Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Malaysia Turns 50

Hurray, we're free, now lets embrace a totalitarian ideology from the dark ages!

Malaysia's golden anniversary soured by widening ethnic divide

Malaysia marks 50 years of independence this week as an economic success story with a worrying trend: a widening ethnic divide.

Ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian dance troops were to perform together in a national parade Friday to commemorate the end of British colonial rule on Aug. 31, 1957. For many Malaysians, the display of unity will be just a show.

"We see Malaysia being divided into religious and ethnic ghettos," said Farish Noor, a Malaysian political analyst based in Berlin. "That's why I find it so difficult to celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence because I see so few 'Malaysians.' ... Everyone speaks of his own tribe."

At the heart of the polarization is deep disenchantment among the minority Chinese and Indians over two issues. One is a long-running affirmative action program for Malays, a Muslim people that make up 60 percent of the population. The other is the growing influence of Islam, with the apparent blessing of the government.

Analysts warn that minority discontent could upset the ethnic peace that has been the bedrock of Malaysia's stability and economic prosperity. Ethnic Chinese represent 25 percent of the country's 26 million people, and Indians, 10 percent. About 5 percent belong to indigenous groups.

"Sometimes it is disgusting how the Malays treat us. They have no respect for us Indians," Murali Mogan, a 19-year-old barber, said. "If I could, I would leave and settle in London."

Further, if Islamic conservatism is not controlled, many experts fear that Malaysia could become a breeding ground for hard-liners who want to impose a strict interpretation of Islam.

"If you give them space to move in, to maneuver, they will come in," said Al-Mustaqeem M. Radhi, a Malay Muslim who runs the Middle-Eastern Graduates Center, a think tank in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia "could become a fertile ground to train and nurture the extremists."

But Radhi and others play down worries that Malaysia could become a haven for the al-Qaida terror network and its regional affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah. The two organizations tried to recruit Malays and held at least one key meeting here to plot the Sept. 11 attacks. But the network has been rolled up in Malaysia since early 2002.

Economically, Malaysia has much to celebrate.

From a postcolonial tin-mining backwater in the 1950s, Malaysia has grown into an industrial state that exports semiconductors and other electronic goods and aspires to become a fully developed country by 2020.

It boasts the Petronas Twin Towers, the third tallest building in the world, and its new capital, Putrajaya, is a sprawling, leafy city of grand architecture, palatial ministerial homes and fantastically shaped bridges.

Only 5 percent of the population lives in poverty, down from 50 percent at independence. Annual per capita income, adjusted for inflation, has jumped from US$290 (€210) to US$3,700 (€2,700).

The nation's political stability stems from a power-sharing arrangement that has kept the National Front, a coalition of Malay, Chinese, Indian and other parties, in power since 1957.

The unspoken threat of a law that allows indefinite detention without trial also helps keep dissent at bay.

"The Malaysian state realizes that you can maintain soft authoritarianism through a combination of threat and patronage ... to keep things warm but never on the boil," Farish said. "It never lets the situation reach a boiling point but it can cook the Malaysian public for eternity."

Race riots broke out in May 1969, but Malaysia has otherwise enjoyed five decades of generally peaceful ethnic relations. Malik Imtiaz, a prominent constitutional and human rights lawyer, says that reflects racial tolerance, not racial integration.

Entire neighborhoods, and sometimes towns, are identified with a particular ethnicity. The three groups rarely mix outside the workplace and know little about each other's cultures. In university cafeterias and shopping malls, young people tend to cluster by race.

"There is a lot of tolerance among races in many respects. But the comfort level with each other is not there," said Azmi Khalid, the environment minister and a member of the ruling Malay elite.

Minority anger has grown over the New Economic Policy, which has given preference to Malays — historically the poorest group — in jobs, education and businesses since 1971. The policy is credited with lifting the education level of Malays, also known as Bumiputeras, or "sons of the soil." But critics say it has evolved into a tool to benefit a few well-connected Malays.

There are growing calls, even from some Malays, to scrap the policy.

Please let me point out that this "ethnic divide" isn't growing because of anyone OTHER than the Islamists and Gwen Stefani protesting ilk.