If there’s one thing the Malaysian government wants visitors to know, it’s that a modern, multi-ethnic harmonious society radiates out from its gleaming capital of Kuala Lumpur. It doesn’t take long for guests to get the message. It’s unfurled on huge banners in the futuristic, hub-aspiring airport that declare, “One legacy. One destiny”, and that depict children of the three main races (Malay, Chinese and Indian) holding hands. It comes at you in videos showing ethnic dancers twirling with glee on the air-rail train into town. It’s on a wall facing the country’s most recognizable symbol of modernity, the twin Petronas Towers: “In celebration of independence, unity, and harmony.” And it’s in every tourist brochure.
To judge from Malaysia’s elections in early March, however, tourist brochures touting racial harmony might not be reaching the audience that most needs to hear the message: Malaysians themselves. Race relations in Malaysia have always been touchy and have occasionally flared into the open. Race riots in 1969 left some 200 people dead when Chinese and Malays clashed in the streets of the capital. The riots scared the wits out of the ruling elite, which moved to tamp down similar displays for the past three decades. But problems have increasingly come back into the open since Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest-reigning political capo—perhaps best known in the West for his xenophobic and anti-Semitic rants—stepped down in 2002.
Malay authorities are aware of the problem, but seem more concerned about appearances than about the underlying realities that gave rise to them. As Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak told me in his sprawling office, when I mentioned that some Malaysian friends have confided in me an astonishing degree of contempt for their countrymen of a different race, “That’s OK, as long as it is being said within the four walls [of each community].” Indeed, Malaysians are remarkable in their ability to keep a lid on their resentment. But the pot is simmering, and the lid can’t be kept on forever.
Chinese Malaysians worry increasingly about the country’s creeping Islamization, and not without reason. According to a 2006 survey, 43 percent of Malays would like to see Malaysia become more Islamic. (All Malays are Muslim according to the constitution, thus Islam here is racialized.) Non-Malay female police officers must now wear headscarves at official events. Muslim snoop squads, in search of khalwat (close proximity between unmarried Muslims of the opposite sex), have invaded the privacy of non-Muslims. Last year, Najib declared Malaysia an “Islamic State”, even though 40 percent of the population is non-Muslim and the country’s constitution is secular. The 12-year-old administrative capital of Putrajaya is replete with onion-shaped domes and Moorish bridges. The Persian-inspired Putra Mosque sits next to the Prime Minister’s office and is arguably the administrative capital’s most identifiable landmark. Indian and Chinese temples are conspicuously absent. The same goes for the area around the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. A mosque nestled beside an adjoining park broadcasts its Friday prayer via loudspeaker at volumes loud enough for patrons at the Towers’ trendy cafes to hear.
These factors have played a role in the fact that some 70,000 Malaysians, mostly Chinese, have given up their citizenship in the past twenty years. Still more who have retained their citizenship prefer to live and work abroad. Some 90 percent of Chinese Malaysians now attend Chinese-language schools, finding the public Malay schools too Islamic for comfort. Malays, in turn, see the Chinese pulling inward, and this has accentuated their private accusations that the Chinese are insular, exploitative and greedy—intent on advancing their community’s interests above those of the nation. Why, if they are marginalized, do Chinese control most of the economy? (And indeed, the Chinese make up 25 percent of the population and control about 40 percent of the economy.)
All of these facts served as a preface to Malaysia’s latest election season, and the results of the March elections suggest that resentments are not only growing but are also growing more political in expression. Malaysia’s Indian community seized the early headlines when some 10,000 Indians rallied in November against the marginalization of the Indian community at the hands of an entrenched Malay leadership. But it’s the Chinese and Malays whose relationship is most strained, as the elections bore out. True, Chinese and Malays both voted in significant numbers for different opposition parties, helping to deny the governing National Front coalition (BN) a two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time since 1969 and quadrupling the opposition’s foothold in parliament.
