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Malaysia: Preparing for a Pogrom

6 minute read

Residents of Kuala Lumpur, both rich and poor, used to congregate by the thou sands each night around long rows of food stalls throughout the city. Many were there for their evening meal of satay (meat roasted on a short skewer of cane and dipped in curry sauce). Others stopped off on their way home for a bowl of soup. In the polyglot capital of Malaysia, this nightly relaxation attracted not only Malays but also citizens of the large Chinese minority and the smaller Indian and Pakistani groups.

For the past two months, however, Kuala Lumpur’s food stalls have closed early and the street crowds that usually mingled pleasantly now scatter for cover at any unusual sound. In the wake of bloody race riots that may have claimed 2,000 lives, Malaysia’s peoples have bro ken little bread together; they have probably broken any hope for multiracial harmony for many years to come.

Last week, though no further rioting occurred, Kuala Lumpur was a city of mounting tensions and widening divisions. In the weeks since the first riots—which terrified primarily the Chinese, since they were the main victims—new incidents have centered on Indian communities as well. With both minorities now targets for mob attack, the struggle has become more clearly than ever the Malay extremists’ fight for total hegemony. Whether or not the Malay-controlled police force and emergency government have actually stirred up some of the house-burning, spear-carrying mobs, they seem unwilling to clamp down on them. Strict government censorship has created a news void that forces panicked citizens to keep their transistor radios tuned to the police band and gives credence to constant ru mors of terror. Chinese secret societies, the backbone of self-defense whenever officials are distrusted, are flourishing and, justifiably or not, Malaysia’s minorities are preparing for a pogrom.

Benefits at the Top. Malaysia’s working arrangement for the past 20 years has always kept political power in the hands of Malays but allowed the more commercially aggressive Chinese and Indians to accumulate much of the economic power. Outwardly, this combi nation brought twin blessings. Malaysia developed a thriving modern economy that produced one of the highest per cap ita incomes in Asia, and at the same time enjoyed the personal freedoms of a liberal democracy. Presiding over the hopeful experiment was the avuncular figure of 66-year-old Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. His Alliance coalition, dominated by Malays but including both Chinese and Indian parties, won control of Parliament during the election of 1955, two years before in dependence, and has kept it ever since.

For all its practical success, Malaysia never really managed to overcome racial enmities. The Chinese and Indians resented Malay-backed plans favoring the majority, including one to make Malay the official school and government language. The poorer, more rural Malays became jealous of Chinese and Indian prosperity. Perhaps the Alliance’s greatest failing was that it served to benefit primarily those at the top. It was not unheard of for a government official to discover a new car in his garage, its donor a mystery until a Chinese towkay (rich merchant) mentioned it offhandedly—and then perhaps asked for a favor. For a Chinese or Indian who was not well-off, or for a Malay who was not well-connected, there was little largesse in the system. Even for those who were favored, hard feelings persisted. One towkay recently told a Malay official: “If it weren’t for the Chinese, you Malays would be sitting on the floor without tables and chairs.” Replied the official: “If I knew I could get every damned Chinaman out of the country, I would willingly go back to sitting on the floor.”

Lip Service. Malaysia’s democracy has been suspended as a result of the riots. Three days after they began, both the Tunku and the constitutional monarch handed over all their powers to the ambitious Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak. He now presides over a state-of-emergency ruling group called the National Operations Council. Heavily dependent on the military and Malay extremists for support, the N.O.C. government today is run by men who believe that Malaysia’s only hope is to find a solution to the minority “problem”—and are willing to accept a lower standard of living, or even shed the federation’s non-Malay Borneo states to find it. This month Razak, who as a former Minister of National and Rural Development became committed to programs for Malay supremacy, announced a new economic program. Though he has not yet given militants free reign and still manages to pay lip service to the notion that “prosperity must be spread throughout the nation,” his proposals for new government-run industry, rural development and industrial training courses all seem designed solely to benefit the Malay community.

Malays could not take over the economy within the foreseeable future. They simply do not have the capital or the know-how to manage it, especially in the field of rubber production, in which Malaysia is the world leader. However, they do have the power to wreck the economy—and seemingly the hatred that could make them use it. The majority of Chinese and Indians have come to believe, as a result of the riots, that they cannot expect government protection from Malay mobs.

In retaliation, Chinese merchants have already raised prices on many goods to Malay buyers and cut off paja (credit), by which many a Malay farmer buys seed for his next crop. More ominous still, the conflict, at first only an urban affair, is spreading to the countryside. Chinese-owned pickup trucks have ceased collecting the fishing catch from the Strait of Malacca. The eagerly awaited season for durian, a large and delectable strong-scented fruit grown only in Asia, is now at its peak. In any other year, Malay farmers would make small fortunes on this rare fruit. Last week durians were rotting by the roadside because Chinese trucks were not sent for them—as they are not being sent anywhere in Malaysia’s rice bowl. Economies will not long endure that kind of standoff, and the result is likely to be fresh explosions of racial strife.

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