The blame for continued activities of these terrorists must therefore be attributed indirectly to the other Chinese. “14 It was thus that a common crisis, which could have allowed disparate communities to unite against a common enemy, instead caused even further rifts between the communities. A side but significant effect of the following period of Emergency was the strengthened hold of the Malays on the political institutions of Malaya. This is because the British were more inclined to trust the Malays in government positions because of their relative insulation from communist ideas15.
This was to have the effect of further exacerbating the political rift among Malays and Chinese. Other than the unfortunate turn of events that contributed towards the not too friendly attitudes of the various ethnic groups towards each other, there have been scholars that pointed out that part of the problem lies in the fact that the cultural and religious outlook of the Malays and Chinese predispose them towards being snobbish towards each other, that they simply could not like each other because of who they are.
Each community, having great pride in its own heritage viewed the other races with disdain16.
The Chinese on their part viewed the Malays as being lazy17 and only wanting to live off the fruits of others18. The Malays on their part, viewed the Chinese as being mercenary and infidels who do not know their God, Allah and thus not worthy of association. Part of the problem could be attributed to the British who made no attempts to integrate the immigrant Chinese population more fully into the existing Malay social structure19.
For the part of the Malays, the issue of Islam played no small part in the development of communal distrust.
This is because Islam was very much politicised and used as a rallying tool of the Malay leaders to advance the ethnic cause20. However, even if the Chinese were Muslims, it is doubtful weather the problem of Islam would be solved since the communal rift is not essentially religious in nature. The Malays would, if they have followed Islam strictly have been more accommodating to the Chinese; however, the Malays have always been Malay first, Muslim second21. Even in actual cases where Chinese convert to Islam, the Malays are less than enthusiastic to accept them as part of them and being ‘Malay’22.
And then, it caused.. With all the communal strife already present in their respective communities, it is inevitable that politicians are tempted and may be argued, even forced to compete in the political arena by riding the wave of ethnic based demands23. Various political features that have evolved in the Malaysian landscape reflect the demands of pre-existing communal differences First and foremost is the political parties that are created to take into account the communal pressures and inclinations of the population.
The present government, made up of the Alliance has essentially a few main components, which are UMNO (United Malays National Organization), the MCA (Malayan Chinese Association) and the MIC (The Malayan Indian Congress). All of them are organised along ethnic lines. UMNO for one is a blatantly pro-Malay organisation with no pretensions about where it stands. Its formation was based on the rallying call to all Malays to oppose the Malayan Union and since then, has tried to project itself as the defender of the Malay rights.
The fact that UMNO is historically formed on a basis of fighting for Malay rights24 makes it difficult for it to turn away from being an ethnic based party. The MCA25 and MIC likewise project themselves as the respective voices of their ethnic communities. The opposition parties likewise are also ethnic based. The DAP (Democratic Action Party), claims to represent Chinese interest more accurately than the MCA, while the Malays have their alternative in PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia), a splinter group of UMNO which uses its strict adherence to Islam to differentiate itself from UMNO.
The only slightly multi-racial group is Gerakan. Faced with rival political parties that are willing to go to any lengths to win votes. Political parties thus take the path of least resistance and chose to play the race card at every opportunity26. The presence of internal factions within the various political parties brought a new dimension to the ethnic issue, causing competition on ethnic issues both at the inter and intra party level. The reminder for political groups to stick closely to ethnic issues was the chilling example of how even a most influential man failed to make the transition towards being non-communal.
This was the haunting memory of the very founder of UMNO, Dato Onn Jaffar’s costly experiment with a multi-racial platform. Forming a non-communal party, the IMP (Independence of Malaysia Party), he found that the Malays deserted him at the polls. Vorys commented on this saying that, “The English educated Malays, however influential and powerful they might have been, could not afford to be separated from the rural, traditional hierarchy27. ”
The reigning communal differences in the ethnic groups also precipitated certain political events that took on communal overtones because of the sensitivities of the ethnic communities. Earliest in history was the incident in 1965 where the Chinese community mobilised support to plead clemency for eleven convicted confrontation collaborators while the Malay leaders pressed for the government to stand firm on the death sentence. The fact that the criminals were Chinese was enough to charge the situation with communalistic colour. The possibility of communal conflict forced the Tunku’s hand and he was forced to pardon them.
This led to a situation where the MCA was made to look bad for they were not the ones who led the Chinese movement that pardoned the eleven and the Tunku was undercut politically in the Malay sector because of the perceived concessions to the Chinese28. Next on the list came the Singapore experience in which the debate on communal issues leading up to the expulsion of Singapore brought to the fore many of the underlying dissatisfaction of the Chinese with the special position of the Malays and also further aroused Malay insecurities.
