Sep 14

Can democracy be the solution to Malaysia’s ethnic problems?

Written by Allen on Sunday, September 14th, 2008 at 9:06 am
Filed under:-mini-posts, Analysis, News, politics | Tags:, , , ,
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In a previous discussion on Malaysia’s ethnic politics, I was surprised (and dismayed) to sense the depth of dejection some ethnic Chinese in Malaysia may feel toward the political situation in Malaysia. There however may be hope.

An article in the New York Times today discussed how Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is leading a campaign that promises to expand democracy in the country and to end various privileges reserved for ethnic Malays that have in part caused so much ethnic tensions in Malaysia.

Here is a quote of the New York Times article:

[Anwar Ibrahim] promises to repeal Malaysia’s toughest laws that give the government the power to detain opponents without trial, ban unauthorized protests, bar students from participating in politics and keep the news media in line by requiring newspapers and magazines to apply for annual publishing permits.

He would also free all “political prisoners.”

Perhaps most explosive, he said he would end many special privileges for his own ethnic group, the Malays, who are given a variety of advantages, including discounts on houses, exclusive rights to government contracts and a reserved quota of stock-market shares. The privileges have angered the country’s two other main ethnic groups: Malaysian citizens of Chinese and Indian descent.

It was that anger, directed at the ethnically mixed governing coalition, that helped the opposition win just under half the popular vote, by far the best showing for the opposition since independence.

Mr. Anwar contends, and many experts agree, that most of the special privileges are enjoyed by a minority of Malays connected to the governing party. Still, it remains to be seen whether Malays will accept Mr. Anwar’s proposal of policies based on need, not ethnicity. Ethnic tensions have flared in the past, notably in 1969 when at least 200 people were killed in race-related violence.

Mr. Khairy of the governing party argues that Mr. Anwar is moving too fast by proposing to scrap the country’s harshest laws: Malaysia needs them to guard against ethnic strife, he said in an interview.

“We are a maturing democracy,” Mr. Khairy said. “These issues, to me, still need a lot of debate. We need to continue the way the Abdullah administration has done it, which is to reform gradually.”

I’ve been “bad mouthing” democracy in the last couple of weeks…  Now I find this.

Is democracy the solution to Malaysia’s ethnic problems?  Is light genuinely at the end of the tunnel for Malaysia’s ethnic strife?

[Editorial follow up: the washingtonpost also has a similar story touching on the role Malaysia’s affirmative action system has played in fomenting ethnic discord]

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35 Responses to “Can democracy be the solution to Malaysia’s ethnic problems?”

  1. Michelle Says:


    I asked a Malaysian friend for some recommendation for a balanced view of people’s opinions about the recent comments Ahmad Ismail made. This vox populi feature might be of interest to everyone here. It’s from an independent media source.


    Just read that Ahmad Ismail has been suspended for three years for his comments.

  2. Michelle Says:

    my last post got lost, oops i guess i can’t post links.

    Short recap: Malaysian friend suggested some reading, found this vox populi on the Ahmad comments on an independent newspaper site.

    www (dot) malaysiakini (dot) com (slash) news (slash) 89395

    Just heard that Ahmad Ismail was suspended for 3 years for his comments.

  3. admin Says:


    Sorry about that. It was caught in our spam filter. We allow posting links, but a short comment with a link/(links) is likely to be held for moderation.

  4. skylight Says:

    There is no doubt in my mind that democracy will be the best tool to solve the problem of ethnic mistrust and conflict. In a democracy, all voices are heard and can be negotiated within a transparent political system. This way the voices of Chinese and Indian minorities would have to be recognized and not suppressed, only to flare up in violence or ethnic hatred.

    This would also clearly be the best way to deal with the “Tibet issue”.

