Malaysia – “Truly Asia”? Or a Cynical Marketing Ploy?

Malaysia – “Truly Asia”? Or a Cynical Marketing Ploy?

For many years, Malaysia has enjoyed an image that suggests it to be a rapidly developing prosperous nation that is liberal and modern in its outlook and charitable towards all its residents.

Indians particularly marvel at its bright and clean cities with their many examples of modern construction. They also have the impression that unlike the Islamic states of the Gulf, Malaysia is a “secular” country. As a consequence, Malaysia attracts Indian tourists in very large numbers and is a particular favorite with the Gliterati Bollywood crowd.

But sadly, it has taken the HINDRAF (Hindu Rights Action Force) only one rally to expose the myth that is Malaysia. For all its pretence of being a secular nation, the despotic and heavy-handed manner in which a peaceful march was repressed – the cynical manner in which its brave and patient organizers were arrested (without charge and without recourse to due process) exposes the utter hollowness of Malaysian claims to “democracy”. Democracy is not merely about rubber-stamping an election ballot every few years. It is also about a process in which all citizens must be free to communicate their genuine concerns – epsecially if they are as systematically discriminated against as are Malaysians of Indian (and mostly Tamil) descent.

Contrary to what one would normally expect from a genuinely secular and democratic nation, Malaysia has systematically practiced institutionalized religious, legal, economic and educational favoritism on behalf of its Malay “boomiputras” – a word that comes from the Sanskrit (bhoomi-putr) meaning son of the soil. Under the garb of “affirmative action” – Malaysians of Indian origin (who were brought to Malaysia by the British Colonizers as indentured servants – i.e. semi-slaves to work on the plantations) are systematically denied a comparable level of funding for educatiotion at all levels. Whereas “boomiputras” are given prefential treatment in government jobs and business contracts, Indo-Malaysians have to fend entirely for themselves.

Considering that the Indians arrived in Malaysia as near-slaves and performed all the most undesirable work, if anyone should have been beneficiaries of affirmative action, it should have been the Indo-Malaysians. To go on and on about the “poverty” of the “boomiputras” while ignoring the far greater historic and present disadvantages of the Indo-Malaysian is simply a cover for closet racism and religious chauvinism and intolerance (since the vast majority of Indo-Malays are Hindus). In fact, as the Star Online (Sep 30, 2005) revealed, Indians continue to earn much less than the national average. Several poor Indian families survive on less than 4$ a day (i.e. less than a third of the average per capita income). The Economist (22/2/2003) revealed that Indians comprise 60% of urban squatters and 41% of all beggars.

Yet, Muslims and Hundu liberals of the Indian sub-continent often point to Malaysia as an example of an Islamic-majority nation that can also respect its minorities. Indeed?!

Consider that when UMNO Youth wanted to have a raucous protest (without permits) just a few days before the HINDRAF protest -they were allowed to have their way on the streets. No one was arrested, there was no teargas, and no governamental outrage. Whereas at entirely peaceful HINDRAF rallies, the government has used teargas right from the get-go and police have beaten participants including women and children. When young girls tried to present roses as peace offerings to the violent policemen, they were coldly refused and the beatings on the rallyists continued. So much for Malaysia’s liberal image.

However, police brutality towards Indians is hardly new. Every year, one reads of Indians working in Malysia who are sumamrily rounded up as though they were illegal aliens even when they had all their documents and were hired by government-approved Malaysian corporations. Rarely ever have such Indians even recieved a formal apology let alone compensation for the insult, inconvenience and psychological terror meted out on them.

But police brutality is a life-threatening reality of Malaysia’s citizens of Indian-origin. HINDRAF has noted how 60% of crime “suspects” shot dead before trial by the Malaysian police have been Indians. 60% of custodial deaths (of citizens detained without charge or trial) are of Indians. The suicide rate of Indians is ten times that of Malays.

Unfortunately the mainstream Indian media has done a very poor job of exposing the systematic ethnic discrimination that takes place in Malaysia. Consider the facts: Of the 5 major Malaysian banks, only ONE is multi-racial. The rest are controlled by the “poor” Malays. The directors of Malaysia oil-giant PETRONAS are virtually all Malays. Virtually all PETRONAS gas stations are owned by the “poor” Malays. All contractors working for PETRONAS must also be Malays (after all, they are all so poor). Malay businesses are NOT required by law to hire any non-Malays. But Chinese-led businesses are required by law to hire at least 30% Malays. No quotas for Indians however. Only 5% of new intake for

the police or army (or even nurses) are non-Malays. Business licenses for taxis and other small businesses have only been granted to Malays in recent years, and 95% of government contracts have gone to Malays even though they comprise just slightly above 50% of the population.

Between 1968 and 2000, 144 Indian primary schools and 48 Chinese primary schools were deliberately closed. At the same time, 2637 primary schools were built exclusively for Malays. Of Malaysia’s education budget, less than 1% goes to Indian schools even though Indians comprise approximately 8% of the population – a sharp drop from 12% in 1957. In other words in 50 years, Malaysia’s racism has driven out every third Indian from the country. The Chinese-origin population has meanwhile dropped by half to now roughly a quarter. In the period that half a million Indians left Malaysia, 3 million Indonesian citizens were naturalized and given “boomiputra” status. In other words, Indians who had been in Malaysia for almost a century are still not considered sons (or daughters) of the soil, but Indonesians not even born in Malyaysia can be considered “bumiputras”.

Every Malay (rich or poor) is given a 5-15% discount to buy a home. The Malaysian government has never built a church or a temple in housing estate. But every housing estate that it builds comes with a mosque.

