KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian Indian Casket, a shop on the outskirts of this modern and cosmopolitan city, sells coffins in all sizes: standard coffins clutter the entrance, child-size boxes are stacked high on the shelves and extra-large models, those for the tallest of the deceased, are stored in the back.
But there is no variety in the ethnic background of the clientele.
“All the customers are Indian,” said Aru Maniam, a shop salesman.
In death as in life, Malaysians are divided by ethnicity. The country’s main ethnic groups — Malays, Chinese and Indians — have their own political parties, schools, newspapers and, in the case of Malays, a separate Islamic legal system.
For years this segregation was promoted as the best formula for social harmony in a country that advertises itself as “Truly Asia” because of its diversity, but where the memory of ethnic riots in 1969 is invoked as proof of the fragility of cross-cultural relations. Nearly 200 people died in that spasm of violence.
Now, ethnic tensions are again rising, driven in large part by dissatisfaction among the country’s Indians, who have mainly lost out in the long battle of all three ethnic groups over power, privilege and religion.
In November, Indians — who make up less than 10 percent of Malaysia’s population of about 25 million — led a protest march through this city in the first large ethnically motivated street demonstration since 1969. They announced a mainly symbolic $4 trillion class-action lawsuit against the British government, the country’s former colonial ruler, for bringing them as indentured laborers to the region, “exploiting them for 150 years,” then allowing them to be marginalized in postcolonial Malaysia.
The police dispersed the 20,000 demonstrators with water cannons and tear gas and are still holding five representatives of the Hindu Rights Action Force, the umbrella group that led the protest.
Although the lawsuit focuses on historic grievances, Indians’ complaints are anchored in present-day struggles, mainly with the majority Malays. Malays retain a stranglehold on government jobs, and therefore government policies tend to favor them.
Some Indians in Malaysia are very rich, but a majority have not been able to move up from the lowest rungs of society. The children and grandchildren of rubber tappers, they remain poor, poorly educated and overrepresented in menial jobs.
“This is a country that is in search of soul, in search of a common mission,” said Charles Santiago, coordinator of the Group of Concerned Citizens, an organization that seeks solutions to ethnic strife in Malaysia.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is Malay and Muslim, sought recently to woo back the country’s Indians by declaring the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, which was celebrated Jan. 23, a federal holiday. And a court decision in a highly emotional dispute over whether an Indian man should be buried according to Hindu or Muslim rites — he is said to have converted to Islam — has been postponed indefinitely.
But analysts say race relations could become more tense as the country prepares for elections, which are widely expected to be called for March. Chinese and Indian voters have lost faith in the ability of the governing multiracial coalition to equalize opportunities, polls show, and they are shifting their support to the opposition.
“It will be a racialized campaign, there’s no question,” said Bridget Welsh, a specialist in Malaysian politics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
An opinion poll made public late last month by the Merdeka Center, an independent polling institute in Malaysia, showed that 38 percent of Indians and 42 percent of Chinese said they strongly or somewhat approved of Mr. Abdullah’s job performance, by far the lowest ratings he has received from those groups during his five years as prime minister. Together Chinese and Indians constitute about 35 percent of the population.
Those figures are contributing to an overall plunge in his approval ratings. The poll, which surveyed more than 1,000 randomly selected voters and had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, showed his approval rating at 61 percent, down from 91 percent when he came to power.
One reason for the dissatisfaction: almost two-thirds of respondents said they were not happy with the way the government was handling issues of ethnicity and inequality.
“Indian support for the government is the worst it’s ever been in the country’s history,” Ms. Welsh said. “It’s profound. Indians have traditionally supported the government the highest.”
With Chinese voters also angry at the government — mainly over its handling of the economy — Ms. Welsh says the government risks losing political control of the state of Penang, where ethnic Chinese form a plurality, as well as a handful of parliamentary seats scattered across the country. The coalition of Malay, Chinese and Indian parties known as the National Front, which has governed the country since independence from Britain in 1957, is at little risk of losing its majority.
Chinese Malaysians, who form the core of the merchant class, are angry about quotas that keep many of them out of local universities and about the government’s preference for hiring Malay companies, among other issues.
Malaysia’s ethnic tensions were born during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Chinese and Indian workers came to what was then called Malaya and helped drive the colonial economy of tin and rubber. But this influx created resentment among Malays, who lost control of the economy to British plantation owners and Chinese businesses. The Malay sultans later struck a deal with the British: Malays would retain political supremacy in Malaysia after independence in exchange for citizenship for the Chinese and Indians.
Underpinning the anger of the latest generation of Chinese and Indians is an affirmative action program in place for 37 years that favors Malays and other indigenous ethnic groups, collectively known as bumiputra, literally “sons of the soil.” The program was devised to increase the share of bumiputra ownership of the economy, which in the 1970s was in the single digits.
Today, bumiputra make up 60 percent of the population but have 87 percent of government jobs. They receive discounts of 5 to 10 percent on new homes and are allotted 30 percent of stock shares in initial public offerings. Newspapers are filled with notices of government construction contracts exclusively reserved for companies controlled by bumiputra.
“It’s completely unacceptable that you cannot get awarded a contract just because of the color of your skin,” said Lim Guan Eng, an ethnic Chinese Malaysian who is secretary general of the Democratic Action Party, the leading opposition party in Parliament. “That grates tremendously. We are treated as though we are third- or fourth-class citizens.”
Beyond economic discrimination, Malaysians are increasingly divided by religion, with rising assertiveness by Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist groups. Islamic authorities have ruled that Malays, who are defined as Muslims in the country’s Constitution, may not leave the faith without undergoing lengthy counseling. Christians complain that the Malay-dominated government frequently denies permits to build churches. Hindus and Buddhists decry demolitions of temples. And Malaysian courts have heard more than a dozen cases of disputed religious conversions.
Indians were infuriated by the highly publicized case of a soldier, Maniam Moorthy, who died in 2005 and whose body was claimed by the Islamic authorities for Muslim burial.
The authorities contended that Mr. Moorthy, who was born a Hindu, converted to Islam months before his death, an assertion that his family denies. His wife, Kaliammal Sinnasamy, sued in a civil court to obtain his body, but the court ruled that it had no jurisdiction because the matter had already been decided in an Islamic court.
Although the courts have postponed a ruling on Ms. Kaliammal’s appeal, the case has become a cause célèbre.
“You can push us, you can cheat us, you can discriminate against us,” said Mr. Santiago, who is of Indian heritage, “but you can’t tell us that we’re not Hindus after we are dead.”
Monday, February 11, 2008
From The NYT: Indian Discontent Fuels Malaysia’s Rising Tensions
A coffin for Malaysia? From The New York Times: