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ATimes: Racial clashes show rise of new Malaysian underclass
By Anil Netto

16/3/2001 8:57 pm Fri

[Pergaduhan di Kg Medan menunjukkan ada satu kebangkitan rakyat kelas bawahan yang terpinggir dan tertindas. Tekanan sosio ekonomi akibat kemajuan yang tidak seimbang telah melahirkan gejala samseng, rasa tidak puas hati, dan kekecewaan yang terpendam. Ini semua menyumbang bahan letupan yang boleh meledak menjadi pergaduhan besar yang mengerikan walau disentuh perlahan.

Baru sekarang kerajaan mahu mengirim kemajuan dan memasang lampu jalan. Tetapi itu sudah terlambat kerana nyawa sudahpun terkorban dan sejarah negara semakin hitam. - Editor]

From Asia Times
15th March 2001

Racial clashes show rise of new Malaysian underclass

By Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia - This week's ethnic violence did not erupt in the upper-class, multi-ethnic residential area of Damansara near the capital Kuala Lumpur, nor in its trendy Bangsar neigborhood with its posh nightspots and watering holes.

Instead, Malaysia's worst ethnic clashes since 1969, when violence erupted between Malays and Chinese Malaysians, broke out in some of the poorest areas just outside Kuala Lumpur.

Last week's clashes have been largely portrayed in foreign media as racial rioting between ethnic Malays and Indians that has marred Malaysia's record of social harmony. The local media, in a bid to douse passions, downplayed the ethnic aspect of the clashes but generally failed to highlight the socio-economic forces that may have sparked them.

The ethnic nature of the clashes appears to have masked the undercurrents in Malaysian society and the emergence of a frustrated underclass in an economy long touted as the next Asian tiger economy.

The clashes between Malay Muslims and ethnic Indians erupted March 8 in run-down sections of Petaling Jaya, a largely upper- middle class residential town just next door to Kuala Lumpur. Six people have been reported killed, 52 hurt and 190 detained.

In socio-economic terms, "the area is one of the worst areas around Kuala Lumpur", says professor Ishak Shari, head of the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies. "I suppose the feeling of frustration [at their plight] is there. The feeling of dissatisfaction must have been brewing all along," he explains.

These neighborhoods are made up of plank squatter houses, longhouses, low-cost flats and terrace houses - largely populated by Malay and Indian Malaysians as well as Indonesian and Bangladeshi migrant workers. The majority are from the lower income group and work in factories and small businesses.

Some 60 percent of the 22 million Malaysians are ethnic Malays or indigenous people. About 50 percent of the people are Malays, almost all of whom are Muslim. A quarter are Malaysian Chinese, while 8 percent are ethnic Indian.

For several years now, a few academics have been pointing to a growing underclass in Malaysian society, the result of an unbridled, lopsided approach to "development".

During his 20-year tenure as premier, Mahathir Mohamad has pursued a model of heavy industrialization, complete with towering skyscrapers, a glittering airport and an impressive Formula One racing circuit. But he has neglected social security nets for the poor, critics say.

How one defines poverty in the country is problematic to start with. The official poverty line in peninsular or western Malaysia, where Kuala Lumpur is, in 1997 was a monthly income of 460 ringgit (US$121) for a household of 4.6 persons, says Ishak. If that figure is used, Malaysia's level of poverty does not look so bad - 8 percent overall in 1998 with urban poverty less than 5 percent. But most households need a combined income of 1,000 ringgit to meet the demands of modern urban living, asserts Ishak. The Malaysian Trades Union Congress, for instance, has been demanding a minimum monthly wage of 900 ringgit.

This is where the crux of the problem lies: many among the working class, including factory workers, barely earn that amount. Indeed, those at the lower end of the ladder, especially plantation workers, general workers and laborers, struggle to earn 500 ringgit monthly.

Before the Asian crisis in mid-1997, academics had argued that 750 ringgit would be a more appropriate gauge of the minimal cost of living for urban households, said a report prepared by the Malaysian Institute for Economic Research for the United Nations Development Program in 1998. Given this measure, during the boom decade between 1985 and 1995, the percentage of poor households increased from 14.3 to 23 percent, much of the rise occurring in the urban areas.

"With reduced income through retrenchments or pay cuts, and price hikes in fixed cost necessities such as food and utilities, poor urban households will suffer a noticeable decline in welfare," the report added.

While there have been programs to alleviate rural poverty, there are no specific ones related to urban poverty, it noted. Low incomes breed a multitude of frustrations, leading perhaps to outbreaks of hostility shown the clashes last week. "It's not just lack of income but a lack of accessibility to all the basic necessities of urban living," points out Ishak.

A major need in areas like these is housing. Squatter areas and low-income housing in Malaysia tend to be congested, higher- density areas. The squalid conditions and poverty in squatter areas are breeding grounds for social problems like gangsterism and drug addiction.

"These areas are usually oppressive," Ishak points out, with little space for weddings, funerals, and other public functions. Tempers are easily frayed even among the same ethnic group when neighbors infringe into one another's often un-demarcated private zones. When this involves people of different ethnic groups, the situation could get ugly. "You just need a small issue to spark off ill feelings," he remarks.

An often unnoticed but crucial factor is the sense of deprivation that the poor feel, and which is heightened when they live next door to the wealthy. "It is easier to compare yourself with the well-to-do in such a situation," says Ishak.

Social tensions are not helped any by race-based politicking in Malaysia - in which the main ethnic groups Malays, Chinese and Indians are urged by the government's ruling coalition to unite to protect the interests of their groups. This lays conditions that are ripe for inter-ethnic frustration, where each group blames the other for its problems.

