Malaysia Uncut

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Non-bumi rights crop up once again

Malaysians in heated debate over remarks made by MM Lee

By Reme Ahmad
The Straits Times

THERE is a simple rule in Malaysian politics when it comes to Singapore. Anyone who attacks the Republic gains credibility as a stout defender of Malaysia.Last week, Singapore was used as a whipping boy again. Politicians lined up to take pot shots at Singapore after Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew commented on Malaysia and Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minorities. Yet, something unusual happened as well. Malaysians broke ranks, with many in the Chinese community agreeing with MM Lee’s remarks.

One reason was that the debate had widened to include the prickly question of the rights of non-bumiputeras in Malaysia, a country which has been independent for 49 years.

Non-bumiputeras refer to non-Malays in Malaysia such as the Chinese and Indians, while bumiputeras are the Malays and indigenous peoples.

‘Bumiputera’ in Malay means ‘princes of the soil’.

The term has evolved into a code for the special privileges enjoyed by the Malays.

The race-rights debate, always simmering beneath the surface, has supplanted the Mahathir-Abdullah rift as the most important issue in the Malay and Chinese vernacular newspapers, not to mention Internet news portals and blogs.

What were the remarks that got Malaysians hot under the collar?

At a dialogue for good governance in Singapore on Sept 15, MM Lee had remarked that the attitude of Malaysia and Indonesia towards the Republic was shaped by the way they treated their ethnic Chinese minorities.

He said: ‘My neighbours both have problems with their Chinese. They are successful, they are hardworking and therefore they are systematically marginalised, even in education.

‘And they want Singapore, to put it simply, to be like their Chinese, compliant.’

The reaction in Malaysia was almost instantaneous.

Politicians linked to the ruling Barisan Nasional coaltion government demanded an apology from MM Lee and that he stay out of Malaysian affairs.

Johor politicians wanted pro-Singapore projects spiked.

Singapore’s envoys in Malaysia and Indonesia were summoned by the respective governments and asked for an explanation.

The two main government-linked Chinese political parties, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Penang-based Parti Gerakan, took the line that MM Lee should not interfere in Malaysia’s affairs, arguing that the ethnic Chinese were not marginalised.

But Chinese educationists, a powerful political lobby that mirrors Chinese feelings on the ground, agreed with MM Lee’s remarks.

So too did the opposition Democratic Action Party, which draws its main support from Chinese voters.

Together, they widened the debate into an examination of the political failure of the non-Malay parties within Barisan Nasional to stand up for Chinese and Indian rights.

Opinions in letters and comments in the mainstream media and on Internet websites were split – mostly along racial lines.

Malay newspapers had politicians and opinion leaders pooh-poohing the suggestion that the Chinese were sidelined. They chided MM Lee for interfering in a neighbouring country’s affairs.

The Chinese-language newspapers and politicians were of two minds.

One side said there was no marginalisation while the other said that Malaysia’s 35-year-old pro-Malay programme to help bumiputeras made non-Malays feel like second-class citizens.

The mainstream pro-government English-language papers – the New Straits Times and The Star – remained comparatively muted in their coverage. They reported the news and did not editorialise.

Not so the alternative media – on Internet news portals such as Malaysiakini, chatrooms and blogs.

The views came thick, fast and unvarnished.

The Malay argument on these unfettered channels of communication ran largely along the lines of one opinion logged into an Internet forum: ‘If the Chinese here are marginalised, please explain why the Chinese community forms the bulk of the rich? Not only that, no less than 40 per cent of the wealth in this country is owned by them.’

An editorial in the Utusan Malaysia daily which is owned by Umno, the predominant party within the Barisan Nasional coalition, said: ‘Since the country achieved independence, the Malaysian economy has been controlled by the Chinese.

‘The Malaysian government is happy to follow the concept of power sharing with each ethnic group having a representative in government so that they are not marginalised.’

Those who support this argue that the Malaysian Chinese are well represented in Parliament and the Cabinet.

Malays cite the Forbes 2006 list of the 10 richest Malaysians as proof of Chinese well-being.

Only one Malay – port owner and industrialist Syed Mokhtar Albukhary – is on the list.

The non-Malays disagree.

‘I totally agree with Lee Kuan Yew’s comment. The smartest and brightest Malaysian Chinese are overseas because they don’t have equal opportunities for them in Malaysia,’ said a comment on a blog.

Most Malaysians, whether they agree with MM Lee’s remarks or not, would agree that the trigger point on the nation’s debate about race-rights can be traced to a pro-Malay policy aimed at helping bumiputeras draw level economically with the more advanced Chinese.

Called the New Economic Policy (NEP), it was launched two years after the country’s worst race riots on May 13, 1969 in which the victims were largely Chinese.

While the NEP was designed to eradicate poverty and end the identification of economic function with ethnicity, it evolved almost immediately into a policy favouring Malays in education, the civil service and government-linked businesses.

Largely because of the policy, the Malay professional class has swelled, thanks to help from public funds.

More than a third of the country’s doctors and lawyers are ethnic Malays today, compared to only a handful 35 years ago.

Malays also comprise 20 per cent of all accountants and nearly half of the engineers and surveyors, according to the government’s five-year blueprint, the Ninth Malaysia Plan (2006-2010).

But the policy’s excesses which overwhelmingly resulted in ethnic favouritism gradually drew loud complaints from the Chinese and Indians, many of whom felt they needed as much help as they were not well-off.

Because of the policy. they complained. children of rich Malays received free school textbooks.

Developers give bumiputeras discounts of 5 to 10 per cent to buy million-dollar bungalows.

And there are disputes on whether the government’s aim to make bumiputeras own a 30 per cent equity stake in the economy has been achieved.

While the government says the bumiputera equity stake is now around 18.9 per cent, non-Malay leaders say the figure is 45 per cent.

This would mean that the NEP has to be abandoned because its target has been surpassed.

That is unlikely to happen any time soon, and the conroversy – and race-based angst – will go on.

With or without MM Lee’s contribution.

Source and for comments: http://www.malaysia-today.net/Blog-n/2006/09/non-bumi-rights-crop-up-once-again.htm 

Monday, October 2, 2006 - Posted by | Commentary, Issues

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