Monday, November 17, 2008

Unity in Diversity in the Context of Malaysian Society and Culture

Unity in Diversity in the Context of Malaysian Society and Culture: A Myth or Reality?

Background of the Study
The objective of this paper is twofold. First it attempts to look the issue of unity in diversity in the context of Malaysian society and culture from a historical perspective and second it tries to relate it with the current situation and makes an effort to summarize whether or not there is unity in diversity in the context of Malaysian polyethnic society.

Malaysia gets its independence from the British on 31st August 19571. At that time, there were three major ethnic groups namely the Malays, Chinese and Indians. It is stated in the history books that these three major ethnic groups fought against the British to get independence for the country. However, there is a main question that needs to be pondered; whether these three ethnic groups are truly united or not. This paper will attempt to answer this main question.

Historical Perspective of Malaysian Polyethnic Society
From the historical perspective, the Malays are to be considered as the indigenous group in Malaysia. However, during the colonial period, the Malays had been portrayed negatively by the British officers. In British eyes the foremost of the Malay traits was industry. Malays, as commonly associated, were lazy, unwilling to work for wages and therefore could not be considered a potential pool of labor in the colonial economy (Gullick, 1969: 34). As a result, the Malays were encouraged to be active in their traditional economic activity where agriculture was the domain of their income. It needs to be highlighted here that their traditional economic activity was only self-sufficient and could not generate wealth to them as described in the Malay proverb “kais pagi makan pagi, kais petang makan petang”.

Meanwhile, it was believed that the Chinese have settled in Malaya as early as in the eighteenth century. It was estimated that in 1720 half of the population of Kuala Trengganu was Chinese and there were a thousand Chinese families who settled in Johore. The Chinese in Johore were mainly pepper cultivators and in Trengganu, they were traders and gold miners (Leon Comber, 1986: 2). Many factors served to maintain the cultural and economic gap between Malays and Chinese. Unlike the rural Malays, the Chinese had become an urban group since it was in the Chinese-dominated mining areas that new towns were developing. Thus, in 1891 the total population of Kuala Lumpur was 43 786 people and 79 percent of them were the Chinese (Wang Gungwu, 1959: 41). Demographic and residential divisions were reinforced because administratively the British set apart the Chinese from the Malays. It followed closely with the segregation between the Chinese and the Malays in terms of economic activity. Thus, this serves as the basis of disunity in the context of Malaysian polyethnic society.

Most of the Indian migrants came from the Tamil areas of South India. Recruited from the lowest levels of society, Tamils were accustomed to British rule, more open to discipline than the Chinese, and more willing to work for wages than the Malays (Andaya & Andaya, 2001: 180). During the colonial period, the British government was in need of constant supply of workers for public works, municipal services and road and rail construction. Thus, South India came to be regarded as a ‘natural source’ of laborers for the Malay states. Malaya’s access to the continuing supply of cheap labor provided by Indian migration ensured the later success of the rubber industry.

From the above discussion, it shows that during the British colonial administration there were some sorts of policies, even though it was unwritten, that tend to separate these three main ethnic groups either geographically, residentially or occupationally. The Malays were concentrated in the rural areas and encouraged to engage in a simple self-sufficient agricultural activity. Meanwhile, the Chinese were mostly converged in the urban areas and involved in tin mining, trading and commercial activities. In the meantime, the Indians were exported by the British to work in the estate as laborers as well as for the public works, municipal services and road and rail construction. Therefore, since the early part of the polyethnic Malaysian society, it demonstrates disunity and disintegration among the main ethnic groups. We will deal with this issue in the next following pages.

13th May Racial Riot and New Economic Policy (NEP)

13th May Racial Riot Tragedy
During 1969 general election campaign, there were several issues raised by the opposition parties. These issues, among others, were the controversial issues such as Malay special rights, the privileged position the Malays had in regard to employment, the four-to-one preponderance Malays enjoyed in the senior ranks of the civil service and the barely concealed efforts that were being made to counter Chinese hegemony in commerce and industry (Felix V. Gagliano, 1970: 24).

Polling took place on 10 May. The results were received with disappointment for the Alliance. Although, at parliamentary level, the Alliance won 66 seats and as ten of its candidates had been returned unopposed in Sabah, it was certain that the Alliance had a majority in the Dewan Rakyat2. At the state level, Penang and Kelantan was lost to Gerakan3 and Pan Malaysian Islamic Party4. Gerakan and Democratic Action Party (DAP) had considerable success in Selangor and in Perak People’s Progressive Party (PPP) had won a big number of seats. However, it was fortunate for the Alliance that the Gerakan and PPP refused to join any coalition of opposition’s party, so that the Alliance was able to hang on to the control of the Selangor and Perak legislatures. The Alliance in other words had a rough time to victory (Felix V. Gagliano, 1970: 27).