  5. Wan Says:

    The Chinese and Indian have not used violence to express their unhappiness. The Indian community just recently through peaceful demonstration highlighted their their plight. The Chinese community being mainly middle-classed is afraid of rocking the boat too much. They (I mean the majority) are too afraid to even demonstrate let alone become violent. They will only show their dissatisfaction thorugh their votes. This time around the reason for the large number of people not voting for the racist party, the National Front (Barisan Nasional) in which the Chinese members were (and are still) subservient was because of the many Malays who have become enlightened as to the injustice of the situation which their religion, Islam, fights against. For a change to occur democratic means is the only viable means of bringing about justice. However in Malaysia this cannot be ideally done because the government of the day uses (abuses) the government’s machinery to undemocratically prevent this from happening. If Malaysia was really democratic there will be less of these problems. However the country has been high-jacked by a small minority (which can be likened to a mafia gang) who call the shots misusing the police and the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU, a sort of Home Guard) to frighten the populace and misuse the law and use physical violence on the citizenry. In fact ever since 1969 the only people who have used violence have been the Malay goons hired by the Government, the police and the FRU. The citizens of the country have been bullied for a long time.

  6. Chops Says:

    How about taking a cue from the Chinese South-Africans?

    TIME – To address the iniquities of apartheid, the state decided it still needed to classify its citizens by race: The post-apartheid government instituted an affirmative action program called Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) to redress the massive imbalance of economic power in favor of whites. BEE legislation relies for the most part on apartheid’s definitions of “black.” It is held to cover those excluded from power and privilege in the old order — African, Colored and Indian. But although they were also excluded, Chinese South Africans were passed over. The Chinese community fought back, and on June 18 this year, it won a ten-year legal battle to redress that slight. At a stroke, around 10,000 Chinese South Africans who had been South African citizens under apartheid officially became black, qualifying for the benefits of the BEE.

    … Chinese may have settled in Africa long before the 17th century arrival of settlers from Europe. The first known map of southern Africa was drawn by Chinese cartographer Chu Ssu-pen in 1320. Sung dynasty porcelain (960-1279 AD) has been found at archaeological digs in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Chinese admiral Zheng He explored Africa’s east coast between 1405-1433. Most compelling of all, until a few years ago, there lived, north of Cape Town, tribes with light colored skin, Mongolian features and a language tonally similar to Mandarin, who traced their origins to 13th century Chinese sailors and call themselves Awatwa or “abandoned people.” Given the fact that not only the white population, but also the black African population migrated to what is now South Africa from further afield, Chinese South Africans feel as rooted here as anyone else.


  7. Michelle Says:

    Chops, I’ve heard that before and it’s interesting. I believe that in Malaysia, you are legally considered Malay if you practice Islam and follow Malay customs, even if you are of other ethnicity. I think I remember someone telling me a story of a white woman who is now ‘malay’ because she converted, got married to a malay man, and lives the life of a malay (Whatever that means…) and is now considered ‘malay’ legally.

  8. Chops Says:

    There is also another group of Chinese, the Peranakan, descendents of early immigrants who have assimilated into the Malay culture (but not necessarily the religion), with some inter-marriages with Malays, though the Peranakan are legally still Chinese.


    Btw, arguably the most famous Malaysian is Michelle Yeoh, and a Chinese Malaysian also


  9. Netizen K Says:

    Chinese Malaysians need to participate in the democratic process fully. They should use their votes to protect their rights.

  10. Allen Says:

    @Netizen – can democracy per se protect the rights of minorities like Chinese Malaysians?

  11. Allen Says:

    Also – if there are genuine mistrust and conflicts between ethnic groups, wouldn’t democracy simply lead to a “hot war” between the factions on the political stage (not unlike what is happening in Thailand – resulting often in allegations of vote manipulation, vote buying, etc.)?

  12. Allen Says:

    @Michelle #1,

    Thanks for the link.

    I am glad to see the leadership in Malaysia taking steps in the right direction.

    But as long as there are people like Ismail willing to make his inflammatory comments in public, we know there are sympathetic audiences out there willing to listen…

    So my take is that – the government is in the right trying to control the situation. But there are legitimate genuine ethnic problems on the ground…

  13. Chops Says:

    Re: “We are a maturing democracy,” Mr. Khairy said. “These issues, to me, still need a lot of debate. We need to continue the way the Abdullah administration has done it, which is to reform gradually.”

    Gradual reform, sounds like what the Chinese government is also saying.

