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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 22 September 17, 1969

Malaysia Background to a Crisis

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Malaysia Background to a Crisis

The Malaysian myth has exploded. The nation that has always been held up to us by our politicians as an example of Asian democracy is now racked by communal strife and is under a state of emergency for an indefinite period. It is important to look behind this facade that has for so long been presented to us to see whether Malaysia has ever been a working multiracial Asian democracy, and just how the present situation has come about.

In so far as it comprises different racial groups Malaysia is a multi-racial society.

The Malays are the largest racial group comprising slightly less than half the total population. They are Moslems with a culture and language akin to that of Indonesia where many of them came from. Basically they are a rural people, most of them being farmers. Malay nationalism and the Moslem religion have their greatest influence in the more isolated eastern and northern areas of the country.

The Chinese are relatively recent arrivals in Malaysia, although there have been some there for centuries back. Most came from Southern China in the last 100 years or so to work in tin mining and small trading. They number about 38 per cent of the total population. They are mainly urban dwellers and are concentrated in the Western part of the country, around Kuala Lumpur (which is 80% Chinese), in the northwestern states of Perak and Penang and in eastern Malaysia (Sabak and Sarawak). They are predominant in commerce and industry and the professions, in particular rubber and tin mining and innumerable small shops and service industries. The majority are now Malaysian citizens', but a number have not taken out Malaysian citizenship. Until twenty years ago most regarded themselves as Chinese rather than Malaysians and looked to China as their country, where they or their parents had been born, to which they remitted money to support their relatives, intending to return one day. Today, this view is not a general one, and all young Chinese born in Malaysia are automatically Malaysian citizens.

The Indian community numbers around 11 percent of the population. Like the Chinese they are also mainly urban dwellers and play a significant part in commerce and the professions. However their range of occupations is greater and they also predominate in manual occupations, and large numbers of them are clerks.

These are the three main racial groups. In addition in eastern Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) are other racial groups such as the Dyaks and Ibans who form a majority of the population in those areas. It is interesting to note that the Malays themselves are a minoriy group in that they comprise less than haíf the total population. There is very little intermarriage between Chinese and Malays, religious reasons preventing the Malays from marrying outside, and a feeling of racial pride preventing the Chinese.

When Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957 it was under the Alliance Party headed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, which is still in power today. The Alliance is not really a single political party but rather a federation of three organisations representing the main racial groupings viz.

The United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) representing the Malays, headed by the Tunku, and the predominant partner in the Alliance, The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) representing the Chinese and The Malaysian Indian Congress representing the Indians. This coalition dates from 1953 when the oragnisation joined together, basically to promote independence for Malaya. Each organisation was promised a proportionate share in an Alliance Government following independence. The Alliance won sweeping victories in elections before independence and swamped the opposition in the 1964 elections, winning 89 seats out of 104 in West Malaysia. There is no doubt that at this time the Alliance enjoyed widespread popular support, although this support was not as great as the number of scats makes it appear.

The Alliance has tried, at least on the surface, to instil the idea of a Malaysian Malaysia among the different racial groups; that people should regard themselves as Malaysians rather than Malays. Chinese or Indians. It represented, for the first few years anyway, not so much an attempt at multi racialism, but rather a realisation that Malaysia would never become a viable nation unless all the racial groups attempted to work together. How sincerely each group believed that genuine partnership of the races was possible is difficult to say. but the Tunku seemed to set the prevailing attitude when he adopted Chinese children into his family. On the other hand the Alliance can be regarded as merely an attempt by each racial group to protect its own position. They entered the alliance because the alternative was being left out of power. At least the Alliance did mean that Chinese and Indians its well as Malays took part in the Government. Of the 89 Alliance members of Parliament elected in 1964, 59 were Malays, 27 Chinese and 3 Indians. In a few cases Chinese candidates standing under the Alliance banner, were elected for predominantly Malay constituencies. Of .the Cabinet of twelve betwen 1964 and 1969, three were Chinese and two Indians. Nevertheless the Alliance had its internal problems. The Malay organisation UMNO, has been the dominant partner in the Alliance and has often imposed candidates and policies on the other two groups without seeking their views. But still the Alliance held together.

