Malaysia Vote May Rule on Racial Divide 

(New York Times) – Mr. Najib sounded defensive at times as he announced the dissolution of Parliament on national television. “Don’t gamble the future of your children and Malaysia,” he said. “Think and contemplate as much as you can before making a decision. Because that will determine the direction of the country and also your grandchildren’s future.”

When the prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, announced Wednesday that he was dissolving Parliament, he set in motion an election campaign that will render judgment not just on his embattled governing coalition, but also on Malaysia’s longstanding system of dividing the power and spoils of public life on ethnic lines.

“This is a referendum on race-based politics,” Ibrahim Suffian, the director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling agency, said of the election. “The ruling coalition continues to argue that the existing system brings stability. The opposition is talking more about politics based on class, not race.”

The country has been led since independence in 1957 by a coalition, now known as the National Front, whose three main members are parties that define themselves on explicitly racial lines: one for Malays, the country’s largest ethnic group; one for Chinese; and one for Indians. But in recent years, the cohesion of those groups has begun to fray.

Chinese voters, who make up about one-quarter of the country’s population of nearly 30 million, have abandoned the coalition in large numbers, and the Malays who have dominated the political hierarchy for five decades are divided.

“How can you have a country based on race? It’s like South Africa 30 years ago,” said Nariza Hashim, a voter in Kuala Lumpur who is classified as Malay but who has Chinese, Indian and Scottish as well as Malay ancestors.

Though her grandfather was an early leader of the United Malays National Organization, the Malay component of the coalition, Ms. Nariza said the country’s ethnic classifications baffled her five children. “They really don’t understand why you would ask someone’s race on a government form,” she said.

The ethnic system has been reinforced over the years by paternalistic news media with close ties to the governing coalition. A leading English-language newspaper, The New Straits Times, ran an article about the elections on its front page Wednesday with a photograph of Mr. Najib waving his index finger, next to the headline “Choose wisely.”

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