Malaysian Chinese leader calls for meritocracy

VIJAY JOSHI, Associated Press Writer

A top ethnic Chinese leader in Malaysia's ruling coalition indirectly called Thursday for scrapping an affirmative action program for the majority Malays in a rare challenge to the fount of government power.

With the global economy facing an uncertain future in 2009, Malaysia must "attract the best brains and professionals to help steer the ship away from rough, uncharted waters," Transport Minister Ong Tee Keat said in his New Year's message.

"We have no choice but to embrace meritocracy in our practices," said Ong, who is also the head of the Malaysian Chinese Association, the second-biggest party in the ruling National Front coalition after the United Malays National Organization.

It is the first time that an MCA leader has openly called for meritocracy, which can only be achieved by abolishing the affirmative action program that gives Malays privileges in state contracts, jobs, housing and education.

The program was launched following 1969 racial riots that were fueled partly by Malay discontent over Chinese financial clout. But now it has become a renewed source of social tension due to frustration among the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities who comprise 40 percent of the population. Malays are 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people.

Critics of the program, including some Malays, say it mainly benefits a well-connected Malay elite and breeds cronyism, corruption and inefficiency.

Ong said the likelihood of a worsened global economy in 2009 could have a major impact on the export-driven economy of Malaysia.

An "economic tsunami is lapping our shores. The wave is colorblind, and the catastrophe it can bring will not distinguish between race, age or religion," Ong said.

The National Front coalition is a power-sharing arrangement with the tacit understanding that the smaller parties representing ethnic minorities will not challenge UMNO's dominance in politics and the government.

But Ong's statement is clearly an attempt to bolster dwindling support for his party among the Chinese, many of whom abandoned the party in the March 2008 general elections, voting instead for the opposition.

"A newly energized MCA will be fearless in speaking and acting for the equal interest, not only for the Chinese community, but for all Malaysians," Ong said. "The rights and freedom to be treated as an equal Malaysian as enshrined in our Constitution shall be defended at all costs."

However, mindful that his statement will provoke angry reactions from the Malays, Ong said the MCA "may be passionate and sometimes fiery but as I have said this before, let us not equate dissent with disloyalty."

"There should be room in our … coalition for pluralism of views," he said.

There was no immediate response from Malay leaders. UMNO officials were not available for comment.