Chinese in Malaysia, Indonesia prosper despite biased laws
To outsiders, the minority ethnic Chinese of Malaysia and Indonesia present an image of hardworking traders and tycoons.But it has not been an easy climb to success. For decades, Chinese in Malaysia have silently endured government policies giving the country’s majority ethnic Malays preference in education, business, politics and religion.In Indonesia, Chinese were banned from celebrating festivals, forming political parties and publishing newspapers during the 32-year rule of former dictator Suharto. They were encouraged to take Indonesian-sounding names but denied citizenship, and were often the target of mob violence.Neighboring Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew put the spotlight on the Chinese when he told a forum last month that Indonesian and Malaysian governments have “systematically marginalized” them.
Following a furious diplomatic spat, Lee apologized for causing offense.
“The Malaysian history has shown that even in a crisis, we have never marginalized any race,” said Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin. “In fact, Malaysia has successfully overcome economic and racial crises and in the end, racial solidarity was strengthened.”
But analysts warn against ignoring simmering discontent among the Chinese, who form a quarter of Malaysia’s 26 million people. Mostly Muslim Malays make up about 60 percent, and ethnic Indians 10 percent.
“The dangers are very obvious. We are a multiracial, multicultural society. And this marginalization may affect fundamentally race relations and the security of the country,” said Lim Teck Ghee, director of the Center for Public Policy Studies think tank.
But while Lim and others agree that Lee has a point, they say the full picture is not as dismal.
The Chinese language, culture and media flourish in Malaysia. Chinese-run schools are among the country’s best – although the government has limited their number despite growing demand – and the community owns about 40 percent of the stock market.
“They (Chinese) find they are living quite well in Malaysia. The have a very strong sense of belonging. And when they compare themselves to other Chinese Diaspora, they find they are quite OK,” said Prof. Hou Kok Chung, director of the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya.
Indonesia’s Chinese have fared better after Suharto’s 1998 ouster in a pro-democracy movement. Anti-Chinese regulations have been lifted, and the community’s newspapers and parties are allowed to operate.
But many Chinese, whose ancestors came as settlers in the 15th century, say discrimination lingers – mostly as higher fees charged for citizenship documents and government permits.
“Discrimination against people like me … continues to his day,” said Kuntjoro Halim, who sells traditional herbal cures in Jakarta’s crowded Chinatown. “It has become a habit of government employees to ask for more money when they deal with Chinese. We cannot do anything.”
In Malaysia, racial discrimination complaints are almost never heard openly. The government discourages them, and most people agree. After all, at stake is a carefully nurtured racial harmony that has lasted decades, in a country often hailed as a shining example of peaceful coexistence among diverse ethnic groups.
The last major race riots, in May 1969, killed hundreds. The violence was triggered by the economic disparity between poverty-stricken Malays and rich Chinese, who’d been promoted by British colonial rulers until independence in 1957.
Many Malays see the Chinese – descendants of 19th-century migrants – as outsiders, and call themselves Bumiputeras, or “sons of the soil.”
The government introduced a “New Economic Policy,” or “Bumiputera policy,” in 1971, aimed at giving the Malays a greater share of national wealth.
Many Chinese privately complain that the policy amounts to discrimination against Chinese and Indians.
Examples are many. A quota system ensured until 2003 that more than half of all university places go to Malays, regardless of academic qualifications.
Also, at least 30 percent of shares in public listed companies must be held by Malays, who can also buy new homes – from luxury condos to low-cost housing – at a 7 percent discount.
Islam is the official religion, and takes precedence over others.The United Malays National Organization party has been in power since independence, dominating a ruling coalition in which Chinese and Indians have a limited political share.
There is also indirect discrimination.
No non-Malays make top positions in the police, armed forces or public universities, said Liu Tian Khiew, a senior member of the opposition Chinese-based Democratic Action Party.
He said non-Malays’ chances of promotion in civil service are minuscule, and gasoline station operators’ licenses are given exclusively to Malays.
Chinese political leaders have accepted the Bumiputera policy quietly, not wanting a confrontation that could risk upsetting their economic apple cart.
Such acquiescence is ingrained in Chinese culture, said Prof. Wang Gungwu, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.
“They (Chinese) have a very realistic, rational and practical attitude to life. Life is hard; they accept that as a norm,” he said. “As long as they and their children can have opportunities, that system is not totally bad.”
“Chinese do not start rebellions readily, however unhappy they might be,” Wang said. “On the whole, they are much more involved in making a livelihood, becoming wealthy if possible.”
Malaysian government statistics show 43.2 percent of share capital of limited companies lies in Chinese hands, while Malays have 18.7 percent. Chinese control about half the country’s mining industry, 44 percent of wholesale and retail trade, and almost half of all transport and construction businesses.
The government has tried to give Chinese more scholarships to study abroad. Only Malays got them in the past.
However, danger to the status quo could come from young Chinese and Indians, who may not accept the Bumiputera policy forever, said Lim, the political analyst.
“There will be a rising trend of non-Malays, particularly among the young, questioning whether this country, this society is giving them the full right that the other citizens enjoy,” Lim said.