International Herald Tribune
Bowring: Malaysian pretensions
Thursday, January 8, 2009

HONG KONG: In a move that could backfire by drawing attention to discrimination against Chinese, Indian and other minorities in Malaysia, the country has claimed a role in the advancement of Malays in other lands.

The Malaysian deputy prime minister and heir apparent, Najib Razak, told an international Malay/Muslim audience recently that his government would work to help support them in countries from the Philippines and Singapore to Madagascar, Sri Lanka and South Africa.

Najib's remarks may draw the attention of China, India and other countries to what has hitherto been regarded by most outsiders as a domestic issue: Malaysia's official economic and social preferences for Malays, and by extension Muslims, which disadvantage Malaysia's non-Malay minorities, mostly Chinese and Indian. His statements are also sure to irritate Indonesia, Malaysia's larger neighbor and fount of Malay culture.

The word "Malay" can mean a language that is native to east Sumatra, which became the lingua franca of trade in Southeast Asia and is now the official language of Indonesia and Malaysia. Or it can mean the relatively small, mostly Muslim, ethnic group of some 20 million straddling Malaysia, and parts of Indonesia and southern Thailand. Or it can mean the much wider Malay racial/linguistic group of more than 300 million people, about 60 percent Muslim, encompassing most of Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia - plus many Madagascans and minorities in Vietnam and Cambodia.

In the 1960s there was talk of a loose Malay confederation encompassing Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. However, other issues obstructed this grand idea. For Malaysia in particular, religion has come to play a central role, identifying all Malays with Islam. This notion is viewed as dangerous by many people in Indonesia, which is 80 percent Muslim but is a secular state focused on national rather than religious identity.

Najib's effort to include Madagascar in his speech was also contentious. Madagascar was first settled by people from the Indonesian archipelago long before Islam appeared. The Muslim minority in Madagascar has mostly Arab and Indian roots. As for the Malays of South Africa and Sri Lanka, though Muslim, their roots were mostly in Java and other parts of what was once Dutch-ruled Indonesia.

Malaysian pretensions could be dismissed as hot air. But official discrimination against non-Malays in the country was eventually going to attract criticism from human rights groups and other governments. It is hard to argue that the numerically dominant Malays, who control most of the political, judicial and bureaucratic levers of power and many of the country's major corporations, need help. Yet Malaysia's leadership continues to claim that the Malay race and religion would be threatened by removal of privileges.

Many Malays view these privileges as perpetuating a system of patronage that enriches the elite and makes the Malay poor dependent. Yet changing the system is difficult. While gains of the opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim in last year's election offer some hope, it is naturally hard for the majority to vote away privileges - which is why India and China could become catalysts.

For decades China and India have stuck with the doctrine of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries. But as their global role blossoms, attitudes are changing. China's eye on the well-being of ethnic Chinese everywhere will increase as Chinese investment and tourism become more important to countries in Southeast Asia with significant Chinese minorities. Ethnic Chinese make up 25 percent of Malaysia's population and are subject to formal discrimination. India has less potential influence, but Indian politicians have begun to listen to Hindu groups complaining about discrimination and destruction of their temples.

In practice, Malaysia is usually more tolerant than official policies and statements by politicians and clerics might suggest. The prime minister is married to a Eurasian who was born a Christian. Various royals have married non-Malays. However, mixed marriages have become rarer as barriers are strengthened by sectarian privileges allied to religious dogmatism.

So maybe the outside world could do Malaysia a favor by taking Najib at his word and speaking up in support of the minority's reasonable request - equality for non-Malay Malaysians as well as for Malay minorities elsewhere.