RIGHTS-MALAYSIA: ‘Neo-Liberal Policies Fuelling Protests, Not Race’

Analysis by Anil Netto

(IPS) – After a series of street demonstrations in recent weeks top analysts and activists say the government is not tackling the economic roots of grievances among marginalised Malaysians, but appears stuck in its old mould of race-based thinking.

On Nov 10, some 50,000 people rallied in the country’s largest city Kuala Lumpur to call for electoral reforms in an initiative spearheaded by Bersih, a coalition of civil society groups supported by opposition parties.

Two weeks later, on Nov. 25, close to 30,000 Indian Malaysians participated in a huge protest over the community’s economic marginalisation and what they perceived as racial and religious discrimination. The protest was led by a group calling itself the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf). Indian Malaysians make up 7 per cent of the country’s population.

There have also been a series of much smaller "walks", vigils, temple prayers for those arrested, and submissions of memorandums on a range of pro-democracy issues.

The administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has responded by hauling dozens of demonstrators to court on charges of ‘illegal assembly’, ‘causing mischief’, ‘sedition’. Murder charges pressed against them were, however, withdrawn on Monday.

Five key Hindraf leaders have been in detention since Thursday under the draconian Internal Security Act.

Analysts looking at the profile of the two large demonstrations found common threads. ''There is a simmering discontent in the country played out in different ways,’’ said economist Charles Santiago of the Monitoring Globalisation research centre. The Bersih and Hindraf protests were a culmination of an outpouring of demands for justice and accountability, he told IPS.

In the case of Bersih, most of the demonstrators were low-income Malay Malaysians upset over what they perceive to be electoral manipulation by the Malay-dominated political elite.

In the Hindraf protest, many of the Indian Malaysians, once seen as compliant and supportive of the ruling coalition, were low-income ethnic Tamils. Earlier, low-income urban workers, many of them ethnic Malays, had also protested in support of trade union demands for a realistic minimum wage to cope with the increased cost of living.

''All this, put together, suggests there is a lot of inequity being felt,'' said Toh Kin Woon, a senior member of the Penang state government known for his independent thinking. ''They are worked up and prepared to take action to press their case.''

Santiago sees the protests as largely coming from a post-New Economic Policy generation of youth, especially Malay and Indian Malaysians. The NEP was a 20-year affirmative action policy favouring Malays and other indigenous groups. It expired in 1990, but its race-based thrust has been extended in various forms.

''These youth are trying to send a message to the government that their voice is not being heard and they don’t have a place in the Malaysian sun,'' he said.

‘’Working-class Malays are increasingly seeing the elite Malays in the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) as their exploiters and no longer their protectors,’’ agrees opposition political activist Jeyakumar Devaraj.

According to some analysts, sections of Indian Malaysian youth experience marginalisation on a daily basis. They assert that Tamil-language schools have been neglected: many pupils drop out and become unemployed, some turn to gangsterism or end up in prison, and occasionally, there are complaints of deaths in police custody.

''The Indian Malaysian poor perceive themselves as lacking opportunities to improve their life chances,'' Toh told IPS. Unlike their Malay counterparts, they have no state support, and unlike the Chinese Malaysians, they have little financial support from the larger Indian Malaysian community, he added.

Deveraj told IPS that Indian Malaysians often feel discriminated in scholarships and government jobs. Fuelling the resentment further has been a series of disputes over civil-sharia jurisdiction cases involving Indians converting to Islam as well as a number of temple demolitions.

However, others point to the existence of many other Hindu temples, which they say are evidence of the government’s commitment to supporting a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.

Devaraj feels the economy is a bigger factor fuelling the grievances, especially neo-liberal policies and the continuing exploitation of the working class within the capitalist system.

According to some analysts, the government has increasingly been transferring its responsibilities to the profit-driven private sector and dismantling elements of a welfare state. Under a neo-liberal regime, tariffs for essential services have risen, while wages have been kept low, driving up the cost of living for low-income workers. Jobs are no longer secure and the import of cheap migrant labour has suppressed local wages.

Other commentators assert that the Hindraf leaders’ exaggerated claims — including that of "ethnic cleansing" — have actually played into the hands of the government, giving it ammunition to criticise Hindraf leaders and portray the group as anti-Malay/Muslim. The multi-ethnic, though Malay-based Bersih movement, meanwhile, has been accused of being used by the opposition.

Government leaders are also playing to the Malay racial gallery, turning the Hindraf issue to their advantage, says a leading public intellectual Rustam Sani, author of books on Malay nationalism. ''UMNO and the ruling coalition have been playing the ethnic game for years and they are old hands at it.''

The government should have investigated the causes of the grievances rather than attacking the language use by the Hindraf leaders and demonising them, said Toh, a senior member of Gerakan, a ruling coalition party.

''A better approach would have to been to engage with the Hindraf leaders and talk to them about their grievances rather than with groups sympathetic with the MIC."

Toh said that he did not agree with Hindraf’s racial and religious approach, but stresses that they were not the first ones to use it, alluding to the government’s own race-based approach. He added that the ISA detentions of Hindraf leaders have actually aggravated the unhappiness among Indian Malaysians.

UMNO itself is in trouble, unable to chart a new more inclusive direction: cracks are emerging in the ruling coalition, which is increasingly dominated by one party, claimed Santiago.

The premier’s leadership qualities have also come under fire. Abdullah Badawi is an out-and-out administrator, muddling his way through and not providing answers to the real long-term problems of society, said Rustam. ‘’He hasn’t articulated any vision, but merely reacts in an administrative way. And those around him are not socialised in democratic thinking.’’

There’s also a sense of anger among certain sections of society over what they perceive to be betrayal by the leadership. They sense that the leadership lacks direction over the future and how to defuse social issues differently, said Rustam. ''People are restless — and that’s progress.''