In the general election in May this year the Alliance suffered a stunning and unexpected rebuff, losing 23 of its 89 seats in West Malaysia. While this still gave it a majority of 66 to the oppostiion partys' 38 in Western Malaysia, for the first time its previously overwhelming majority had been tut into. Following the disturbances after the election, the elections due to be held in eastern Malaysia, which has 40 seats in the Federal Parliament, were postponed indefinitely and have yet to be held. The Alliance had previously won 10 of these seats unopposed which would have given them a total of 76 seats out of the total of 144 in the Federal Parliament—a bare majority. They are also likely to have won most of the other seats in Eastern Malaysia, which would have given them a total of around 90 out of the 144 seats, still a comfortable majority. However for the first time the Alliance vote fell below 50% of the total. The worst loser in the Alliance was the MCA which lost 14 of its 27 seats, amounting to a virtual repudiation of its policies by the Chinese community. Following this rebuff the three Chinese members of the Cabinet resigned, but have since agreed to serve as Ministers without portfolio to maintain a multi-racial government for the meantime.

Opposition to the Alliance comes from two main quarters; from Malay nationalism on the one side and Chinese nationalism on the other. There are five main opposition political parties sharing the total of 38 seats.

The Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PMIP) which won 12 seats is a Malay party which calls for the exclusion of Chinese from the government with all power and privileges to be in Malay hands and with government to be based On Moslem law. It is thus an overtly racialist party, and made deep inroads into Alliance support in the rural areas, particularly in the isolated East Coast regions where it controls the state government of Kelantan.

At the other end of the spectrum is the marxist oriented Labour party, which boy-cotted the election because most of its leaders were in gaol. It is an exclusively Chinese party and draws its support from the industrial towns and port areas.

In between these two extremes are three other largely Chinese parties. The largest with 13 seats, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) the Malaysian offshoot of Lee Kuan Yew's Peoples Progressive Party in Singapore. It is basically a social democrat party calling for more welfare measures and more state control of the economy. Somewhat similar is the People's Progressive Party (PPP) not to be Confused with the Singapore party of the same name, which won 4 seats and is powerful in the tin mining areas of Perak state in the northwest. A new party at the elections was the Gerakan Rakyat, a moderate middle of the road party which won 8 seats, and received considerable support from university circles and the professions. It also managed to attract significant non-Chinese support. None of these parties can be described as overtly racialist or exclusively Chinese.

The opposition is thus very splintered [unclear: d] there is no possibility of their combining to present a realistic alternative to the Alliance government. Issues of personalities prevent any effective cooperation between the left of centre parties which look with as much suspicion on each other as they do the Alliance. There has however been some talk of the Alliance bringing the moderate Gerakan Rakyat into the government, although the Alliance has denied this.

The Opposition parties have also been able to win control of some state governments. In the recent elections the Gerakan Rakyat won control of Penang State from the Alliance and the Alliance and opposition have equal numbers in the state assemblies of Selangor and Perak both largely Chinese states. Previously the Alliance controlled ten of the eleven state governments. The PMIP retained control in the Malay state of Kelantan in the northeast.

Overall, the election results showed a polarisation of political attitudes, the Malays moving towards the extremist PMIP and the Chinese towards the left of centre opposition parties. The results show the growing dissatisfaction of the Chinese with the deal they have been getting from the Alliance and a desire for more political power, and a corresponding opposition to any move by the Malays. The Alliance has thus been caught from both sides. The Chinese have criticised it for being pro-Malay while the Malays have attacked it for being pro-Chinese.

The source of the clash of interests between Chinese and Malays, lies in the questions of political and economic power. Broadly the Chinese exercise the economic power and the Malays the political power. Chinese domination of commerce and industry has been fostered by their entrepreneurial spirit, whereas the Malays have always been tied to the land. In addition, the Chinese, along with the Indians, have always acted firmly to maintain their closed shop and prevent outsiders, namely the Malays, from getting a foothold in commerce. Until comparatively recently no significant amount of commerce was in Malay hands. Malay domination of the political scene has been maintained largely by the gerrymandering of electorates, and aíso until a few years ago by placing difficulties in the way of Chinese becoming citizens. The gerrymandering of electorates has meant that the urban areas containing the bulk of the Chinese voters have been under-represented and the rural areas containing mostly Malays, over-represented. The number of votes in each constituency varies from as much as 80,000 in Kuala Lumpur to less than 20,000 in some areas of the rural east. Each Malay vote has counted for around two Chinese votes This over-representation of rural areas has also enabled the Alliance until recently to retain control of nearly all the eleven state governments. Specifically' this has helped the UMNO party of the Alliance, rather than the Alliance as a whole, but whatever way it is looked at it means the Chinese have been under-represented in the political scene.

page 5

David Shand (right), the writer of this article is International Vice-President of NZUSA. He has visited Malaysia several times and was in Kuala Lumper just before the elections last May.

