The Wall Street Journal
Malaysia was once regarded as one of Asia’s most promising emerging economies, but over the last decade that story has soured. Output growth has cooled, and foreign investment plummeted from its peak in 2008. The government’s failure to speed up economic reform is partly to blame, but the underlying cause of the policy gridlock is social tension. With the United Malays National Organization at its head, the ruling National Front coalition maintains an uneasy peace between the country’s three main ethnic groups: Malays, Indians and Chinese.
Protests by Indian activists last month reveal just how fragile that peace is. The controversy arose late last year when the government announced the addition of "Interlok," a 1971 Malay-language novel, to the curriculum in some public schools. Cabinet ministers from the Malaysian Indian Congress, the largest ethnic-Indian party in the National Front, cried foul, saying that the novel depicted the Indian community in an offensive way.
The issue ignited furious debate in the Malaysian media but did not at first seem to threaten broader unrest. A group of ethnic-Indian NGOs undertook a formal investigation of the novel’s content and found that it did contain a number of historical errors and misrepresentations. In mid-January the Ministry of Education convened a committee to amend the novel’s offensive bits, apparently satisfying the MIC.
Protesters gather near Kuala Lumpur to urge the government to ban the controversial Malay-language book Interlok.
The situation intensified, however, when two Indian-rights organizations—the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, and a splinter group, the Human Rights Party—called for nationwide protests against both the book and what they say are UMNO’s "racist" policies generally. Hindraf was banned in 2008 for holding a massive antiracism rally the year before, at which hundreds of its supporters were jailed under the country’s stiff Internal Security Act. Last month, police denied the groups’ requests for public-assembly permits and threatened to charge anyone who attended protests with participating in unlawful organizations.
Undeterred, demonstrators took to the streets in several cities, first on Feb. 13 and then in greater numbers last Sunday. Police delivered on the promised crackdown, patrolling the protest route with trucks and keeping water cannons menacingly nearby. Around Kuala Lumpur, officers appeared to be accosting anyone even suspected of being a Hindraf sympathizer. On Sunday over 100 people were jailed, and though most were released the next day, 11 remain under investigation.
This sort of response to peaceful protests shows the troubled state of civil liberties in Malaysia. Since taking office in 2009, Prime Minister Najib Razak has clamped down on the press, jailed bloggers and suppressed public demonstrations, all in the name of maintaining unity and stability. In a speech early last month, he cautioned his countrymen against getting any ideas from the revolutions unfolding in the Arab world. "We will stop any attempt to bring such trouble into Malaysia," he said.
In part, it was the National Front that created the conditions for the present turmoil to begin with. Less well-off than Malaysia’s Chinese, Indians attribute their economic woes to affirmative-action rules that favor ethnic Malays in hiring and education. Groups like Hindraf accuse the ruling coalition of yielding too readily to nativist Malay voices that agitate against meritocratic reforms.
Political games seem also to be afoot in the Indian groups’ rabble-rousing, though. Hindraf and the HRP are likely using the present conflict to galvanize the Indian community ahead of a general election expected later this year. They may even calculate that an excessively harsh reaction by the government or ethnic-Malay factions to protests will win them additional public favor.
But the MIC has distanced itself from last month’s unrest, and even opposition parties like the National Justice Party, or PKR, appear uneasy about siding with the protesters. Addressing his supporters in January, PKR chief Anwar Ibrahim advised against using the "Interlok" issue to score political points. "It would be extremely useful for the Ministry of Education to listen to reasonable comments on ‘Interlok’ and not to turn it into a divisive political issue," he said.
Too late for that, it seems. Malaysia’s Indians have legitimate reason to feel marginalized in society and ignored by their own leaders. But the risk now is that political parties representing the three races will be steered by extremist groups that exacerbate conflict for their own gain. The past month’s events suggest that years of redistributive policies designed to paper over ethnic divisions have only perpetuated the strife instead.