Although technically speaking the Alliance had won, the opposition parties were excited for the improvement of their position. On the 11th and 12th May, the DAP and Gerakan held ‘victory’ parades in Kuala Lumpur, some of which did not have police permission, which were followed by numerous smaller processions. The uncontrollable crowd slowly wound its way through town, past Kampung Baru, the largest Malay residential area in Kuala Lumpur, hurling abuse and insults as it went (Leon Comber, 1986: 69).

On the next day, rioting occurred in several parts of Kuala Lumpur and it was clear that the government had a very serious emergency on its hands. Malays and Chinese indulged in killing, looting and burning. The police did their best to control the situation in an even-handed way, but as the rioting continued to get out of hand, the army had to be called in and police and army reinforcements were summoned from outside. The situation had become increasingly uncontrollable and a curfew was declared at 8 p.m. on 13 May. On 14 May, intermittent shooting occurred in different parts of the town, and nomadic gangs of Malays and Chinese, fought savagely with each other using any weapons they could lay their hands on. The bloodshed continued on 15 May, and there was firing between the army and armed youths. Clouds of black smoke continued to rise from burning houses, shops and markets (Felix V. Gagliano, 1970: 34).

On 14 May, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong proclaimed a state of national emergency under clause 2 of article 150 of the constitution to secure public safety and the maintenance of good order, the constitution and parliament were suspended, and the elections in East Malaysia were postponed indefinitely. Two days later, Tunku Abdul Rahman set up a ten member National Operations Council (NOC) headed by Tun Abdul Razak, the deputy prime minister, with responsibility for administration under the proclamation of emergency and appointed a new cabinet superior to the Operations Council.

New Economic Policy (NEP)
In the wake of the riots, the government declared a state of national emergency, and Parliament was suspended. The government formed a National Operations Council (NOC), led by Tun Abdul Razak. The implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) was one of the NOC's first decisions, and the plan had the stated goal of "eventually eradicating poverty irrespective of race" through a "rapidly expanding economy", which would reduce the non-Malay share of the economy in relative terms, while increasing it in absolute terms. The net "losses" of the non-Malays would go to the Malays, who held just 1.5 percent of the economy at the time of the May 13 riots. In 1971, Parliament reconvened, and Tun Abdul Razak officially became Prime Minister. That same year, Tun Razak also announced the NEP, as well as some controversial amendments to the Sedition Act that prohibited discussion of repealing certain articles of the Constitution, including Article 153, even in the Houses of Parliament.

As a result of NEP, the wealth in the hands of the Bumiputras went from 4 percent in 1970 to about 18.9 percent in 1990. The overall wealth of the country as a whole also grew; per capita GNP went from RM1142 in 1970 to RM12102 in 1990. During the same period, absolute poverty in the population as a whole dropped from 50 percent to 6.8 percent. The effects of the NEP on wealth distribution are disputed. The Gini index5 declined from 51.3 in 1970 to 44.6 in 1997 and 1987 figures indicated the mean income of the Malays had improved relative to both the Chinese and Indian communities. However, some have used 1997 statistics with 70.2 percent of households in the bottom 40 percent income group as Bumiputra, and 62.7 percent of households in the top 20 percent income bracket as non-Bumiputra, to argue that inequities remain (Jomo Sundaram, 2004: 13). The Gini index also began to increase in the 1990s, going from 44.6 to 46.4 between 1990 and 1995; meanwhile, 1997 figures indicated that Chinese incomes were increasing at a rate double that of Malays. Intra-ethnic income differences also increased markedly, especially among Malays.

Bumiputra participation in the professions and private sector increased as well, although Bumiputras remain somewhat under-represented. Between 1970 and 1990, the Bumiputra share of accountants doubled from 7 to 14 percent, engineers from 7 to 35 percent, doctors from 4 percent to 28 percent, and architects from 4 to 24 percent. The Bumiputra portion of the share market — a figure frequently cited as "a measurement of overall community wealth", despite claims that it was misleading — increased from 2 to 20 percent over the same period according to one academic's measurements. The Chinese share also increased from 37 to 46 percent, at the expense of foreign participation. Official Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange figures from 1998 were even more optimistic, indicating Bumiputra share ownership stood at 28.6 percent in 1990 and 36.7 percent in 1996 (Thock Ker Pong, 2005: 77).

In recent years, the NEP has come under attack as being an inefficient system that promotes a negligent attitude among the Bumiputras. Several policies of the NEP which give economic advantage to the Bumiputras, such as Bumiputra quotas in ownership of public company stock, and housing being sold exclusively to Bumiputras, are viewed as discriminatory for the Chinese and Indians (Jomo Sundaram, 2004: 20).

