Asia Sentinel | 28 November 2007
Malaysia’s Racial Policies Draw International Scrutiny
Growing reaction to presumed Malay supremacy over other races earns disquiet from India and other countries
Malaysia’s racial policies look as though they could become an international issue rather than a purely domestic one. The protest organized by the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) in Kuala Lumpur on November 25 not only drew international attention to the plight of the Malaysian Indian community, it reminded a wider audience, not least an increasingly self-confident Chinese one, of the discrimination faced by nearly half the nation’s population.
Just Wednesday, for instance, the Tamil Nadu state chief minister, M Karunanid, asked Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take action on Indians in Malaysia following publicity over the mass rally.
The appeals by the Hindu rights movement to both the UK and the International Court of Justice have probably been too extreme to be taken very seriously in themselves even by activists in India. They are also specifically Hindu and Tamil rather than encompassing all Malaysian Indian groups. (see letter below addressed to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown) They appear to have alienated many of the middle class Malaysian Indians who are best equipped to take the case forward. Likewise the legal case brought in London against the British government for being responsible for bringing Indians to Malaysia in the first place looks more like a publicity stunt than a winnable case.
However, the issue is now a live one beyond Malaysian borders. Hitherto the country’s racial preferences have largely escaped foreign attention despite their overt and sustained discrimination against non-Malays. Western countries prone to lecturing about human rights and equality have generally viewed Malaysia as a “special case” and as a nation sufficiently friendly in other respects that they did not to want to ruffle feathers in Kuala Lumpur. Sanctimonious statements by former colonialists could anyway be counter-productive.
Developing countries, notably India and China, have avoided comment because of their commitment to non-interference in others’ internal affairs.
In China’s case this has been re-enforced by the need to win friends in Southeast Asia, and the desire to avoid old perceptions past that ethnic Chinese were expected to be loyal to Beijing as much as to their foreign homelands. Both the Kuomintang in the 1930s and 1940s and the Communists during their revolutionary phase in the 1950s and 1960s had sought the allegiance of local Chinese, many of whom then still held Chinese nationality.
For sure, both China and India remain keen to develop relations with Malaysia for both economic and strategic reasons. China remains very sensitive to suggestions that its relationship with ethnic Chinese may conflict with the broader interests of Southeast Asian countries. However attitudes in both countries are probably changing as they assume a larger role on the world stage. In China’s case this is focused on the successes of the nation. In the case of India it is as more focused on the success of ethnic Indians. Although the number of overseas Indians is only a quarter of the Chinese population, Malaysia is second only to the US as a home for overseas Indians. So it does not take long for Indians to wonder why their immigrants to the US have been so successful - top of the migrant league in terms of income - while their fellows in Malaysia languish at the bottom of the pile despite having been there for a century.
Some of the historical reasons s for this may not be appreciated by Indians elsewhere. These include the low social and economic position of the original Tamil indentured plantation workers brought in by the British and whose descendents comprise 80 percent of Malaysian Indians. (Malayalis from Kerala and Sri Lankan Tamils brought in as clerks, Sikhs as policemen and Sindhis who came as businessmen have all done much better).Caste, linguistic and religious divides have all held back the broader Malaysian Indian community. The incompetence of its political representation, the Malaysian Indian Congress, has added to the community’s woes, leaving it lagging all others in income, wealth and higher education.
But the Indians now have an overseas audience that is unlikely to remain silent and will doubtless press a reluctant Delhi, sometimes said to be biased against Tamil-dominated groups, to get involved. For sure, caution has been the watchword in other instances of ethnic Indian problems in developing countries. Delhi expressed “regret” when the first ethnic Indian prime minister of Fiji, Mahendra Chaudhry, was overthrown in a 2000 coup by a military unhappy to have a non-Melanesian leader, but it has largely refrained from overt support for the ethnic cause.
Malaysia could be different. The numbers are greater, it is closer geographically, has strong economic links and no shortage of eloquent lawyers to keep its grievances in the public eye. Projects such as the multimedia corridor need to attract Indian talent and episodes such as the demonstrations, temple destructions and ill-treatment of visiting Indians do not help. India also has a Ministry for Overseas Indian Affairs which can and does provide help for Indians overseas holding dual nationality. That is not the case with Malaysian Indians because they are not permitted dual nationality. But the potential to extend the ambit of the ministry is there.
Even in the case of China sensitivity is on the rise. An incident two years ago when visiting Chinese women were strip-searched and humiliated drew lots of publicity and a (rare) apology from the Malaysian government. Tourist arrivals from China slumped.
Likewise mainland publicity was given to attacks on Indonesian Chinese in the disorder accompanying the downfall of President Suharto. The large numbers of mainland Chinese now working and traveling abroad has led to pressure in the media on the government to protect them. There appears to be a growing expectation in some quarters that Beijing has a duty to lean on foreign governments on behalf of overseas Chinese if circumstances warrant. It is part of China’s heightened sense of nationalism. China’s nationality law can also be a help. Although China, like Malaysia, outlaws dual nationality, it will readily grant citizenship to ethnic Chinese if they renounce their previous allegiance, without requiring residence in China.
The past few years have seen Malaysia rack up huge current account surpluses, enabling local Chinese to export capital, some of it to the mainland, on a huge scale. This freedom has acted as a safety valve even as it has also meant that local investment has been slowed. However, when the business cycle turns again, tight money and the persistence of racial discrimination may create a different atmosphere and one in which Beijing, an ever more important trading partner, will feel inclined to meddle on behalf of ethnic Chinese.
But there are other issues bringing attention to Malaysia’s racial policies. It is, for instance, more difficult to make the case against Israel’s grossly racist discrimination against its 20 percent non-Jewish minority when Malaysia has similar practices. Even many Muslim peoples find it hard to accept the identification of Malay with Muslim and the resulting entitlement when Islam is a religion that transcends race and tribe.
Some also see the all too frequent harassment of blacks from Africa and the US and of migrant workers from India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, as at least partly due to the attitudes of Malay-dominated police and other authorities and the belief that Malays can do what they like in “their” country.
Then there are the economic issues. A Free Trade Agreement with the US is stalled partly on the issue of racial preferences. And if the much vaunted ASEAN Free Trade Area is to allow free movement of capital and skilled labor, Malays cannot be shielded from competition with ASEAN’s 400 million people.
Small in themselves, the sum of these factors may bring Malaysian policies under much closer foreign scrutiny and perhaps convince the Malay elite that the current system is demeaning to Malays in general and largely benefits the middle and upper income groups, not the lower income Malays who deserve help.