By William Barnes | Aug 2, 2012
Asia Times Online
BANGKOK – As Malaysia approaches a general election season, opposition politicians claim Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling party and government are stoking racial politics to gain a popular edge with the ethnic Malay majority.
A year after the World Bank warned Malaysia over its acutely debilitating race-based brain drain, veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang has said the government is compounding the damage by blatantly playing the “race card” in the run up to the next election, which must be called by next April.
The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s ambitions to lift the economy out of its disappointing holding pattern can go hang when it fears losing for the first time since independence in 1957, he has argued. “They talk all the time about being world beating and wanting to get all Malaysians behind the economy … but it all goes overboard when the focus is on the Malay identity.”
The grand post-independence “social contract” that for the sake of national harmony favored Malays in business, state education and government jobs over minority Chinese and Indians has proven a bitter racial bargain for one-third of the population. Lim said fear-mongering over race has been a sporadic feature of Malaysian politics but rarely has it come so close to the “dangerous … reactionary maneuvers” of the current administration.
A great swathe of Malaysians have gone overseas for better job opportunities in recent decades – one in five of the country’s college educated if Singapore permanent residents are included – undercutting the ruling BN government’s vow to achieve developed economy status by 2020, according to the World Bank.
The overwhelming majority of the departed are ethnic Chinese, historically the entrepreneurial drivers behind the economy. In neighboring Singapore, where around half have relocated, 90% of Malaysian passport holders are Chinese. The story is similar in other popular emigration destinations, including Australia, the United States and Britain.
“The brain drain – the migration of talent across borders – touches the core of Malaysia’s aspiration to become a high-income nation … Discontent with Malaysia’s inclusiveness policies is a key factor,” said the World Bank in a widely cited 2011 report.
Over one million Malaysians now live overseas, and the true figure is likely to be much higher, with one-third of them making up the brain drain. Many Singaporean professionals also leave their country, but the city-state has been more than able to replace them with highly educated expatriates.
Malaysia is not only losing its brightest, or at least those with the most marketable skills in global demand, but has also seen a sharp decline in the number of high-caliber expatriates in recent years. Unskilled foreigners, including low wage-earning industrial workers, it has aplenty.
Government ministers have repeatedly admitted that ethnically skewed discrimination is inappropriate in today’s globalized world. Najib said two years ago in a speech that “it is my belief that Malaysians have reached the level of maturity necessary to discuss some of the tougher issues that we face”.
Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam argued at around the same time (and was also quoted in the World Bank report) saying that “Race-based economic policies do not sit well with the realities of globalization and free trade.”
In practice, however, the dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party in the coalition, as well as its grassroots sympathizers, have issued a stream of allegations and insinuations that a government loss at the upcoming polls would be catastrophic for ordinary Malays.
For instance, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin recently hinted to a youth assembly that disloyalty to UMNO might result in a reoccurrence of the Malay-Chinese race riots that resulted in scores of deaths and rocked the country in 1969. “We don’t want a repeat of May 13,” Muhyiddin said, referring to the historical date of the bloody ethnic clashes.
A prominent security official recently made the bizarre claim that Islamic terrorists and former communists, in league with malevolent civil society groups based outside the country, had infiltrated the political opposition. Some of these “infiltrators” were allegedly even ready to stand as candidates in the election, he said.
The strong popular support shown for an anti-government demonstration in April calling for clean elections – known as Bersih 3.0 – appears to have rattled the authorities. The protestors were roughly handled by the police when some pushed through barricades. The prime minister later made the preposterous claim that the rally had been an attempt to topple the government.
Ambiga Sreenevasan, the ethnic Indian former president of the Bar Council who has campaigned for freedom of religion and a Bersih leader, has been the target of a noticeably crude, racially-tinged, hate campaign.
“They [the coalition] really fear [the election] … So they have been pounding of the racial drum, trying to promote alarm and fear. Whipping up [Malays] with the idea that they are going to be swamped or marginalized,” opposition leader Lim said.
