The Malaysian Race Card

Anwar Ibrahim's big victory in Malaysia's elections looked on the surface like a triumph for both democracy and multiculturalism—a major accomplishment in this profoundly divided state. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and the Chinese-based Demo- cratic Action Party (DAP) contributed to the opposition gains, but it was Anwar's multiethnic People's Justice Party that bagged the largest share of the popular vote and parliamentary seats. Yet events immediately following the vote—when rabble-rousing politicians once again started playing the race card—show just how dangerous the splits remain.

Race has always played a peculiar role here, in this country of 25 million cobbled together by the British from disparate kingdoms. Ethnic Malays today make up 55 percent of the population. Ethnic Chinese represent an additional 25 percent, and Indians 8 percent. The Chinese minority has long been perceived as dominating Malaysia's business community, causing widespread resentment among poorer Malays and sparking vicious riots in the 1960s. Since then, successive governments have justified restrictions on civil rights by pointing to this bloody history, and to their credit they have managed to avoid major violence for 40 years. But sweeping affirmative-action programs benefiting ethnic Malays, put in place in 1971, have kept tensions bubbling just under the surface.

Anwar's People's Justice Party vowed to replace this race-based assistance program with one that would help the needy regardless of ethnicity. And since its formation in 2003 his party has been growing in strength, thanks to support from Malays, Chinese and Indians alike, all frustrated by the lackluster economic performance of the ruling National Front (BN) coalition and its leader, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. But by the middle of last week the opposition had succumbed to tribal instincts, with the various parties squabbling among themselves over jobs in state governments and threatening boycotts if they didn't get the seats they thought they deserved.

At the same time, members of the National Front's lead party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), have continued to play the race card. Indeed, politicians affiliated with this party seem to feel it is their duty to do so. UMNO has portrayed itself as the champion and protector of the ethnic Malays, and some members have promoted ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy). Worryingly, some of UMNO's younger politicians, once hailed as progressives, are now doing the same thing. UMNO youth chief Hishamuddin Hussein, for instance, has made a habit of brandishing the keris, the Malay dagger, at the party's annual assembly—a gesture widely understood as a veiled threat to any race that dares challenge Malay supremacy. His deputy, and Badawi's son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, recently warned that any split among the Malays—that is, any defection from UMNO—would be exploited by the Chinese.

Ironically, the same camps that play the race card are often just as quick to warn Malaysians of the consequences of acting on those feelings. And for the most part, that message has sunk in. Most Malaysians now recognize just how important the nation's peace and stability are; indeed, they're the bedrock on which Malaysia's rapid economic development has depended. Yet as the dust of the elections settles, there are few signs the rhetoric over race is going to diminish. In the wealthy and mostly Chinese state of Penang, the Chinese DAP won power after 36 years of rule by the Malay-dominated BN. Incoming Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng quickly vowed to end the crude affirmative-action policy, which, he said, "only breeds cronyism, corruption and inefficiency." In response, the prime minister warned the state not to marginalize Malays and said that "the state government must not try to create an atmosphere which can cause racial tensions."

By many accounts race relations are now more tense than at any time since 1969. Ninety percent of Chinese students attend Chinese-language schools, while the majority of Malays attend public schools. Islam has taken a greater prominence in the social and political domains, breeding resentment among Indians and Chinese. Chinese and Indians, meanwhile, have become more vocal in opposing discriminatory policies, but they have given little indication that if they were granted greater equality they would rise above their own clannish tendencies. The enmity could erupt into violence. And if it does, it may, ironically, be triggered by the same affirmative-action policies that have done so much to prevent violence over the years.

The tragedy is that most Malaysians seem tired of the fractious politics of the past. Many Malaysians of all races have grown exasperated with Badawi's failure to tackle corruption, crime and inflation. And they recognize that race-based politics is impairing social and economic progress. But unless the opposition parties can rise above the nation's ethnic cleavages by learning to put national rather than ethnic interests at the forefront, ordinary Malaysians are unlikely to.