    The Afro-Americans were also disfranchised in the Sixties, though America has always been a democracy. Martin Luther King had “A Dream” and today America is a better place.

    Seems America is helping (interfering) to make that dream come true in Malaysia as well.
    “US summons Malaysian envoy over crackdown on dissent”

  14. Allen Says:


    Even in the U.S. South, there are still many with sympathetic Confederate sentiments. Change do come slowly.

    In the U.S., identity based politics (over race and gender) through the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s has created much tension and turmoil in the country. Hopefully with this current election cycle’s more inclusive – less identity-based politics – things will turn for the better.

  15. Oli Says:


    The political situation in Malaysia is bad but not as bad as the poster with the handle “Malaysian Chinese” on your last thread make it out to be, particularly with regards to the majority of Malaysian Chinese who tended to be more educated and mobile in relative comparison to the Malaysian Indians. But unfortunately, the worst affected are the poorerst and the least skilled, irrepective of race/ethnicity and this can partly be blamed on Malaysian politics as much as on globalisation where all to often it is the poorest who are the worst hit by price increases in food, commodities and resources including oil (Malaysia is actually an oil exporter of sweet crude, yet had to increase domestic prices without warning overnight).

    Malysian democracy is actually not the biggest problem but rather it is the race/ethnicity based politics and the hijacking thereof by a minority elite that is at the core of the matter. You can reform the democratic process’ mechanisms as much as you want, but so long as Malaysia and its people do not move on from race-based politics to issue-based politics, no reforms of the democratic process will endure.

    However, it is precisely this that the current coalition government feels so threatened as the opposition coalition and its supported, despite its racial/ethnic/religious/secular diversity, is motivated primarily by one single issue, namely reform. But reform not only of the political and governmental mechanism of power, but the very nature of Malaysian political discourse itself. Hence the leitmotif of the opposition is “reformasi” (being malay for reform).

  16. Daniel Says:

    Hi Chops,

    I have a friend from Ghana I met from college. I don’t know if the communities feel as rooted as South Africa, but she mentioned to me how there are Chinese settlers all over the continent. They also have been there for some time, like before all the news reports (some controversial) in the last few years about the Mainland Chinese increased immigration and relations with the countries there. I also heard something similar from a few missionaries near Sudan.


    That would be great if it were less-identity based politics in this year’s US president election, but frankly speaking, I’m seeing more of it than usual. Not just little sentiments regarding race and gender but also age, geography, religion, military background and wealth status. I mean, by law, none of it should matter, but it’s a little different on the ground. It is better than before but certain beliefs persists.

    Reading these comments, I’m assuming that even if Malaysia can move past the ethnic-base policies, there will still be the money-class issues to deal with? Seems like many countries, actually almost every nation has this.

  17. Charles Liu Says:

    Chops, blacks were the majority in the South Africa example. If we follow the “democracy” approach, the majority Malays will have to vote to reliniquish their “Malay’s previldge”. What’s the chance of that if you rely on democracy, Tyranny of the Majority will continue. Just for the record “Whiteman’s prevlidge” still exists in America.

    Is there any example of ethnic problems solved by democracy? Will it work for Ossetia? Should the ethnic Russians get to vote in repatriation of the region, historically Russian but technically “gifted” to Georgia during USSR reign? How about Kosovo? Balkans?

    Will democracy fix the ethnic divide between Suni, Shiite, Kurds in Iraq? Turkey’s part in annexation of historical Kurdistan after WWII and the legacy we see today?

    Sorry don’t mean to be pessimistic.

  18. TommyBahamas Says:

    Foolish old me…I’d posted a (this) comment in the wrong threat. THIS is the one on Malaysia, DUH!

    I understand one could get an Australian degree for a lot less spending half of the undergraduate course time in Malaysia and the other in Australia.

    RE: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/7098561.stm

    Being a genuinely global university does not mean packing in more and more overseas students just to benefit from the relatively high fees they pay; there are already signs that a growing number of international students feel they are not getting value for money at UK universities. ”

    I wonder what some of you overseas current or ex-students feel about fees to value in American education?

  19. TommyBahamas Says:

    I am with you, Charles Liu .