To be sure, Malaysia’s politics are a complicated racial mix. The ruling BN coalition is dominated by the pro-Malay UMNO, but also includes Chinese and Indian parties that have previously shared in the halal meat barrel politics in the years of robust economic growth. The opposition includes former UNMO stalwart Anwar Ibrahim’s Keadilan Rakyat party, the Democratic Action Party with its core of ethnic Chinese, and the strongly Islamist party PAS.
Many political observers believe the government has been encouraged to take vicious racial swipes because it fears being outflanked by PAS on religious grounds. The UMNO-led government coalition could still win, given its advantages of incumbency, patronage and demographics, despite its poor reform record.
The situation is all very different from when the doyen of Malaysian-style machine politics, Mahathir Mohamad, stepped down after 22 years as national leader in 2003 and was replaced by the more mild-mannered and reform-minded Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Abdullah surprised the country with his promises to clean up the cronyism and corruption that had flourished in the shade of racial preference and religious backstopping under Mahathir’s authoritarian rule. Several officials were arrested in corruption investigations and pet projects commissioned under Mahathir were brought to sudden halts in a clean governance campaign. He also promoted inter-racial sympathy and equal opportunities for minorities.
Separating politics from vested interests and religion in Malaysia is, however, like untangling a basket of snakes. Abdullah’s reform gains were hotly contested and ultimately short-lived. After the BN’s worst ever showing at the 2008 election, when it won just 140 out of 220 seats contested and ceded control of five out of 13 federal states to the opposition, Abdullah was replaced by his then deputy, Najib, the following year.
One legacy of Abdullah’s reformist rule was an upsurge in political debate. Malaysian politics have, for better and worse, since become feistier and in places even less tolerant.
Islamists have become noticeably more aggressive, labeling any move to reduce the prevailing racial tilt of society as an attack on Islam. The religious affairs department, with police state powers of entry to check on breaches of shariah law, and the religious courts have become more aggressive and ambitious. Hindu temples have been attacked and destroyed by both state and non-state actors in rural areas across the country.
“The political moves have opened up the space for greater intolerance. So people who used to not have much credibility or much power under normal circumstances are feeling more justified in instigating hate crimes. Very nasty things – against racial and religious minorities,” said a prominent local human rights expert, who asked not to be named for legal reasons.
When Malaysia’s post-independence constitution was drawn up in the 1950s it was accepted that some positive discrimination might be necessary for the sake of racial harmony. The country’s different races had tended to divide along racial lines during World War II and during the communist guerilla war that followed. However, the charter drafters suggested that such preferences be capped at a generation, a suggestion that was rejected by Malay leaders.
“It has been a very great shame for Malaysia that this discrimination just rolls on and on. This is all about race, but it is wrapped up in religion so anyone who attempts to untie it is cut down by the chauvinists,” said a Malay financial consultant in Kuala Lumpur who also asked not to be identified.
Non-Malay minorities now complain that there effectively exists a system of higher education apartheid, forcing non-Muslims to either pay high fees for private education or pursue their studies abroad. Many who venture overseas for their studies fail to return home due to a lack of opportunity for minorities, including in government and the civil service.
As the national brain drain gathers pace, Malaysia’s economic growth has slid. Gross domestic product growth averaged 4.6% a year in the first decade of the 21st century, down significantly from the 7.2% average witnessed in the previous 10 years.
The country now appears to be firmly stuck in the dreaded middle-income country trap, where the easy gains from investment and factory-building have already been won but the move up to a higher value generating economy appears out of reach due to a lack of human resources.
The chances that Malaysia will escape this trap have been sharply reduced by the flight of so many of its most talented citizens who, as polls show, would likely consider returning to a more meritocratic and racially equal society.
Instead of looking for ways to reverse the trend, UMNO politicians and their political allies are only deepening the divide and the economy’s morass through their race-based pre-election politicking.
“Something has gone wrong with this country,” said opposition leader Lim. “We should not be fighting like this. The world is competitive enough as it is.”
William Barnes is a veteran Bangkok-based journalist.