Photo of David Shand

Many of the Chinese have been prepared to accept political domination by the Malays and various other forms of discriminations so long as they can maintain their position in commerce. This has been one of the reasons for the support given to the MCA by the more affluent Chinese business interests. Making money has seemed more important to them than making laws. This has been reinforced by an attitude prevalent among Chinese until fairly recently that Malaysia was the homeland of the Malays and that the Chinese could not expect as more recent immigrants to enjoy equal political rights. This attitude has diminished with the large number of Chinese who have acquired Malaysian citizenship, and the fact that younger Chinese regard Malaysia as their country, not China. The idea of China as their homeland is about as meaningful to them as the concept of Britain as "home" is to young New Zealanders.

The attitude of the Malays and UMNO has been that Malays must play a greater role in economic life, and that because of their relatively under-developed position and lower per capita incomes, special provisions are necessary if the Malays are to raise their economic status. They have maintained that equal political rights for the Chinese are not possible until the Malays have gained equal economic status. The situation has come to the point where the Chinese want equal rights and some of the discriminations removed, which the Alliance has not been prepared to do. This was the main season for the overwhelming rejection of the Chinese part of the Alliance, the MCA by Chinese voters in the election. To some extent these demands for more political say have arisen from the sense of belonging to Malaysia which the Alliance has on the surface attempted to instil into the Chinese. It could therefore be said that the Alliance is the victim of its own policies.

The Malaysian Constitution lays down that the Malays are to receive certain economic privileges over other sections of the community. It provides that a certain proportion of civil service jobs, government scholarships and trading licences issued by the government must be set aside for Malays. The proportion of civil service jobs allocated to Malays is currently three quarters. Understandably Chinese who are rejected by the civil service in favour of Malays with inferior qualifications, and Chinese civil servants seeing their Malay counterparts being given higher salaries and more promotion, became somewhat embittered. And one can understand the chagrin of Chinese applicants for scholarships missing out to Malays with inferior academic records, all because a certain quota of scholarships must be set aside for Malays. The Malay argument is that all these provisions are necessary if the Malays are to raise themselves to economic parity with the Chinese.

There are other discriminations under which the Chinese suffer. Apart from their under-representation politically, the Malay language is the national language and the Malay religion is the state religion. These are the language and religion of less than half the total population. Until this year English was a joint official language along with Malay but ( apart from special provisions for East Malaysia) it is now being phased out in favour of Malay. All school children are required to learn Malay and all official business will be in Malay. The Government's justification is that this is necessary to stimulate national consciousness of Malaysia as a nation. There is some justification for this in that at present large sections of the community cannot communicate with one another because they speak different languages. Nor can they read the same newspapers or understand the same radio programme. The educated sections can communicate through English, but the great hulk of the population does not speak English. Yet the resentment of Chinese and Indians to Malay as the national language is understandable.

The Moslem religion being the state religion, is subsidised by the state. Mosques are constructed with state funds and pilgrimages to Mecca are organised with state funds. In the rural areas the Government and the opposition PMIP vie with one another in promising more money for mosques if they are elected.

With the armed forces the top echelons of the civil service and the judiciary overwhelmingly Malay, the Chinese not unnaturally are suspicions of their eventual place in Malaysia.

It seems clear from this that the Malaysian government's policies can hardly be described as multi-raeialism. It is a policy where merit takes a second place to race; a policy of levelling of the races when the Malays are to be brought to economic parity with the Chinese by withholding equal political influence from the Chinese and giving special privilege to the Malays. The Chinese have not been made to feel they will have an equal place in Malaysia; their future position will be on Malay terms.