    Democratic or whatever ideology, like most religions are idiot-ologies. They are for idiots, i.e if one choses to believe them as they are preached. The powerful few / prefered minority always get what they want, while the majority “ought to be” grateful for the morsels (trickled-down benefits) falling off their sumptious tables for needs. I am Sorry, I don’t mean to be pessimistic either.

  20. TommyBahamas Says:

    Having said the above 气话…I am actually a bit …just only … a little hopeful after reading “An article in the New York Times,” Allen posted above. Thanks.

  21. Justin Choo Says:

    Lucky to be directed to your blog. The level of intelligence of the present Malaysian incumbent politicians is beyond comprehension. They are in a different world due to too much power for too long a period…51 years!! They talk rubbish and act as fools. No amount of words here can do justice to expose the extent of the rot in the present Malaysian Government. Perhaps readers may be interested to follow thru the following sites:







  22. Justin Choo Says:

    Lucky to be directed to your blog. The level of intelligence of the present incumbent politicians is beyond comprehension. They are in a different world due to too much power for too long a period…51 years!! They talk rubbish and act as fools. No amount of words here can do justice to expose the extent of the rot in the present Malaysian Government. Perhaps readers may be interested to follow thru some of the more relevent local Malaysian blogs. I think this blog does not accept link. May I suggest the sites by Bakri Musa (in U S) , Dr Hsu’s Forum, Anilnetto’s blog, and the most famous Malaysia Today whose editor Raja Petra is now being held in police custody without trial under the ISA law.

  23. Allen Says:

    @Justin, sorry – when there are many links in a short post – sometimes this goes into the spam box, and our admin would have to manually approve – which may explain the short delay…

  24. Malaysian Chinese Says:

    Democracy as a salvation for the Chinese in Malaysia~I am very pessimistic about it. For genuine democracy to flourish, there must be various institutions in place & the quality of the participants must be such that everybody must play fair & in strict accordance with the law of the land. These prerequisites simply do not exist in Malaysia right now & not for a long time. Democracy will instead reinforce the tyranny of the majority by their sheer superior numerical numbers, even to the extent that they will resort to artificially inflating it by deliberate imports if the home-grown is deemed insufficient.

    So, the solution, if ever there is one at all, will be for the Chinese to link its very survival/salvation with China’s geopolitical interests in S E Asia & Asia as what I spelt out in my previous post #157 on the previous title “Malaysia’s Ethnic Politics”.

  25. Allen Says:

    I’ve just noticed that the washingtonpost also has a similar story touching on on the role Malaysia’s affirmative action system has played in fomenting ethnic discord in Malaysia.

  26. Malaysian Chinese Says:

    Read these threads regarding Mainlanders’ feeling of intensed hatred towards the Indonesians:


    & also the 1998 anti Chinese pogroms in Indonesia (warning:some images may be too graphic for some to handle):


  27. Malaysian Chinese Says:

    This is another thread discussing about China’s security architecture, with special emphasis on the strategic feasibility/importance of the prosposed Kra Canal:


  28. Chops Says:

    “China has been pressuring ExxonMobil to withdraw from an exploration deal with PetroVietnam, and Vietnam is lodging a complaint about Chinese online rumours of invasion plans.

    The sporadic diplomatic spats over access to resources in the South China Sea became more serious several weeks ago, when China warned ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil corporation, that its business in China would be imperilled if it failed to withdraw from joint exploration deals with Vietnam.

    Soon after that, what purported to be Chinese invasion plans for Vietnam were posted on major websites in China, including the market leader, sina.com.

    The South China Morning Post reported that the Vietnamese Government had issued a formal protest to China in response — aware that Beijing has the capacity, if it wishes, to block access to the internet for such material.

    The purported invasion plans refer to five days of missile strikes from land, sea and air, followed by the downward thrust of 310,000 troops.”


    “Malaysian Chinese”,
    Don’t believe everything you read, China’s rise is supposed to be 和平崛起 🙂

  29. BMY Says:

    @Malaysian Chinese

    I would reckon you not to spend too much time on computer war games or extreme Chinese sites

  30. RMBWhat Says:

    Exactly. The first article you posted parallels the same sort of insane ramblings on sites such as: http://www.stormfront.org

    Let’s all be cool and relax guys. No need to get all twisted in the head. Use peaceful means (until they are busting down your doors, then it’s on!).