The NEP is also criticized for not dealing directly with issues of wealth distribution and economic inequality; that it no longer helps the poor but is instead an institutionalized system of handouts for the largest ethnic community in Malaysia as the NEP does not discriminate based on economic class. Bumiputras of high and low economic standing are entitled to the same benefits. The statistical problems of categorizing wealthy and disadvantaged Bumiputras in one group also meant that the NEP's goal of having 30 percent of the national wealth held by Bumiputras was not indicative of a median 60 percent of Bumiputras holding 28 percent of the national wealth, but could theoretically translate into one Bumiputra holding 29 percent of the national wealth, with the remaining Bumiputras sharing 1 percent. Some have alleged that because of this imbalance, some Malays such as those in Penang remain economically marginalized. Criticisms also arose from the fact that there was no planned assistance for Malaysian Chinese and Indian communities to achieve their 40 percent goal during the actual implementation of the NEP.

The education policy of the NEP is one of the plan's more controversial points. Bumiputras were accorded quotas for admission to public universities until 2002. These quotas were fixed, however, and in later years meant that the Bumiputra were chosen a significantly lower percentage of places originally intended, as the population figures used to calculate the quotas were based on 1970s numbers. Despite this, the quotas were still considered by many non-Bumiputra as unfairly rewarding the Bumiputra. The government removed these quotas in 2003 (Jomo Sundaram, 2004: 21).

Conclusion and Discussion
This paper attempts to examine the issue of unity in diversity in the context of Malaysian polyethnic society. It discusses the setting up of the plural society in Malaysia since during the British colonial administration. During this period, there was a clear policy of divide and rule by the British with only one purpose; to set apart the main ethnic groups in the country namely Malays, Chinese and Indians. Although this policy was brought to an end once Malaysia got its independence from the British in 1957, yet it has become a kind of binding precedent that characterize the relationship of these three major ethnic groups. The Malays are still concentrated in the rural areas and involved in simple self-sufficient agricultural economic activity while the Chinese are predominant in the urban areas and engaged in urban-based economic activities which are mostly characterized by commerce and trading. Whereas the Indians are numerous in the estates and employed in the public works, municipal services and road and rail construction. This situation became worse in 1969 where during the general election, the Chinese were openly questioning the ‘special rights’ and position enjoyed by the Malays. This led to the 1969 racial incident.

In order to rectify the situation, the Malaysian government under the leadership of Tun Abdul Razak in 1970 introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP). The NEP had two major goals namely restructuring society to eliminate the identification of ethnic group with economic function and poverty eradication regardless of ethnic groups6. However, over the time the implementation of NEP had raised many other controversial issues and dissatisfaction among the non-Malays especially on the issues of economic assistance to the Bumiputras businessmen and quota system for admission to public universities. In 2006, a major dispute arose when the Asian Strategic and Leadership Institute (ASLI) issued a report calculating Bumiputra-held equity at 45 percent – a completely different from the official government figure of 18.9 percent (Utusan Malaysia, 19th June 2006). The report's publication triggered a relatively vocal public debate about the status of the NEP and its related policies, with many from UMNO questioning the methodology used by ASLI. One strongly disputed issue was ASLI's decision to consider government-linked companies (GLCs) as Bumiputra-owned, inflating the calculated figure of Bumiputra equity. Although ASLI later withdrew the report, citing unspecified errors in its methodology, the debate did not die down. One political analyst suggested that "if Bumiputra equity is 45 percent, then surely the next question is, why the need for Bumiputra rights? It has implications for government policy and it (removing indigenous rights) is one thing UMNO will never accept at present" (Jomo Sundaram, 2004: 49).

From the foregoing discussion, it shows that what is really happening in the Malaysian polyethnic society is not really unity in diversity, but rather conflict and accommodation. In every phase of Malaysian history, there will be a conflict among the major ethnic groups7 and the conflict will be solved by accommodating each other’s needs without jeopardizing the ‘special right’ of Malays. To borrow the term used by Mohamed Aris Othman that we are living in the state of mutually distrusting each other.
1 This year, Malaysians are going to celebrate 50th anniversary of nationhood.
2 Dewan Rakyat is the lower house in the parliament where all of its members are elected by the citizens through general election.
3 Gerakan is the acronym for Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia. In 1970s Gerakan had joined UMNO, MCA and MIC and formed new coalition known as Barisan Nasional [BN] or National Front.
4 Pan Malaysian Islamic Party is now known as Malaysia Islamic Party or Parti Islam Malaysia [PAS].
5 The Gini Index is an index used by the government to measure wealth distribution among various ethnic groups in the country.
6 Second Malaysian Plan.
7 Recently, the Chinese through its political party, Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) has demanded the government to open its tender not only to the Bumiputra businessmen but also to the non-Bumiputra businessmen [Utusan Malaysia, 20th August 2007].
Note: A paper recently I presented at the Round-table Discussion On the Ethnic Inter-relationship in Malaysia organized by the Department of Political Science, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM).

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