Malaysia at 50

Tall buildings, narrow minds
Aug 30th 2007
From The Economist print edition

After 50 years, Malaysia should stop treating a third of its people as not-quite-citizens

THE government of Malaysia has laid on all sorts of grand pageantry this weekend, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Malay peninsula's independence from Britain. There is much to celebrate. Living standards and access to education, health services, sanitation and electricity have soared during those five decades of sovereignty. The country's remarkable modernisation drive was symbolised, nine years ago, by the completion of the Petronas twin towers, in Kuala Lumpur, then the world's tallest buildings.

Yet there will be a hollow ring to the festivities. Malaysia's 50th birthday comes at a time of rising resentment by ethnic Chinese and Indians, together over one-third of the population, at the continuing, systematic discrimination they suffer in favour of the majority bumiputra, or sons of the soil, as Malays and other indigenous groups are called. There are also worries about creeping “Islamisation” among the Malay Muslim majority of what has been a largely secular country, and about the increasingly separate lives that Malay, Chinese and Indian Malaysians are leading. More so than at independence, it is lamented, the different races learn in separate schools, eat separately, work separately and socialise separately. Some are asking: is there really such a thing as a Malaysian?

The pro-bumiputra discrimination was laid down in the country's first constitution, in 1957, to ease Malays' fears of being marginalised by the Chinese and Indian migrants. These had come, supposedly temporarily, to work in the tin mines and plantations but were settling permanently and increasingly dominating business and the professions. The perks were extended greatly after race riots in 1969. Malays get privileged access to public-sector jobs, university places, stockmarket flotations and, above all, government contracts. The most notable result, as with South Africa's similar policy of “black economic empowerment”, has been “encronyment”—the enrichment of those well connected to the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party that has led all governments since independence. Malays as a whole, like other races, have got richer but the gap between the Malay haves and have-nots has widened. The corruption and waste these policies engender seem to have got worse in recent years.

As criticism has grown, UMNO's leaders have resorted ever more frequently to growling that nobody should question the “social contract”. This is a reference to the metaphorical deal struck between the races at independence, in which the Malays got recognition that the country was basically theirs, while the Chinese and Indians were granted citizenship. The veiled threat of violence lurking behind calls to uphold the social contract was made explicit during last year's UMNO conference, at which one delegate talked of being ready to “bathe in blood” to defend Malay privileges and the education minister, no less, brandished a traditional Malay dagger.

The hypocritical Malay dilemma
The social contract may once have seemed necessary to keep the peace but now it and the official racism that it is used to justify look indefensible: it is absurd and unjust to tell the children of families that have lived in Malaysia for generations that, in effect, they are lucky not to be deported and will have to put up with second-class treatment for the rest of their lives, in the name of “racial harmony”. When the mild-mannered Abdullah Badawi took over as prime minister from the fire-breathing Mahathir Mohamad in 2003, there were hopes of change for the better. Mr Badawi preached a moderate, “civilisational” Islam and pledged to crack down on corruption.
Four years on, corruption, facilitated by the pro-Malay policies, is unchecked. The state continues to use draconian internal-security laws, dating back to the colonial era, to silence and threaten critics. UMNO continues to portray itself to Malays as the defender of their privileges yet tries to convince everyone else that it is the guarantor of racial harmony. One commentator this week gently described this as a “paradox”. Hypocrisy would be a better word.

The damage caused by this state racism is ever more evident. Malaysia's once sparkling growth rate has slipped. Racial quotas and protectionism are scaring away some foreign investors. While Malaysians celebrate having done rather better than former British colonies in Africa, they must also notice that South Korea, Taiwan and their estranged ex-spouse Singapore have done much better still. The economic consequences alone justify ending Malaysia's official racism. Even without them, it would still be just plain wrong.

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