Against this background it is easy to see why the Chinese have come to doubt the sincerity of the Alliance when it talks of multi-racialism and to understand their desire for more political recognition. The refusal of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore to accept such a policy, was one of the reasons why Singapore was pushed out of Malaysia by the Tunku in 1965. It is equally easy to understand the Malays distrust of these demands by the Chinese, who already have nearly complete control of the economic life of the country.

A further factor is that the Alliance Government has never been noticeably democratic or scrupulous in dealing with its political opponents. Their once overwhelming control of power has made them very dictatorial in these matters. The Internal Security Act gives the Government the right to detain any person indefinitely without trial if it considers him a threat to public security. This is worse than even the South African laws where there is a 180 day limit. Under this law several hundred political opponents of the Government were in detention before the disturbances. They are mainly trade union officials, and members of the Labour Party and the PMIP. The number in detention since the recent disturbances is now much higher including at least one nearly elected opposition MP. Dissent by demonstration has never been encouraged either. During the visit of Vice President Humphrey to Kuala Lumpur in 1966 it was announced that all demonstrators would be shot on sight. Even political debate has been discouraged. University students have been forbidden to form political clubs or indulge in political discussions. The Alliance Government has not even thought it necessary to observe the niceties of elections in some cases. Local government (i.e. town and city council) elections are supposed to be held every two years, yet none have taken place since 1965. When the opposition parties won control of the Kuala Lumpur City Council in 1963 the government dismissed the Council and replaced it by direct government rule. The State of Emergency, still in force at the present time gives the Government the powers to hold special trials. alter any law without the consent of Parliament, to revoke the citizenship of any person, and to impose any penalty or sentence (including death) without recourse to the Courts. The elections in East Malaysia have been postponed and there is no indication as to when if at all. they will take place, although there have been no disturbances in that region. The press is licensed and permits to publish can be withheld for papers which stray too far from a certain point of view. The arsenal of repressive powers with which the Government has armed itself would make Mr Vorster envious. Yet so little of this is known in this country that we have always thought of Malaysia as democratic.

The behaviour of the Alliance Government alter the recent disturbances can hardly be expected to reassure those who hope for a restoration of Parliamentary rule, nor can it be expected to reassure the Chinese of their future place in Malaysia. The exact origin of the disturbances, which broke out after the elections on 13 May is obscure but seems to stem mainly from victory processions by groups of Chinese and Indian supporters of the DAP through Kuala Lumpur, which clashed with groups of Malays. The Tunku immediately put the entire blame on the Chinese community whom he indirectly linked with disloyal Communist elements. This had the effect of fanning the flames still further. However the Government refused to allow opposition Chinese leaders to go on the State broadcasting network and appeal for calm and order among their supporters. In addition it is clear that the great majority of those killed during the disturbances were Chinese Foreign correspondents in Kuala Lumpur have given reports of the Malaysian army (as mentioned almost entirely Malay in composition) firing indiscriminantly into houses and at people in the Chinese areas, while elsewhere gangs of Malay youths roamed freely around. The Governments handling of the crisis has been at best clumsy and at worst deplorable.

No background coverage of Malaysia would be complete without some reference to the Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. He is a shrewd politician of no great intellect or administrative ability who until recently has managed to appear as a national leader. He has had the best of both worlds, satisfying his Malay supporters that he has been looking after their interests vis-a-vis the Chinese and on the other hand securing considerable Chinese support through appearing to promote a multi-racial society. Now he is caught in the middle and attacked by both sides. Once he was a hero to the Malays. Now he is bitterly attacked by some of them as a tool of the Chinese, and attempts have been made to remove him as leader of UMNO. His majority in his constituency was heavily reduced in the election.

He has publicly stated his intention to retire in the near future, and his likely successor, the Deputy Prime Minister Tun Razak, while a man of considerable administrative ability has little of the charisma or prestige of the Tunku. It is most unlikely that he will be abe to restore any degree of racial harmony.

In the present circumstances there does not seem to be any middle way for Malaysia. The polarisation of attitudes by the different racial communities seems destined to produce further troubles in the future. It seems clear that the Alliance Govrenment cannot last and as there is no real alternative government we may well see some form of guided democracy or dictatorship come about. However there is at least a possibility that some elements of UMNO will combine with the extremist PMIP to form a Malay only government. This would really mark the disintegration of Malaysia.

In the present circumstances there does not seem to be any middle way for Malaysia.