In the wake of the clashes, analysts are now questioning the wisdom of holding talks between the dominant United Malays National Organization (Umno) and the opposition Islamic Party (PAS) to discuss only Malay unity - rather than national unity.

"These talks have become irrelevant," says P Ramakrishnan, president of the non-government group Aliran. "What the opposition front has been calling for - national unity - seems more relevant now in the aftermath of these racial clashes," he says. The PAS-Umno talks, he adds, will fizzle out.

But despite the clashes, analysts still believe that the ethnic situation in Malaysia has improved since the 1980s. This explains why the clashes have not spread to other multi-ethnic neighborhoods. Still, the violence has spurred the realization that the Indian Malaysians, poorer Malays and other groups continue to lag behind their better-off neighbors.

Apart from the sensitive subject of race in Malaysia - government officials quickly said the violence was not anything like ethnic violence in Indonesia - society also has to deal with economic and social deprivation among the new underclass.

Ethnic tensions weakening Mahathir's grip on power


Global Intelligence Update
Mar 14, 2001


The Malaysian government is downplaying a weekend of ethnic Indian-Malay fighting that left at least six dead and more than 190 arrested. The rise in ethnic tensions, which raises the specter of the 1960s race riots that left hundreds dead, is increasingly troublesome to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. His actions to retain ethnic minority support have undermined his support base among the majority Malay population.


At least six people have been killed in suburbs of Kuala Lumpur in what has been called the worst race-related violence in Malaysia since March 1998. Fighting between ethnic Malays and ethnic Indians erupted on March 8, triggered by an earlier incident where an Indian funeral procession passed through a Malay wedding party, according to local media reports. By March 12, six people were dead, 52 injured and 190 arrested.

Malaysian government officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, quickly downplayed the racial aspect of the fighting. Increasingly, ethnic tensions between Malaysia's Malay majority and the Chinese and Indian minority are rising to the surface. With fears of a repeat of the 1969 race riots that left hundreds dead, Mahathir and his party face the ever more difficult challenge of balancing the support of the ethnic minorities and the majority Malay constituency.

While the ethnic Chinese and many ethnic Indians are counted among Malaysia's economic elite, the recent violence in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur occurred in poor neighborhoods of ethnic enclaves that had previous gang problems. Commenting in the Sunday Star on the violence, Mahathir said, "There were no racial clashes, but when people start spreading rumors that Indians are attacking Malays, then people come out and it happens." While his comments were an attempt to play down the racial aspects of the fighting, they emphasized the increasingly tenuous state of racial stability in Malaysia.

Malaysia's population is made up of 8 percent ethnic Indians and 30 percent ethnic Chinese, with the remainder comprising ethnic Malays and indigenous groups. Before the 1997 Asian economic crisis, Malaysia's economic growth helped keep racial tensions in check. Mahathir's ruling National Front coalition, which includes his United Malay National Organization (Umno), the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Malaysian Indian Congress and several other parties, dominated Malaysian politics.

With the onset of the regional economic malaise and the trial of popular then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir's popularity flagged, particularly among ethnic Malays. During the run-up to the 1999 elections, an opposition coalition sprung up. The Alternative Front loosely brought together the National Justice Party, led by Anwar's wife; the ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party; the Malaysian People's Party; and the Islamic Party of Malaysia, PAS, a fundamentalist Islamic party. The opposition coalition exploited confusion and concern in the Malay community, leaving Mahathir's Umno with only around 50 percent of the ethnic Malay vote. It was the votes of the minority races that allowed Mahathir to remain in power.

Since the election, Mahathir has undertaken two simultaneous, yet seemingly incompatible agendas. He has sought to maintain the support of Malaysia's ethnic minorities, calling for national unity and suggesting that a non-Malay could be prime minister some time in the future. And he has sought to reunite the ethnic Malay community behind his party and agenda. With PAS exploiting the issue of Malay rights and Islamic rule, ethnic minority groups have reacted with calls for increased rights, further complicating Mahathir's calls for unity.

The latest outbreak of ethnic violence comes two months after Malaysia narrowly avoided confrontations in the street between Malays and Chinese over demands to end special rights for Malays. The Malaysian Chinese Organizations Election Appeals Committee, Suqiu, had issued a series of demands, including an end to affirmative action programs for Malays, but withdrew its demands after threats of massive Malay street demonstrations.

The rights programs for Malays, originally put in place put in place after 1969 race riots between Chinese and Malays, were sparked by concerns that ethnic Chinese were dominating Malaysia's business environment while ethnic Malays were lagging behind. While Malaysia avoided the brunt of the Asian economic crisis, economic uncertainties exacerbate the underlying resentment among Malaysia's ethnic minorities toward the affirmative action program for the majority.

While Mahathir struggles to maintain support of these minorities, he also faces the waning support of the fractured Malay populace, many of whom feel disenfranchised and are now backing the opposition National Justice Party and PAS. Mahathir's Umno has undertaken an initiative to hold a Malay unity meeting, calling for participation by all Malay political parties, including PAS. But, the event has been delayed several times, in part over concern that it will further isolate the minority races. PAS officials have called for establishing one party to represent ethnic Malays, saying such a party must be true to the tenets of Islam.

With Malaysia's economy trapped in the regional slump, Mahathir's troubles will only worsen. Throughout Southeast Asia - from Indonesia to Vietnam, Laos to Myanmar - ethnic and religious tensions are erupting into violence. Without a surge in economic growth, Malaysia's ethnic tensions are likely to boil over, leading to other clashes and increasingly weakening Mahathir's hold on power.