Fri, Dec 07, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Race continues to cast shadow in ‘new Malaysia’

By Joseph Sipalan  /  Reuters, KUALA LUMPUR

Just months after a stunning election victory, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has had to step in to mollify the nation’s majority Malay Muslims, underlining a weighty challenge confronting his multiethnic, reformist coalition: race.

When riots erupted at a Hindu temple outside Kuala Lumpur last week, 93-year-old Mahathir spared no effort to scotch speculation that tensions with Malays were to blame.

Just a few days earlier, his government reversed its pledge to ratify a UN convention against racial discrimination following a backlash from groups that said that it would dilute privileges Malays have enjoyed for decades.

The two incidents illustrate the predicament confronting Mahathir as euphoria over the May election fades: curbing racial divisions, carrying out reform and reassuring Malays that affirmative-action policies favoring them in business, education and housing are not about to disappear.

Mahathir’s unlikely alliance — known as Pakatan Harapan, or Pact of Hope — has to do that without upsetting the delicate balance of its constituent parties.

“The problem with Pakatan Harapan as a multiracial coalition is that it is not seen as championing the Malays,” said a deputy minister, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Opposition parties are successfully fanning a perception that Malays, about 60 percent of the country’s 32 million people, are being abandoned in what some have called “New Malaysia,” he said.

Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese are estimated at 23 percent, while mostly Hindu ethnic Indians comprise about 7 percent, government data showed.

Mahathir ousted the long-ruling coalition led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has pushed positive discrimination for Malays to avoid a repeat of bloody Chinese-Malay riots in 1969.

Mahathir was prime minister for two decades at the head of UMNO, before he fell out with his successors.

In the May election, Mahathir’s coalition won overwhelming support from ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, but it secured the votes of only 30 percent of Malay voters, according to estimates by independent polling firm Merdeka Center.

About 40 percent of Malays backed the beleaguered government of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, an UMNO grandee who is now facing multiple graft charges, and the rest voted for Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), a conservative Islamic party.

A Merdeka poll in August showed that concerns over ethnic issues and religious rights had grown since the election, with about 21 percent citing those issues as a concern compared with 12 percent in April.

For many Malays, the ouster of Najib over a multi-billion-US-dollar corruption scandal that had swirled for years around the 1Malaysia Development Berhad sovereign wealth fund was fair enough.

However, some have been dismayed by moves made by the government of Mahathir — himself once a champion of the Malay bumiputera, or “sons of the soil” policy — such as the appointment of non-Malays as minister of finance and attorney general.

A lawmaker in the ruling coalition said the initial plan to ratify the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination fed a narrative pushed by UMNO and PAS that the government is out of touch with the Malay community, especially the working class.

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