ordinary Malaysians rub along, with their divisions oiled by humor, shared interests and pragmatism. As a former British colony, and reaching back earlier to the 16th century heyday of Malacca as an Asian trading hub, Malaysia shares with Hong Kong and Singapore a mercantile, secular openness and respect for diversity. Indeed, this treatment of different races might be the secret of its success, both as a colonial state and as a modern Asian nation. It's an old story: absorb the talent and energy of newcomers and harness them to the common good. Then watch the economic transformation.

But can this openness survive the political forces roiling modern Malaysia? As one government aide put it, the country has done reasonably well for the more than 50 years since independence. The next 50 will be more challenging, though. One reason is demographic: Malays have larger families than other races. Moreover, immigration policies favor arrivals from Muslim countries, both for migrant labor and permanent settlers. Minorities in Malaysia who complain about economic and political discrimination are convinced that Muslim migrants will be absorbed into the Malay voting bloc, further relegating non-Malays. Far from embracing openness, Malaysia is playing politics with immigration. In January, stricter rules were imposed on overseas Indians working in Malaysia in the wake of the Hindraf rally.

Fed up with second-class treatment, minorities are voting with their feet. The brain drain is hard to quantify, as many white-collar Malaysians emigrate to Singapore and elsewhere without giving up their passport. Time magazine reported last year that around 70,000 mostly Chinese Malaysians had renounced their citizenship over the last 20 years. It's not only the children of the privileged who move on. An Indian taxi driver explained that his university-educated daughter had moved to Singapore after failing to land a civil service job in Malaysia. She is now stamping passports at Changi Airport, he related proudly. That such a position was denied to her in Malaysia speaks volumes about how public jobs can be allocated, and the difficulty of reforming such a system.

The heart of Malaysian politics, beating away after nearly four decades, is the New Economic Policy adopted in the wake of the 1969 race riots. The NEP laid out affirmative action for Malays, who resented the Chinese for dominating the private economy. Privileged access to government contracts, privatized share allocations, civil service jobs and university places has created a Muslim-Malay middle-class. Foreign analysts draw comparisons to South Africa's pro-black policies since its democratic transformation, while pinpointing the same structural weakness of such a system, namely the risk of political corruption. While ordinary Malay bumiputras, or native sons, have reaped the benefits of the NEP, Malay politicians are the biggest winners, since they are the gatekeepers. Companies succored by such largesse are unlikely to compete on the global stage. It's also proven an impediment to negotiating a bilateral trade deal with the U.S., which wants to include government contract biding in any final agreement.

Such criticism is unpopular in Malaysian government circles, though. To question the NEP is to arouse the fury of Malay firebrands. Former European Commission Delegation head, Thierry Rommel, has been among those vilified for labeling bumiputra privileges as protectionism. In 2006, academic Lim Teck Ghee was forced to resign as director of the Center for Public Policy Studies after it released a report that claimed the NEP had already achieved its goal of lifting Malay corporate ownership above 30%. This figure is hotly disputed in Malaysia. The official figure in 2004 was 18.9%, but Mr. Lim and others believe it's much higher, given Malay control of government-linked companies. In 2006, Mr. Abdullah effectively reset the longstanding target of 30% bumiputra equity to 2020 as part of a five-year economic plan. Non-Malays suspect that the economic playing field will never be leveled, though. Only by converting to Islam, they joke, can they hope to get a seat at the table.

The NEP was devised as part of a broad antipoverty policy. Government officials say goals aren't race specific, and point to higher incidences of poverty among Malays, particularly in rural areas. Mr. Abdullah has sought to spread wealth into these areas by promoting economic zones, such as the Iskandar Development Region in Johor Baru, across from Singapore. Such projects are getting a full airing in the current election campaign. After decades of oil-fed expansion in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, spreading the growth more widely is a wise move. But the NEP means that government contracts to build the zones are awarded based on race, not competency or price. If the ultimate goal is to overhaul Malaysia as a competitive economy, such embedded cronyism has its own built-in limitations.

Debunking the NEP is easy. Voting it out will be much harder. Why would a majority dismantle its own privileges? Perhaps this is the ultimate handicap of Malaysia's race-based coalition and the zero-sum game of racial politics. Only Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister cast out in 1998 by Mr. Mahathir, dares oppose the NEP. Given that his audience is largely Malay, credit is due for challenging dogma. But Mr. Anwar is still hostage to racial politics. His efforts to engineer a secular opposition don't convince non-Malays, who remember Mr. Anwar as a firebrand Muslim.

In opposition, as in government, the same rules apply in Malaysia: race comes first. It will take a visionary leader to balance the demands of Malay privilege with the long-term needs of the country. So far, Mr. Abdullah has shown that he is not that leader.


Mr. Montlake is a free-lance writer based in Bangkok.

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