Malaysia marks 50 years as a nation – The Irish Times

Simon Roughneen in Dili

KL Tower from the ground (Simon Roughneen)

KL Tower from the ground (Simon Roughneen)

MALAYSIA:As one of the world’s most successful post-colonial states celebrates a half-century of independence, many wonder if the relative harmony that has characterised Malaysian society during much of that time is in jeopardy.

At yesterday’s celebrations attended by regional heads of state and Britain’s Prince Andrew, prime minister Abdullah Badawi voiced pride in his country’s pluralism, but hinted at underlying social tension.

He told tens of thousands of Malaysians who had turned out in the capital’s main square: “We must take care of our unity and we must be ready to destroy any threat which may affect our unity”, a reference to recently-emerging ethnic tensions in what was deemed Asia’s melting-pot.

On August 31st, 1957, Malaya finally broke free from British rule, adding what is now Singapore as well as Sabah and Sarawak in the northern part of Borneo in 1963. Singapore seceded in 1965, and the renamed Malaysia soon after erupted into its one notable episode of political-ethnic violence, when 1969 race riots caused the deaths of about 1,000 Chinese-Malaysians.

Central to stability since then has been the New Economic Policy (NEP): an affirmative-action regime instituted after 1969 to advance socio-economic opportunities for the majority ethnic Malays and other “indigenous” groups. Collectively known as the bumiputera, or “sons of the soil”, these NEP beneficiaries comprise 60 per cent of the population. NEP aimed to bring the bumipetara’s socio-economic status to the level of Chinese- and Indian-Malaysians. Buddhists and Christians predominate among the Indian and Chinese minorities respectively, while Malays are Muslim.

Some say the NEP has run its course. A report issued last year by a local think tank claimed that the bumiputera share of total national equity could now be 45 per cent, well in excess of the 30 per cent target. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malay component of the country’s governing coalition which has ruled uninterrupted since independence, retorted that the bumiputera owned no more than 18.9 per cent of Malaysia’s total equity.

In a now-notorious speech made in June, European Commission envoy Thierry Rommel said: “Malaysia claims that these are infant industries that need to be protected . . . but it is the Malay-centred policy that drives protectionist policies.” The speech sparked a furious reaction from Malay politicians.

Foreign minister Datuk Syed Hamid took Rommel to task for “interfering in the internal affairs and politics of a country”. In another time, such remarks would seem redolent of the prickly defiance of former prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, who lectured the West for years on the merits of “Asian values” over western societies.

However, Rommel’s critique came after a series of court verdicts found that civil courts have no jurisdiction in Islamic matters, even when applied to non-Muslims. In July, deputy prime minister Najib Razik said that “Malaysia has never been a secular state”, adding to tensions raised by junior party figures brandishing daggers at UMNO party gatherings, pledging to “spill blood” to defend Malay rights. And only last week, a rap video on YouTube made by a Chinese-Malaysian living in Taiwan, stoked Malay anger and vitriolic online inter-ethnic slanging matches, with its portrayal of Malays as laid back and Chinese as hard working.

After prime ministers Badawi and Mahathir, Malaysia’s most prominent political figure is Anwar Ibrahim. Jailed in 1999 after being found guilty of corruption and sodomy, Anwar was released in 2004 after the sodomy conviction was reversed, but he remains barred from participating in party politics until April 2008. It is thought that Badawi may call snap elections before next April to undermine any Anwar-led opposition campaign, which could centre around revising the NEP, but would also seek to mould an unwieldy coalition of Islamists and secular Chinese and Indian parties.

Thus the Islamisation of UMNO political discourse is perhaps done with elections in mind, to curb the appeal of Malaysia’s Islamist parties among Malays who seek a closer identification of state and Islam.

Malaysia has been an economic success. Known for tin-mining and rubber-tapping in the 1950s, it is an industrial state that exports semiconductors and other electronic goods.

The Petronas Twin Towers is the third tallest building in the world, and the new capital, Putrajaya, features imposing architecture and notably ornate bridges. Only 5 per cent of the population lives in poverty, down from 50 per cent at independence. Annual per capita income stands at $3,700 (€2,712).

Compared with multiethnic neighbours such as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, the Malaysian brand of soft authoritarianism has maintained political stability, with no violent political conflict, 1969 aside.

But with socio-economic disaffection merging with ethnic and religious tension, Malaysia’s Golden Jubilee may be a time to look at the challenges of the immediate future, rather than basking in past achievements.

© 2007 The Irish Times

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