Taken in its totality, one cannot but help observe that the economic practices of the Malysian government greatly resemble the medieval practice of Jizya that Islamic invaders imposed on all “infidels”. In fact, this is not surprising because every Muslim Malay is subject to the Shariat code. In case of disputes between Islamic Malays and non-Muslims, Shariat law takes precedence. This means that even Hindu or Buddhist or Christian or non-religious Indians and Chinese must submit to the Shariat if they ever have the misfortune of displeasing a Muslim Malay.

Malaysians Citizens Against Racism and Discrimination have noted how the Malaysian government has repeatedly refused to accede to demands to abandon its systematic policies of discrimination towards non-Malays and non-Muslims.

Hindus in Malaysia are particularly incensed that even as the Malaysian government has a policy of building mosques in every housing estate it builds for the Malays, it has torn down hundreds of temples built by Tamils on private or plantation lands that were built by their own sweat and by their own initiative. Temples have even been demolished while devotees were still praying inside.

As many on-line bloggers note: “Malays automatically get on a platter what is denied to other communities.”

Perhaps, the real tragedy of Malaysia’s Indians is not just that they have been victims of such pervasive discrimination but that it has taken so long for it to be revealed to the whole world. What must be especially galling for Malaysia’s Indians must be how they have received so little support and help from their mother country. Even as the brave and courageous leaders of HINDRAF languish in custody, the Indian government has remained cynically silent and is on the verge of negotiating a “Free Trade” deal.

This abominable betrayal of a community in distress typifies the present political make-up of the Indian nation. The Congress and its allies and all the liberals in the mainstream media bend over backwards to hide the truth and keep trumpeting how the Malaysian state is a “liberal”, “secular” and “friendly” state. Perhaps it says something about how the Indian Congress views “secularism”. Positive discrimination in favor of Muslims is fine, but god forbid if non-Muslims – whether they be Hindus, Buddhists or non-religious demand fairness and justice.

The truth is that the Malaysian state – beneath a veneer of “democracy” is actually far more autocratic than Indians realize. It is practising the same type of “divide and conquer” stratagems that the British so perfected during colonial rule. The silence of Malaysia’s ASEAN neighbors is also perhaps revealing – how ASEAN is mostly about capitalism and helping the region’s capitalists thrive. It is not about ensuring the human rights and dignity of all of the citizens of the ASEAN countries.

ASEAN countries have yet to chastize Malaysia for the enormous inequities that exist in the country. For instance, Islam is the ONLY official state religion. While Malaysia’s Muslims are free to propagate Islam and convert non-Muslims to Islam, non-Muslims are provided no such freedoms. In fact, they are strictly enjoined NOT to try and convert Muslims to other faiths. In most provinces, attempting to convert a Muslim can lead to lengthy jail terms and whippings.

Children of inter-faith marriages are automatically treated as Muslims. What is more , in most cases, a Muslim Malaysian cannot even voluntarily give up his or her Islamic faith. In a Nov 19, 2006 article in the New Straits Times, it was reported that in Perak, Malacca, Sabah, Trengannu and Pahang conversion is a criminal offense even punishable by a jail term. In Pahang, converts may even be punishhed by being caned.

Mosques routinely use loudpseakers to call Muslims to prayer which can be at 5:30 in the morning – hours before offical businesses open. When the Malaysian Bar Council described this practice as unnecessary and disturbing, this was condemned.

The Malaysia tax code is also discriminatory. Muslims are given tax breaks that other communities do not get. Moreover, in most provinces, a Muslim may not make a will that favors any person “opposed” to Islam. The latter prescription is easily distorted to prevent non-Muslims from inheriting anything from a Muslim.

The Shariat laws also permit widespread censorship on any film or literature that might even indirectly annoy Muslim sentiment. Malaysian law also requires mandatory IDs that state a person’s religion. Recently, a Malaysian Minister decried how too many “effeminate” men were entering Malaysian universities.Some fear that it was presumably to lay the ground for mandatory beards on campus. Others fear that this was intended intimidate ir target young men who might be perceived as gay or bisexual.

But discrimination at Malaysia’s Universities extends at many levels. For instance, Malaysia’s Open University has weaker admission requirements for “bumiputras”. Some years back, it was revealed that Malaysia’s universities rejected 500 top-scoring non-Malays, even as it failed to fill 7000 slots that had been reserved exclusively for Malays. For instance, Malaysian universities have a goal of ensuring that 75% of their students are “bumiputras” even though their total population is only now roughly 60%. Websites for several universities openly state their pro-bumiputra focus. According to some studies, non-Malay faculties have shrunk to possibly as low as 5%. Because of negative admission quotas imposed on Indians, a medical education for an Indian in Malaysia is almost impossible.

SEAPA (South East Asian Press Alliance) has noted how the atmosphere at Malaysian universities stifles any form of legitimate dissent. Malaysian laws allow universities to prosecute students merely for speaking to the media without permission from designated authorities. They may not join political parties, or even start their own political action groups. On entry, they must take a pledge of obedience to the government.

In 2003, the Chinese Language Society was suspended because its members campaigned against a law that permitted detention without trial. Students were suspended for expressing their views on native language education. In 2001,

Choo Chon Kai – a chemistry topper was suspended for possessing and selling badges to protest the detention-without-trial law. The same law that has been used against HINDRAF leaders. Unfortunately, there is also a huge paucity of lawyers to defend Indians who are arrested far more frequently than any other Malaysian.

As things stand, the Indian community in Malaysia faces enormous obstacles in its struggle for justice. Without support from its Indian brethren and genuine human rights activists around the globe, their battle is likely to be a very arduous one.

We can only hope that more Indians begin to express solidarity with Malaysia’s Indians and other discriminated communities and call upon the Indian government to exert maximum pressure on the Malaysian government to reform itself. Malaysia’s odious practices must be widely exposed and the government lambasted for its obnoxious treatment of its Indian citizens.

Source – South Asian Voice