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In Malaysia, Racial Integration Remains Fragile 40 Years after Riot

May 12 – Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of riots that raged through Malaysia, leaving over 200 dead and sweeping away the country’s appearance of racial harmony. The uneasy racial détente that has existed since what came to be known as the May 13 incident is a testament not only to the government’s reaction to the initial bloodshed and the perceived cause for it, but also the need as a nation to better integrate the very disparate sections of the Malaysian society.

In 1969, Malaysia was just emerging from colonial rule, having attained independence from Britain only 12 years previous. Malaysian society was deeply divided; the majority Malays controlled the government, while the Chinese, the largest minority, dominated the economics of the nation. Indian and Pakistani made up the third ethnic group, though their influence was weak and they had little say in business or politics.

When Chinese parties made sweeping electoral gains in 1969, their subsequent victory march through the streets of Kuala Lumpur helped spark the riots, as they detoured from a prearranged parade routes and marched through Malay neighborhoods, jeering at the residents; the Malays, fearing domination in all spheres by the Chinese, began discussing ways to retain control at a post-election meeting. Time magazine reported that when Chinese onlookers began to taunt those in attendance, the infuriated Malays attacks, killing at least eight Chinese. Within 45 minutes, fast-spreading riots force the government to issue a 24-hour curfew on the city.

“Malay mobs, wearing white headbands signifying an alliance with death, and brandishing swords and daggers, surged into Chinese areas in the capital, burning looting and killing.”

The bloody riots would change the course of history in Malaysia.

Blaming the poor economic conditions most Malays found themselves in, the government moved to alleviate the economic disparities through an affirmative action program in 1971 that provided easier access to schools and reduced the cost of homes for Malays. Rules requiring many companies to be parity Malay-owned were also implemented. The main government-funded schools began teaching in Malay in order to have access to top level funding.

Malays prospered. According to the Associated Press, their share of corporate wealth surged from 2.4 percent in 1970 to about 20 percent today. They now make up nearly two-thirds of the population.

But there are increasing strident calls from the Chinese and Indian communities to end the affirmative action programs. Complaints are on the rise, and the rules requiring parity Malay ownership in business is keeping foreign direct investment out of the nation.

As the Malaysia has loosened restrictions on commentary and dissent within the government-controlled media, discussion on long-sensitive issues like the affirmative action programs is beginning to flourish among the nation’s minorities. Even Malays are beginning to question whether it is not time to, if not end, at least review affirmative action to benefit all of the country’s poor, not only the Malays.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has made some initial moves towards addressing some of these concerns. In April, he scrapped the requirement for 30 percent Malay ownership in several sectors in an attempt to encourage foreign investment. He has also mounted a massive publicity campaign called “1 Malaysia to promote solidarity and racial understanding within the nation.

That understanding will be on display tomorrow when a public forum is held to commemorate the May 13 incident. Entitled “From May 13 to 1Malaysia – The Future of Malaysian Nation Building,” The objective of the forum is to enable Malaysians from different backgrounds and of different eras to explore a future together in Malaysia.

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