International Herald Tribune
Philip Bowring: Malaysian malaise
HONG KONG The Asian headlines have been about the political turmoil in Thailand. But perhaps at least as important and disquieting for Southeast Asia has been the fine print of the news from Malaysia.

A flow of small news items cumulatively casts doubt on Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's ability to advance ethnic harmony, a competitive economy and a modern, inclusivist Islam.

In Thailand, an articulate urban minority took to the streets to remove an authoritarian populist, Thaksin Shinawatra. But in Malaysia the non- Malay minority has no such remedy to address majority-backed institutional authoritarianism based on race and religion.

At the end of March, Abdullah unveiled the Ninth Malaysia Plan 2006- 2010, a document supposed to spur Malaysia toward its goal of becoming a developed nation by 2020.

While it contains some laudable policies focused on education and reducing regional income imbalances, its central message was "no change" in the system of racial preferences in favor of the Malay majority.

This is to be maintained not just for another five years, but for 15. It was not explained how the Malays can expect to be regarded as developed by 2020 when the majority ethnic group is still exempt from the rules of equality and open competition.

What began in 1970 as a necessary attempt to raise the economic and social conditions of Malays has become a system that enriches the Malay elite, centred on UMNO, the ruling party, at the expense of the rest and institutionalizes crony capitalism.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad has for some time been forthright in deploring the Malays' alleged failure to seize the opportunities that the system of racial preferences has offered. He recently noted that "the Malay community contributed the least" to the nation's development, which had been "built on the hard work of the other races."

While Abdullah himself in the past has urged Malays to escape from dependence on racial preferences, his policies have failed to reflect such sentiments.

While officially committed to the creation of a multi-ethnic "bangsa Malaysia" (Malaysian nation), the government remains wedded to racial obsessions. "Each of us is a Malay, Chinese, Indian or other race first,"

Culture Minister Rais Yatim recently declared.

No wonder then that according to a recent survey by the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, racial antagonisms have been on the rise. No less than 50 percent of those surveyed "do not trust other races." Issues such as religion are obviously part of the divide, but official preference policies are part of it too. Most Chinese and Indians believe the Malays to be "lazy" while the Malays view the Chinese as "greedy" and Indians as "untrustworthy."

The civil service has always been a Malay stronghold, but is now so identified with this group that last year the Chinese, who are 30 percent of the population, constituted just 1.6 percent of applicants for governments posts.

Things are going from bad to worse. The police, backed by the prime minister, ordered all female officers, including non-Muslims, to wear the tudong (head scarf) while on parade. It was claimed that there was a need for uniformity, as though the scarf was a part of the police uniform rather than a religious symbol.

The confusion of religion and civil society is worrying for many Malays, as well as all non-Malays.

Abdullah in principle stands for what he has termed "Islam hadhari" - the adaptation of Islam according to modern conditions, following principles rather than formulistic rituals, and tolerance of differing interpretations.

However, religious authorities, often with state backing, tend to see themselves as both as guardians of religious orthodoxy and of Malay identity.

In the process they seek to deprive Malays of the right to think for themselves - including which, if any, religion to follow. That is not an attitude likely to make Malaysia an advanced country or raise Malays to the level of social and economic development of the non-Malays.

This drift toward religious intolerance puts official Malaysia at odds not only with its non-Malay population and many Malays, but with its neighbors.

The difference with Thailand and Singapore is obvious enough. More striking, however, is the difference with 80-percent-Muslim Indonesia, where secularism is fiercely defended, individual freedoms are better protected and widely differing interpretations of Islam flourish.

With its wealth of resources and the attractions of its infrastructure and labor force for foreign investors Malaysia should continue to succeed.

But if its other great asset, its multi- ethnic society, is to flourish in a highly competitive, highly secular East Asia, the religious obscurantism and racial privileges will have to go.