But Malays who defected voted primarily for the Islamist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and Chinese voted for the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP). The two parties were once part of an opposition coalition, though DAP has since refused to join hands with PAS until it drops its goal of turning Malaysia into an Islamic state. PAS backed away from the call in the lead-up to the March elections, it having been roundly rejected by non-Muslims and Malays alike in the 2004 elections. Responding to the opposition parties’ strong showing in the election, DAP’s Secretary General Lim Guan Eng said he hopes that PAS and DAP can work together despite their deep ideological differences.
One might think that tensions between ruling Malays and diaspora Chinese would spill over to affect state-to-state relations between Malaysia and China. Oddly enough, they haven’t—at least not yet. The Malay-led government’s relations with China are healthy, while the Malay community’s opinions of the mainland are positive. Malaysia and China’s national oil companies, Petronas and China National Petroleum Corporation, respectively, are producing oil in Sudan. The two countries are discussing development of the South China Sea, while Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has expressed his intent to deepen cooperation on several fronts, including trade and security.
Nonetheless, Malaysian and Chinese interests do not fully converge. China’s rise as a manufacturing hub has attracted foreign direct investment at Malaysia’s expense. But Malaysia is managing to tap into rising demand in China for palm oil, rubber and electronics, and Malaysian companies are pursuing construction and service projects in China, as well. A 2006 survey by Grant Thornton of 7,000 medium and large businesses found that 22 percent of Malaysian companies saw sales increase because of growing demand from China. The future could be even brighter for Malaysia in this regard, since 60 percent of China’s exports derive from foreign companies operating in China, and Malaysian Chinese are well placed to do business in China. Malaysian finance graduates and consultants with Chinese language skills are also finding that they can earn up to three times as much in China as they can in Malaysia, and most of their earnings come back to Malaysia in one way or another.
In addition, Malaysia’s government-linked companies, which are usually run by and employ a large number of Malays, are also making inroads in China. Petronas, for instance, signed a 25-year deal worth $25 billion with China to provide liquefied natural gas starting in 2009—the largest trade deal ever between the two countries. Chinese tourism to Malaysia is also on the rise: Tourist arrivals from China hit 688,209 in 2007, just about double the total of 2006.
The bilateral relationship is not without some tension, however. When a video surfaced in late 2005 showing what appeared to be a Chinese national performing “nude squats” as part of a strip-search by Malaysian police, the Chinese Foreign Ministry filed an official protest. Some local Chinese were incensed as well, interpreting the episode as proof of anti-Chinese bias within Malay-led agencies like the police. It turned out that the woman in the video was not a Chinese national but Malaysian—and an ethnic Malay at that. More consequential, as China lures foreign direct investment away from Southeast Asia, Malaysia is finding it harder to climb the value-added ladder. Its science and engineering talent is under-nurtured, and research and development efforts are not taking off as envisioned. Up to 90 percent of state-led information and communications technology startups have gone under, according to the Technopreneur Association of Malaysia, and many other anticipated startups have chosen to set up shop elsewhere in Asia.
Prime Minister Abdullah has leveraged the state-controlled media here to assure Malaysians that China is not a threat to Malaysia’s economy, but concern about Malaysia’s long-term economic fitness is growing among the business and political elite. That anxiety has not targeted mainland Chinese despite the fact that Malays generally resent the Chinese disapora in their own country and express no regrets about having expelled majority-Chinese Singapore from Malaysia in 1965, less than two years after independence.
Malay attitudes toward China remain positive for another reason, as well: a lack of security anxiety, thanks to a balance between U.S. and Chinese positions in Southeast Asia. The matter is rather complex, however, and it may not last.
On the one hand, Malaysia enjoys close defense and economic ties with the United States. The U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia helps ensure regional stability and safe travel through the Strait of Malacca, through which a third of the world’s oil passes. The United States is Malaysia’s number one trading partner, receiving 20 percent of Malaysia’s exports in 2005 and accounting for 20 percent of Malaysia’s FDI from 2000 to 2005. But as Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar explained last year, Malaysia is trying not to align itself too closely with the United States, hence a proposed pipeline that would traverse northern Malaysia, providing an alternative route for Mideast oil headed for East Asia, particularly China. Since such oil currently passes through the Strait of Malacca and around the tip of Singapore, Malaysia is clearly trying to sell the pipeline as an insurance policy to both Tehran and Beijing, who fear the U.S. Navy could disrupt their economies by blockading the Strait at a time of tension or war.
