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Ethnic Fault Lines in Malaysia

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: March 10, 2007

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Malaysia’s long-governing multiethnic coalition lost its two-thirds majority of parliament (NYT) in March 8 elections, sending shockwaves through the country’s political establishment. The government’s fourteen-party coalition did maintain a parliamentary majority but could face new pressure for political reforms. News reports cite the government’s failure to tackle the grievances of large minority groups—ethnic Indians and Chinese—as a reason for the electoral upset. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said he will not resign (BBC) despite the setback. CFR.org’s Daily Opinion Roundup notes editorials around the world see the election results as a clear call for greater pluralism in Malaysia.

Chinese and Indians together constitute one-third of Malaysia’s 27 million people and play an important role in the country’s economy. But they resent the government’s decades-old discriminatory policy that gives Malays educational, housing, and job preferences. Lack of religious freedom is another issue of contention for the minority communities, which are mostly non-Muslim. A recent working paper (PDF) by a Singapore research institute said a curb on religious liberties of non-Muslims could cost the government the non-Muslim vote.

Tensions between the government and ethnic minorities came to a head last November when Hindraf, a coalition of Hindu nongovernmental organizations, staged demonstrations for the rights of the ethnic Indian community. The government detained five Hindraf leaders under the Internal Security Act, which permits indefinite detention without charge or trial. This damaged Abdullah’s popularity while also arousing the ire of civil society groups and international human rights organizations. Abdullah, elected in 2004, was welcomed by Malaysians after two decades of the authoritarian leadership of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But grievances—ranging from inflation and commodity price hikes to worsening minority rights and corruption in the judicial system—plague the government today. A December 2007 survey conducted by the Merdeka Center, a Malaysian opinion research firm, shows Abdullah’s popularity fell (PDF) from around 91 percent in 2004 to 61 percent in 2007.

The elections took place a year ahead of schedule, because the government anticipated that problems lie ahead for the economy, argues columnist Philip Bowring in the International Herald Tribune. The Malaysian economy is currently growing at 6 percent, underpinned by strong export prices for commodities such as palm oil and crude oil. A preelection surge in government spending and massive subsidies for fuel and food have controlled price inflation that otherwise would be double the official 2.3 percent, say experts. The Asia Times writes Abdullah is expected to raise oil prices later this year after the elections.

The elections have also put the spotlight on Malaysian governance issues. A Malaysian law bans public gatherings of more than five persons without a permit, which global watchdog Human Rights Watch says denies constitutional guarantees of the rights to free speech and of assembly. It says Malaysia’s elections have been characterized by “vote buying, the use of public resources by the ruling parties, and gerrymandering.”

Malaysia’s media too, is tightly controlled by the state. According to the most recent Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, Malaysia ranked 124 out of 169 countries (thirty-two ranks down from 2006). Yet Malaysia has an estimated 10 million Internet users, including opposition politicians (Reuters), many of whom are turning to the web for free expression. According to the OpenNet Initiative, the Malaysian government uses “surprisingly low levels of [Internet] filtering.” Political analyst Ooi Kee Beng of the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies says the Internet is providing Malaysians with an avenue for immediate political expression. “The Net is a Pandora’s Box, and that is now open,” he says. Experts project the country’s political battles will increasingly be fought on the Internet.

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