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Uneasy blend of races

The ethnic meld of races in South-east Asia is not working well and the administration there is just waking up to the fact, says CHANCHAL SARKAR in the light of the current ethnic conflict in Malaysia.

A patina of prosperity over worrisome race relations ... inset: Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad.

STRAPPED in by tight seatbelts of religion, caste and secularism, we scarcely turn to see how other countries are handling similar problems.

Like Malaysia. Malaysia's first Prime Minister after Merdeka, Tunku Abdul Rahman truly believed that the country could be a multi-racial, multi-religious country with the Malays, Chinese, Indians and the Original Orang Aslis living in interactive harmony. The race riots of May 13, 1969 shattered this belief. From the perspective of Babri Masjid and Gujarat, it's interesting to look at Malaysia. With two million foreign workers, half of them illegal, there seems no shortage of jobs but there are sizable lay-offs. On the roads are cars hardly more than three years old. Swishing past are Daimlers, Lamborghinis, souped-up Carlson Mercedes, Ferraris, BMWs, Rolls-Royces, and many more. The shopping malls, often Japanese and Chinese owned and the restaurants make a brave show.

On the heels of the traditional plantations came oil and now electronics. Malaysia doesn't lack resources. After May 1969, the Chinese (32 per cent of the population) learnt that it was futile to aim at political power, which will always be with the Malays. The Indians will also not be major curve in Malaysia's profile. With only 6.8 per cent of the people below the poverty line there is a patina of prosperity over worrisome race relations.

Dr. Mahathir Mohammad — an immigrant whose grandfather came to Malaysia from Kerala, (a fact mentioned at one's peril) — began a tirade against the Tunku after the riots. Expelled from the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), he bounced back to public view in 1970 with his book The Malay Dilemma. The book was banned but became the primer for Malays. Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, the first Malay Prime Minister not to go overseas for education, has now been Prime Minister for 24 years. He says he will lay down the crown in October 2003 at 77, having shaped Malaysia into a Malay land. The country is tri-racial but it is not a happy blend, a fact that the Prime Minister and some of his colleagues have now began to recognise.

There are, as I said, twinges of apprehension. The Government in Malaysia is an acrobatic motorcycle act with 14 parties hanging from the central figure of the UMNO (United Malay National Organisation). Dr. Mahathir Mohammad is the founder of the National School idea, in preference to the Islamic School (Sekola Agama Rakyat) and the Chinese and Indian schools teaching in their own languages. Now, he says, that the National School concept — meant to produce Malaysian and not Islamic Malays, Chinese and Indians — has failed and produces Islam-leaning malcontents. He has asked more non-Malays to apply for the military services and is planning a year's compulsory national service. One Malay businessman called for the abolition of Article 154 of the Constitution, which enshrines special privileges for Malays.

"We never mix", said an Indian friend, three-generations removed from Rajasthan. A Chinese couple at an Indian friend's birthday party told me of the Chinese fears. The community has few apprehensions about the Malay raj interfering with its economic domination in Malaysia but was worried about interference with lifestyle and customs once the various "Islamic States" came about.

Indians, especially those displaced from the plantations, have the highest dropout rate from the schools — ("Education," said Veena Sikri, the Indian High Commissioner, "is the key to the upward rise of the Indian.") — the second is infant mortality, the lowest life expectancy, the highest in alcoholism, the largest number of gangs and 60 per cent of serious crimes. In fact, said a social scientist working for the Malay Indian Congress, urban squatters among Indians and Malay were about equal though the latter would probably get better opportunities to bail themselves out — low cost houses for a start and not being pressurised to return loans. Ironically, the displaced Malay is also an abandoned class and the Government has sought to assuage their discontent by building more mosques.

After a few weeks in Malaysia, I feel it would be an excellent exercise for the Hindutva missionaries from India to spend a little time discussing the Islamic State with the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). Watching the fight for a separate Muslim State in South Philippines, they might be reminded of the Jemaah Islamiyah in Malaysia who want a pan-Islamic State consisting of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Southern Philippines and Brunei — the Daulah Islamiyah Nusantara.

Talking to the "Indians" they might find different voices, loud and varying from the Malayalees, Tamils, Punjabis, Mar Thomites, Sri Lankans (Jaffna Tamils), Bengalis and others. Let's forget the minorities in Bangladesh and the tribes in Burma.

No, the meld of races in South and South East Asia is not working well and it would be unwise for us Indians to release more inflammable oil on already troubled waters.

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