    We must unite in order to fight the greater evil that is the NWO.

  31. Jerry Says:

    @Malaysian Chinese, @TommyBahamas, @Charles Liu

    #17, 18, 19, 20, 24, 26

    I know so little about Malaysia, but here goes anyway. Charles wrote:

    Chops, blacks were the majority in the South Africa example. If we follow the “democracy” approach, the majority Malays will have to vote to reliniquish their “Malay’s previldge”. What’s the chance of that if you rely on democracy, Tyranny of the Majority will continue. Just for the record “Whiteman’s prevlidge” still exists in America.

    Is there any example of ethnic problems solved by democracy? …

    Charles, I agree. There is little chance of a “democracy” working in Malaysia. Usually, a democracy is instituted by the majority who has been oppressed by some sovereign. Unfortunately, tyranny of the majority will continue, a theocratic majority. A theocratic majority that seems to be somewhat (or more) driven by fundamentalists. That is the worst type of theocracy. I am not saying that all Muslims are fundamentalists. But the Islamic fundamentalists believe, like all fundamentalists, that their cause is bigger than the people involved.

    Persians make a theocratic democracy work, in a fashion. But it was based on overthrowing the British oppressors and further emphasized after Mosadegh was thrown out by the CIA and their puppet, the Shah. The Persians who are my friends are much more level-headed than the Malaysian Muslims I read about.

    No “ism” or democracy will solve ethnic tensions. People solve ethnic tensions. Democracy did not resolve the problems in Northern Ireland. A lot of people died and suffered to bring about the current situation in Northern Ireland. Israel is a democracy, for the Jewish majority, not for the minority Arabs/Palestinians (who may become a majority soon). I am a pessimist/skeptic about the resolution of ethnic tensions in Israel, Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere. And I am not sorry. I am just Jewish.

    The Malaysian majority has no incentive to change the tyranny of the majority. One of the primary reasons that Israelis are seeking a democratic solution to the Jewish-Palestinian problem is that the Palestinians occasionally “lay beatings” on the Jews via missiles or suicide bombings. There must be incentive. Why did the civil rights laws come into being in the US? Because people like Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and others pushed for the laws and embarrassed politicians with non-violent struggle in the face of overwhelming violence. Novel approach also used by Ghandi. There was also a violent civil rights approach espoused by the Black Panthers, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton and Rap Brown. In order for change to occur, there must be incentive. Had there not been an IRA in Ireland, I doubt that any change would have occurred in N Ireland. Had there not been Zionist organizations in Palestine, Israel would never have surfaced as a state.

    Tommy, I essentially agree with “Democratic or whatever ideology, like most religions are idiot-ologies.” Ideologies do not serve people. Ideologies want to be the master. And that includes fundamental Judaism and Islam.

    I am watching the situation with Anwar Ibrahim on Channel NewsAsia, with trepidation. Is he a populist, who will bring a better democracy and an end to ethnic strife? Or is he a just another power mad wanna-be like V. I. Lenin? I don’t know. As a former ideologue (or at least one who encouraged Islamic ideology (idiot-ology as you pointed out, Tommy), can he escape the bonds of the fundamentalists. Or will he be like Rabin in Israel. Rabin broke from his previous ideology and paid for it with his life, when he was assassinated by a fundamentalist ultra-orthodox Jew (or group of ultra-orthodox?). Time will tell.

    MC, I am also very skeptical about democracy as a salvation for Malaysian Chinese, or for anyone. You need institutions. You need a social contract, as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau described so well. I don’t think that Malaysians or Indonesians are ready for that contract.

    The pictures of the pogroms (I had never heard “pogrom” outside of the context of Jews in Europe. Interesting and it sounds plausible in this situation.) are gruesome to say the least. I just hope that they have not been doctored by Adobe Photoshop. I am very skeptical about photojournalism because of products like Photoshop.