Beyond security and economics, there is also a cultural balance of sorts between the United States and China in the eyes of most Malays. American cultural influence in Malaysia is pronounced. On any given night at clubs around the capital, local musicians—Chinese and Indian as well as Malay—can be found aping American pop acts. Clothing trends mirror those in the United States, too. Most Malaysians eagerly seek out Hollywood fare, and Kentucky Fried Chicken is a sort of religion here.
At the same time, anti-Americanism among Malays runs deeper here than anywhere in Southeast Asia. Most Malays have been raised on a steady diet of anti-Americanism, whether fed by the rants of Mahathir during his 22-year rule, the state-run media or religious teachers. The Bush era has done little to challenge these crude summations; nor has the country’s increasingly conservative brand of Islam. Anti-Semitic literature, notably Henry Ford’s The International Jew, is prominently displayed by major booksellers. Party officials even handed out free copies of the book at Mahathir’s last speech as party President in 2003. This sort of thing makes most Chinese and Indians in Malaysia very uneasy.
Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Malay-dominated government resents U.S. diplomats and Western journalists drawing attention to the country’s dismal human rights record. The Abdullah Administration has harassed bloggers, crushed street demonstrations with tear gas and water cannons, rejected the notion of an interfaith commission, and placed leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force under the Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial. In late January, dozens of peaceful anti-inflation demonstrators near the Petronas Towers were hauled away in police trucks. Washington’s occasional calls for justice are resented because they draw attention to the actual substance of Malaysian “democracy”, and because they are seen as a threat to Malay political supremacy. Some Malays still carp about a speech Al Gore gave here a decade ago in which he applauded Malaysian citizens taking to the street to protest official abuses.
All this helps explain the findings of a recent poll in which 70 percent of Malay respondents held favorable views of China while 86 percent held unfavorable views of the United States. After all, China never hectors Malaysia about human rights, and more important, it evinces less concern with militant Islam than the United States. Malaysian Muslims, who tend to view the War on Terror as a war against Islam, appreciate the difference. (Several Chinese Malaysians, on the other hand, have told me that they see Bush’s War on Terror as a necessary check against fundamentalist proponents of Muslim domination. One cab driver reminded me that Malaysia’s minorities live with the imposition of Muslim values every day of their lives.)
There can be no doubt that, as time passes, the present Malay ruling elite is becoming more ethnically and religiously chauvinist. Last summer the Prime Minister’s son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, sought to discredit opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who stands for greater democracy and an end to race-based politics, by calling him “a traitor of the Malay cause.” As proof, Khairy claimed that Anwar, Mahathir’s estranged former Deputy Prime Minister, is “a puppet of the United States and the Jews.”
Chinese Malaysians are increasingly exasperated with use of the race card at the expense of national unity. That explains to a considerable degree why they voted as they did in March. But the truth is that Chinese Malaysians have not always put their best foot forward over the years. I often encounter Chinese who would rather converse in English than in Malay, the national language. Many are quick to blame Malays for racial animosity, but when I ask them what the Chinese community could do to improve relations, they are often at a loss for words. As most Malays’ chauvinism grows, most Chinese react not by reaching out, but by becoming more insular.
So far, these growing tensions have not affected the larger stakes. The goodwill Malays and Chinese lack for each other within Malaysia is reserved instead for the People’s Republic of China, for the time being. But it is hard to believe that a wealthier and more assertive China will turn a blind eye to future Malay discrimination, and perhaps violence, against its Chinese diaspora community. The U.S. government will certainly not be available as a balancer in such a circumstance; no U.S. administration will defend blatant anti-Chinese prejudice by Malays, especially if it is accomplished by violence reminiscent of anti-Semitic pogroms. Indeed, in such a circumstance the United States and China (as well as Singapore) would share an important interest.