The expulsion of Singapore from the federation embittered the two communities29 and was most probably one of the contributing causes towards the extraordinarily ethnic based campaign30 leading up to the 1969 Malaysian elections. The 1969 elections was such a watershed event in Malaysia communalistic politics that it is still resident in most people’s memories31. It served as a constant reminder to the various ethnic communities of the very real differences between them32. This is because of the riots that immediately followed it.
The tragic events unfolded as after the victory by many of the Chinese opposition parties, especially the DAP, the Chinese went into rapturous celebration. The boastful celebrations of the Chinese and also the Indians that degenerated into heaping insults on the Malays played upon the Malay insecurities33, causing simmering jealousies to erupt at the slightest provocation. The ensuing killing by both Malays and Chinese of each other caused the government to seriously rethink the state of the nation and set in pace the next communalistic based policy, the NEP (New Economic Policy).
No discussion about the development of Malaysia would be complete without a look at the NEP launched in answer to what the Alliance government in Malaysia perceive as the cause of the riots of 1969. Identifying the cause of the riots as the serious economic disparity between the Chinese and Malays, the Alliance set in forth a series of affirmative action policies that would favour the Bumiputras consisting of Malays and other “natives”. Setting for itself a twenty-year deadline, it had the goal of having the Bumiputras hold 30% of the economic pie by then.
The official objectives of the NEP are the “eradication of poverty irrespective of race (and) the elimination of the identification of race with economic function”34. The scope of the NEP is too large to be examined in detail in this paper but for the purpose of this paper, it would be sufficient to say that they include policies that serve to remind the non-Bumiputras of the ability of the UMNO dominated Alliance to push through policies extremely prejudiced against the non-Bumiputras.
These include the already existing reservation of land for the Malays, the provisions that forced companies to have a Malay share, the switching of the medium of instruction in schools to Malay and quotas in University admission that allowed Bumiputras with lower score than a non-Malay to be admitted. The Indians, lacking the economic clout of the Chinese, suffered most under the NEP, emerging after twenty years as the “new underclass35” and feeling increasingly alienated and angry.
Although the Chinese still managed to thrive under these discriminatory measures, they nevertheless suffer under them and correspondingly develop even more animosity towards the Malays. The MCA, a component of the Alliance was a staunch supporter of the NEP at its initial inception. Even up till 1982, Kok Wee Kiat of the MCA wrote that, “Not only are the Rukunegara and the NEP in accord with the Constitution in spirit, they reinforce articles in the constitution36. ” The MCA however became disillusioned with it and stated in one of its publications in 1988, also by Kok, that “When it (NEP) expires in 1990, let it forever lie in peace.
When it lies in peace, with it goes a terrible spectre of racial polarization. With it will be buried the “they” and “we” approach in our Malaysian way of life. “37 And now, After having examined how historical forces shaped the societal realities that encouraged communalism and how in their turn, these societal communalistic demands migrated to the political sphere, I turn now to the observation of how the policies effected by the political process birthed in communalism, in turn accentuate the communal differences found in Malaysian society.
As the laws of the electoral jungle weeds out those parties that do not ride on the ethnic bandwagon, the population of Malaysia have found it impossible to conceptualise politics without identifying with a group that is ethnically based. This meant that the idea of a multi-racial political party seemed quite impossible, both to the politician and the voter on the street. And as long as politics is run on communal issues, the ethnic communities would be continually reminded of their mutual differences.
The NEP, with its 20 year period to wield its influence, produced a generation of Chinese students who were forced to go overseas for their tertiary education38 and forced to see scholarships given to less qualified Bumiputra students. They would not easily forget these experiences of their formative years. In the education realm, the gradual switch from English towards Malay as the medium of instruction in schools that started in the 1970s made the Chinese wary of losing more of their social position to the Malays39 and they became extremely sensitive over the issue of the Chinese medium schools.
This could be seen in the recent drama of the Damansara School40. The underprivileged of the Chinese and Indians, which would have been doubly affected by the NEP41, would carry a much deeper scar of their experience with discrimination through affirmative action. The NDP42 (National Development Programme), a thinly disguised continuation of the NEP, would serve to churn out more generations of discontented non-Malays. In the final tally,
As evidenced by the factors delineated, the factors that contribute to the saliency of communalism in Malaysia continually feed on each other and grow in a vicious cycle where communalistic urges welling from communities manifest themselves in political policies which in turn created even more wells of discontent to water the roots of communal distrust. A situation that is out of control of both the politician and the voter alone had emerged. One could not jump out of the cycle without the other following.
This points towards the articulation of the underlying concept of a solution, if it ever will exist; that both the political parties and the electorate must recognize together that communalism is detrimental to the development of Malaysia and make a concerted effort to eradicate it. Only then could the spirit of communalism be successfully exorcised from Malaysian society and politics.
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