ad info

 > magazine
 web features
 magazine archive
 customer service
  east asia
  southeast asia
  south asia
  central asia

Other News
TIME Europe
Asiaweek Services
Contact Asiaweek
About Asiaweek
Media Kit
Get up to 3 months of Asiaweek free when you subscribe online!


Theories of Race
PM Mahathir has hit out at an affirmative-action proposal as the work of Chinese extremists. Why?

Playing a race card, especially with political gain in mind, can be tantamount to sedition under Malaysian law. Depends who you are, of course. For Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, it was okay to blast a set of appeals — including affirmative action based on need, not on "race, social background and religious belief" — as the work of ethnic Chinese extremists. These people, Mahathir said during his Aug. 31 National Day speech, were like Islamic deviationists or "the communists who wanted to totally abolish the special status of the Malays in Malaysia." Such pro-Malay rhetoric is a familiar theme for the PM and his United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which leads the ruling coalition. But why the uproar over something that had been discussed calmly in August 1999?

Many Chinese reacted with alarm to the outburst, mindful of two major incidents in which they were embroiled in the past. In 1969, when UMNO suffered severe setbacks in general elections (as it did last year), political rallies degenerated into race riots that left at least 200 dead and triggered a huge Chinese exodus. In 1987, during a dispute over moves seen as a threat to abolish Chinese-language education, the government arrested more than 100 dissidents (including some from the ruling coalition). Lim Kit Siang, chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), said last week that Mahathir's statement was "downright unfair, completely baseless." He blamed the speech for a fall of nearly 7% on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange. The furor is a reminder that despite overall harmony, race has the potential to be an inflammable issue in Malaysia.

The target for Mahathir was the Malaysian Chinese Election Appeals Committee, or Suqiu (appeal or request in Mandarin). Formed before last year's general elections, the lobby group was started by 11 Chinese associations and is said to have the support of nearly 2,100 other Chinese groups. One of its goals is to broaden affirmative-action schemes introduced in 1971 under the New Economic Policy (NEP). While Malays are granted special protection under the Constitution in the areas of employment, education and business, the NEP set quotas for that protection. In business, for example, the target was for Malays to own 30% of all private capital by 1990. That year, the NEP was replaced by the National Development Policy, which put more emphasis on education. Yet the 30% business target remained, though no time limit was set (by 1990, Malays had about 20.3% equity).

Querying Malay constitutional rights is treasonable. When Suqiu put together a 17-point document, it emphasized that it was seeking a review of the quotas not the Constitution. Suqiu also sought the "abolition in all respects" of the bumiputra (sons of the soil) and non-bumiputra distinction — not part of the Constitution — in favor of a system based on need which would apply to all races. Latest estimates number Malays and other bumiputras at 12.7 million, Chinese at 5.5 million and Indians at 1.6 million.

So far so good. In September 1999, cabinet ministers who headed three predominantly Chinese parties in the ruling coalition met Suqiu members and accepted the appeals. They recommended that discussion be continued in the broad-based multiracial National Economic Consultative Council II, which devises proposals for Malaysia's next 10-year development plan. But last month Council vice president David Chua, who is deputy secretary-general of the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce & Industry, called for "competition in our society based on merit." He added that proposals for the next development plan included several options for eliminating the 30% target.

The response: Some 500 members of 13 Malay associations went to Mahathir's office on Aug. 17 to demand that Malay rights be protected. The next day about 200 UMNO Youth members demonstrated outside the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (which houses Suqiu). Some threatened to burn down the hall. UMNO Youth deputy Abdul Aziz Sheikh Fadzir turned down Suqiu's offer of talks, demanding an apology and withdrawal of the 17 appeals. Suqiu refused.

Since Mahathir's speech, UMNO's Chinese coalition partners, caught in the middle, have been trying to hose down the ruckus. Malaysian Chinese Association president and Transport Minister Ling Liong Sik urged all Malaysians to heed the PM's words. Matters such as quotas should be debated "at a proper forum with suitable participants, not publicly," he said. Though not averse to speaking out on a range of controversial subjects, Mahathir rarely just shoots from the hip. So the question is why he grabbed this issue, and why he is risking the support of an influential Chinese electorate that, unlike its Malay brothers, stayed solidly behind the PM at last year's general elections?

Theory one: It's not the message but the messenger. In March deputy PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi called for affirmative action to be focused on "bumiputras who genuinely need a head start by way of income and opportunities." The implication was not every bumiputra needed to be "mollycoddled by the state" (Abdullah's words). But when David Chua discussed the same proposals, UMNO protested. "The difference was that it was David Chua," says UMNO supreme councillor Shahrir Abdul Samad, adding that the subject should be raised only by UMNO leaders. Lim Keng Yaik, president of UMNO coalition partner Gerakan and primary industries minister, agrees. "For Malays to say that is all right," he says. "For Chinese to say that is not."

Theory two: The election results. A revitalized Malay opposition, coupled with disquiet over Anwar Ibrahim's ouster and trials, seized much of the Malay support away from UMNO and Barisan, which had to rely on the Chinese community to bail them out. Now many Chinese may feel that it's payback time. The problem is that UMNO can least afford to make concessions now. "The moment non-Malays feel that because of UMNO's weakened position they can make more demands, that makes the situation even worse," says UMNO's Shahrir. "If UMNO gives in, it will become even weaker."

Theory three: UMNO's internal politics. "It's a good issue for UMNO, to revitalize itself," says a Malaysian academic. "It may have been created to show UMNO is the only one that can protect Malay rights." Kerk Kim Hock, secretary-general of the opposition DAP, agrees that the issue could be a reflection of UMNO's internal troubles, but "I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theory. And I don't believe Mahathir was behind it. He's been around long enough to know it is foolish to use such an issue." Kerk points out that the PM met Chua on Aug. 18 and accepted that he had never asked for the abolition of Malays' constitutional privileges. Later, Mahathir said that the issue should not be blown out of proportion.

So much for the theories. The reality is that, in Kerk's words, "UMNO's image has taken a further dive." Even Gerakan's Lim says the Chinese community is "not too happy" about Suqiu being compared to communist insurgents or Islamic radicals. The pressure on UMNO builds.

Write to Asiaweek at

This edition's table of contents | Home


Quick Scroll: More stories from Asiaweek, TIME and CNN


U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

Launch CNN's Desktop Ticker and get the latest news, delivered right on your desktop!

Today on CNN
Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?


Malaysia: Behind the latest furor over race rights

Taiwan: Why Premier Tang Fei is in the hot seat
Interview: Tang on political and economic reform, and China

India: PM Vajpayee's health problems bode ill for the country

Singapore: The Speakers' Corner is another sign the government is loosening up, but not everything goes

North Korea: Kim Jong Il's regime is changing — for real

South Korea: But across the border, Kim Dae Jung is stalling

Newsmakers: Abdurrahman Wahid's latest problem

Viewpoint: Obstacles to an East Asian community

Business Buzz: Ford learns more of Daewoo's secret

Post-PC: An "off-the-desktop" computing strategy

Webbed Bliss: Matchmaking in India yields to the Internet

Bugged: A software virus crosses the first Palms

Cutting Edge: Nokia puts pop music on call

Comics: An unlikely artist with a fairy-tale career

Health: Apples — better for us than we realize

People: A high-profile divorce has Hong Kong talking

Hostages: A carrot-and-stick approach to the Abu Sayyaf farce

Olympic Games: Stop the drugs? Don't bet on it

Letters & Comment: A clash of cultures

The Bottom Line: Asiaweek's ranking of world economies

Back to the top   © 2000 Asiaweek. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.