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Malaysia's stuttering economy blamed for rise in ethnic tensions
Resentment over preference for ethnic Malays is starting to boil
File picture: Wikimedia Commons
- Wataru Yoshida for Nikkei Asian Review
- March 13, 2014
Robust economic growth has long played a key role in smoothing over tensions between Malaysia's different ethnic groups. But with that growth sputtering, resentment over the government's preferential treatment of ethnic Malays may soon boil over.
The rift between Chinese Malaysians, who account for less than 30% of the country's population, and the ethnic Malay majority of 60% deepened sharply after the general election last May, which saw the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak declare victory. The slowing economy has deepened the underlying mistrust between these two groups, and the premier, looking to solidify his support base among Malay voters, appears to be turning a blind eye to the escalating tensions.
In the capital Kuala Lumpur stands a poignant sign of Malaysia's division. Two food courts, located barely 20 meters away from each other in the same shopping area, cater to different ethnic groups. In one, there are only food stalls run by Malays for their Malay customers. In another, all the shops are operated by ethnic Chinese serving food for Chinese Malaysian diners.
Together but separate
Most Malay people are Muslims and cannot eat Chinese food, much of which uses pork, for religious reasons. And though Chinese Malaysians do not have such religious dietary restrictions, many of them shun Malay-run shops because of rising resentment over the country's economic policy of Bumiputra, which gives preferential treatment to Malaysia's ethnic majority.
Bumiputra is a Malay term that means "son of the land," and the policy offers significant benefits for the country's ethnic majority. Malay-run food courts, for example, are administered by local municipalities and their monthly rents are held at 30 ringgit ($9). By contrast, ethnic-Chinese food courts are privately run and their rents stand at around 800 ringgit, roughly 25 times higher. City-administered spaces openly favor Malay restaurant owners, and Chinese Malaysians have grown increasingly frustrated about such an unfair treatment.
The government introduced the Bumiputra policy in 1971 to raise the overall income levels of ethnic Malays, whose incomes were lower than those of ethnic Chinese. The policy also provides a legal basis for giving preference to ethnic Malays in education and employment, among other fields. The income gap between the two ethnic groups has narrowed slightly over the years, but Chinese Malaysians have suffered numerous consequences: They are granted only limited slots for university entrance and are rarely promoted to executive posts at government offices and state-affiliated companies.
Even so, ethnic Chinese people have refrained from protesting explicitly against the government mainly due to the country's steady economic growth. Malaysia started courting foreign investments in the 1980s, and the government widely shared the fruits of economic growth to keep dissatisfaction in check. On the surface, the two groups have managed to live side by side.
But rising wages have meant foreign investment has started tapering off in recent years. With the once-uniting force of economic growth losing steam, the ethnic Chinese population has begun making its grievances heard.
Full Story: Malaysia's ethnic tensions grow as economy slows
Source: Nikkei Asian Review