Thursday, March 20, 2008

Malaysian Lessons For Asia's Authoritarians

Two very different uprisings, one in Tibet and one in Malaysia, have exposed the ethnic and political tensions that often seethe beneath the calm surface of Asia's successful economies.

The protests in Tibet spilt blood. Tibetan Buddhists, angered by years of Chinese repression and tempted by the chance to advertise grievances ahead of the Beijing Olympics, set fire to the shops of Han Chinese migrants and attacked Hui Muslims. An unknown number of people were killed - perhaps 13, perhaps 100 - in the inter-ethnic violence and the subsequent crackdown by the security forces, but there is little chance of anything changing in Tibet as a result of this eruption.

Malaysia's upheaval was thankfully more sedate and its effects are likely to be more enduring. The National Front government, dominated by the United Malays National Organisation, is still reeling from the worst electoral setback of its 50-year history. There are now serious doubts about the survival of Malaysia's racially based political system and the continuation of Umno's quasi-authoritarian rule. Yet another south-east Asian nation may adopt the difficult but rewarding practice of genuine multi-party democracy.

The results of the March 8 election came as a surprise. An opposition alliance led by Anwar Ibrahim deprived the government of its two-thirds majority in parliament and secured control of five of Malaysia's 13 states. Umno won just 78 of the 222 parliamentary seats, leaving the National Front in power only by virtue of its shaky hold on parties based in Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

Malay Muslims make up about half of Malaysia's population, while the urban and business-oriented Chinese account for 30 per cent, the Christian and animist inhabitants of Borneo 11 per cent and the Indians 9 per cent.

Following post-election race riots in 1969, Malays and indigenous citizens have been accorded special privileges under a "New Economic Policy" designed to help the bumiputra - the "sons of the soil" - increase their share of the nation's wealth. Chinese and Indian Malaysians forfeited the right to equal treatment in business, education and civil service jobs and were warned off with vague threats of ethnic violence if they made a fuss.

Like the pro-Islamic, state-sanctioned religious chauvinism that goes with it, this unholy bargain makes little sense in today's multiracial Malaysia. The Chinese have long complained about corruption and injustice and have emigrated in tens of thousands. Last year thousands of Indians protested against the demolition of Hindu temples.

But the most remarkable change is among Muslim Malays. The beneficiaries of racial preference have grown weary of the policy as well, for two reasons. First, those Malays profiting the most are not the rural poor but tycoons and hangers-on who win government contracts and share allocations in privatised companies; corruption is rife despite the promises made by Abdullah Badawi, the prime minister, to curb it. Second, successful Malays resent the assumption that they prosper as a result of favouritism.

Mr Anwar, a former Umno politician who was jailed for corruption and accused of sodomy after falling out with Mahathir Mohamad, Mr Abdullah's predecessor, has skilfully exploited these various discontents. "The New Economic Policy benefits the few family members of the ruling establishment and their cronies," he said. The alliance Mr Anwar leads includes his own People's Justice party, which is multiracial and opposes racial preferences; the mainly Chinese Democratic Action party; and the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or Pas. It is hard to overstate the significance (or the difficulty) of bringing such parties together in a country where racial identities have become ossified by legalised racism, particularly when the Chinese remain fearful of the Islamists in Pas.

Yet the potential economic benefits of the opposition's strong showing are already apparent. One portent of a healthier business environment was the post-election share price collapse of companies deemed by investors to have profited from their ties to Umno.

Malaysia ought now to introduce open tenders for government contracts. Opposition-controlled Penang state has already announced the withdrawal of racial preferences for local contracts, a move that prompted an appeal from Mr Abdullah to the head of the Penang state government not to marginalise the Malays. "I want to ask Lim Guan Eng what are his plans for the Malays in Penang? What are his plans for the Indians in Penang?" The right answer would be to treat everyone the same.

Eventually, the impact of this month's election will reach beyond business and the narrow issue of racial preferences. The weakening of Umno and the rise of a multiethnic opposition could herald the kind of changeover from authoritarian rule to democracy that has already occurred in the Philippines and Indonesia and may yet happen in China - to the benefit of Tibetans, Han and Hui alike. (Financial Times, UK)

***** Malaysia's politics has been too 'peninsular-centric' for the past four-and-a-half decades and that is about to change. Sabah and Sarawak have been relegated to the background for far too long and the time is opportune for these states to exert their influence. Right now either of them can wreak havoc in the country by shifting their loyalty from BN to BR. So tenuous is the hold the Centre has on the East now.

Not that Umno did not realise this long ago. We saw the first sign of apprehension when East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) won a majority of seats in the general elections there in the early seventies thereby effectively taking over the centre of executive power from West Pakistan (present Pakistan) which resulted in genocide and ultimately led to the Indo-Pak war in 1971 and the dismemberment of Pakistan. The first thing Umno did after that war was to re-designate our country from the previous 'West and East Malaysia' to the current 'Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak'. Although then it seemed a trifle paranoid and absurd, in retrospect it shows the fears of the then leadership may have been well-founded.
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