    Regarding hope, optimism, and pessimism. I am an eternal skeptic and cynic. I am neither pessimistic or optimistic. I am just realistic and asking lots of questions. I just “hope” that I am pleasantly surprised someday. Maybe I am really a hopeful pessimist. ::smile::

  32. Lidage Says:

    RMBWhat, what is wrong with you man? You don’t care about your own brothers and sisters?

    RMBWhat SB yi ge.

    Anyways Malaysian Chinese. I support 120%. I will join you in your struggles!!!

  33. Jerry Says:

    @Chops, @RMBWhat

    #28, 30

    Chops, I heard about China trying to interfere with ExxonMobil and PetroVN a while ago. I had not heard about the internet postings.

    In the US, we would call the rantings and ravings of the lunatic, nationalistic netizens as “floating a trial balloon.” It is a cheap way for the Chinese government to get some responses while still maintaining plausible deniability.

    What do the loonies want or expect as an answer to their diatribes? World War III, the last war. Furthermore, how do we know this isn’t some kind of psyops by their spy agencies?

    We have lunatics who post crazy things in the US. We also have the CIA, NSA, DIA and FBI using psyops all the time.

    RMBWhat, I am with you on this. The old Teddy Roosevelt proverb is appropriate here, “Speak softly but carry a big stick. You will go far.”

  34. anonymous Says:

    Jerry, it’s not the tyranny of the majority, it’s the tyranny of the minority, which has feasted like vultures for half a century and know no other way of life except to pick on the meat of the masses.
    This majority is split – and looks to remain split for a while, in spite of the desperate, comical (but still potentially dangerous) attempts of the ruling party to put a racial spin on stunts such as the arrests.
    How Anwar will turn out remains to be seen. Some Malaysian Chinese are still wary of him because it was Anwar who mucked up the education system – the one system that was the unifying theme among Malaysians.
    But he was under pressure then to affirm his credentials as a defender of the culture.
    I ride in taxis to work daily, and invariably every Malay driver I have spoken to has told me they voted Opposition.
    One day, a driver had a copy of Utusan Melayu on his front seat. The lead was an Anwar-bashing story. “Pak cik, is that true?” I teased him.
    “It’s an Umno paper!” he snorted. They can think for themselves.
    The Anwar sodomy charge doesn’t bother some of them. These middle-aged, conservative men with families, whose roots are in the rural areas, don’t believe it and say it’s his personal issue anyway, which doesn’t reflect on his work.
    You can fool some people some of the time, but not all the people all the time. I believe there’s hope.

  35. Jerry Says:



    Again, I don’t know much about Malaysia. Thanks for your response.

    The tyranny of the majority I refer to is what happens when you don’t have the social contract and its incumbent laws and institutions. Ethnic minorities truly suffer without the contract to protect them in a civil democracy.

    You refer to tyranny of the minority, the ruling party, in Malaysia. Good point. You know Malaysia better than I. In the US, we have a government which is controlled by the ruling elites, a plutocracy. Maybe it is a tyranny in Malaysia, maybe a plutocratic tyranny. But I would hazard a guess here: Malaysia has their own ruling elites, just like the US and many other countries. The governments are democracies which have been corrupted to serve the benefit of the ruling (and usually corporate) elite, the plutocracy. They are like uncrowned monarchies or aristocracies, if you will. And yes, they pick meat off the bones of the masses in the US, too.

    Furthermore, in order to divide and conquer the people in their own country without a totally brutal tyranny, they devise bogeymans and diversions. In the US, we have blue state versus red state, “the war on terrorism”, conservatives versus liberal, the war in Iraq, and fear/loathing of China. I suspect that fear of the Chinese minority is a Malaysian bogeyman. What other fears/diversions/bogeymans do the Malaysian leaders use to keep in power?

    Did the British and Dutch favor the Chinese immigrants (and earlier Chinese immigrants from the 15th century) like the Dutch favored the Chinese immigrants in Indonesia? Are the Chinese considered true citizens of Malaysia, or just non-Malay citizens (I am not talking legally here. I am talking perception.)? It appears that the Chinese Malaysians own a disproportionate percentage of the wealth. Is that true?

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