Pressure Point Poor squatter districts erupt in violence, prompting
By S. Jayasankaran/KUALA LUMPUR
MALAYSIAN MINISTER OF WORKS S. Samy Vellu burst into tears at the mortuary of University Hospital on March 10. He was trying to persuade a hysterical woman, whose husband had been killed in a racial attack, not to have the funeral at her home in a Kuala Lumpur squatter district--epicentre of ethnic clashes that killed six people and injured over 40.
Samy's tears did the trick that night. But perhaps Malaysia wept along with him as well, for the violence--and its worst ethnic-clash death toll in over 30 years--illustrated the fragility of race relations in a country that puts great stress on multi-racial amity. "The fear is it could get worse because these things make people who normally don't think about race begin thinking along those lines," says Saliha Hassan, a political scientist at the National University of Malaysia. "And this is especially among the Malays. It's very depressing."
More broadly, the week of clashes on the city's outskirts
underscore a deeper malaise: growing unease about theirection of the
country with a slowing economy, a slumping stockmarket and political
uncertainty stoked by divisions among Malays, who
The violence began in one of the six squatter villages off Old Klang Road, hugging the middle-class suburb of Petaling Jaya in western Kuala Lumpur. Some 6,000 people--90% ethnic Malays and the rest Indians--live in the villages with garbage-strewn streets, almost no street lights, zinc-roofed shacks and wooden Malay-style village houses.
Poverty is endemic--as are gangsterism and drug-trafficking,
especially among the Indian population. "Since 1991, there has
been increasing crime and violence there," says Ramasamy, an ethnic
Indian himself. "Frankly, I wouldn't want to walk in the
Trouble began with a fight on March 4 between two households,
one Malay and celebrating a wedding, and the other Indian, preparing
to bury one of their own. A temporary shed on a road outside the wedding
house impeded a drunken motorcyclist, who kicked some chairs over and
fled in the direction of the Indian wake. The windscreen of an Indian
businessman's car in an
Opposition politicians said the clashes were prompted
less by race than by frustration over poor living conditions and the
result of uneven development during the boom of the 1990s. Many people
agree. "If I had to live like that, I'd be angry too," says
a company managing director who lives close to the affected areas. "The
government spends billions of ringgit on ornate
Political problems heightened the situation. The Malays were split by the 1998 sacking and imprisonment of former Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim. Many Malays turned their backs on the United Malays National Organization, the dominant party led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Mahathir hasn't succeeded in rallying the Malays since. So Umno this year has pressed for so-called "Malay Unity talks" with the opposition--and largely Malay--Islamic Party of Malaysia, or Pas. Analysts note, however, that the call for unity has almost always been against an external threat--sometimes named (Chinese extremists, for example) and sometimes unnamed (foreign powers)--that seeks to erode Malay special rights, which are enshrined in the constitution.
Harping by Umno on race, analysts say, may have raised
tempers. It is also a reason why some cynical observers suggest the
violence may have been planned. Most people doubt this. But that the
suspicion exists is telling. "It's disturbing to hear people talking
about Malay unity without regard to the consequences for the other races,"
Ramasamy says. "It seems to imply the
From Asia Times
PENANG, Malaysia - This week's ethnic violence did not erupt in the upper-class, multi-ethnic residential area of Damansara near the capital Kuala Lumpur, nor in its trendy Bangsar neigborhood with its posh nightspots and watering holes.
Instead, Malaysia's worst ethnic clashes since 1969, when violence erupted between Malays and Chinese Malaysians, broke out in some of the poorest areas just outside Kuala Lumpur. Last week's clashes have been largely portrayed in foreign media as racial rioting between ethnic Malays and Indians that has marred Malaysia's record of social harmony. The local media, in a bid to douse passions, downplayed the ethnic aspect of the clashes but generally failed to highlight the socio-economic forces that may have sparked them.
The ethnic nature of the clashes appears to have masked the undercurrents in Malaysian society and the emergence of a frustrated underclass in an economy long touted as the next Asian tiger economy. The clashes between Malay Muslims and ethnic Indians erupted March 8 in run-down sections of Petaling Jaya, a largely upper- middle class residential town just next door to Kuala Lumpur. Six people have been reported killed, 52 hurt and 190 detained.
In socio-economic terms, "the area is one of the worst areas around Kuala Lumpur", says professor Ishak Shari, head of the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies. "I suppose the feeling of frustration [at their plight] is there. The feeling of dissatisfaction must have been brewing all along," he explains.
These neighborhoods are made up of plank squatter houses, longhouses, low-cost flats and terrace houses - largely populated by Malay and Indian Malaysians as well as Indonesian and Bangladeshi migrant workers. The majority are from the lower income group and work in factories and small businesses.
Some 60 percent of the 22 million Malaysians are ethnic
Malays or indigenous people. About 50 percent of the people are Malays,
almost all of whom are Muslim. A quarter are Malaysian Chinese, while
8 percent are ethnic Indian. For several years now, a few academics
have been pointing to a growing underclass in Malaysian society, the
result of an unbridled, lopsided
During his 20-year tenure as premier, Mahathir Mohamad has pursued a model of heavy industrialization, complete with towering skyscrapers, a glittering airport and an impressive Formula One racing circuit. But he has neglected social security nets for the poor, critics say. How one defines poverty in the country is problematic to start with. The official poverty line in peninsular or western Malaysia, where Kuala Lumpur is, in 1997 was a monthly income of 460 ringgit (US$121) for a household of 4.6 persons, says Ishak.
If that figure is used, Malaysia's level of poverty does not look so bad - 8 percent overall in 1998 with urban poverty less than 5 percent. But most households need a combined income of 1,000 ringgit to meet the demands of modern urban living, asserts Ishak. The Malaysian Trades Union Congress, for instance, has been demanding a minimum monthly wage of 900 ringgit.
This is where the crux of the problem lies: many among the working class, including factory workers, barely earn that amount. Indeed, those at the lower end of the ladder, especially plantation workers, general workers and laborers, struggle to earn 500 ringgit monthly. Before the Asian crisis in mid-1997, academics had argued that 750 ringgit would be a more appropriate gauge of the minimal cost of living for urban households, said a report prepared by the Malaysian Institute for Economic Research for the United Nations Development Program in 1998. Given this measure, during the boom decade between 1985 and 1995, the percentage of poor households increased from 14.3 to 23 percent, much of the rise occurring in the urban areas.
"With reduced income through retrenchments or pay
cuts, and price hikes in fixed cost necessities such as food and utilities,
poor urban households will suffer a noticeable decline in welfare,"
the report added. While there have been programs to alleviate rural
poverty, there are no specific ones related to urban poverty, it noted.
Low incomes breed a multitude of frustrations, leading perhaps to outbreaks
of hostility shown the clashes last week. "It's not just lack of
income but a lack
A major need in areas like these is housing. Squatter areas and low-income housing in Malaysia tend to be congested, higher- density areas. The squalid conditions and poverty in squatter areas are breeding grounds for social problems like gangsterism and drug addiction. "These areas are usually oppressive," Ishak points out, with little space for weddings, funerals, and other public functions. Tempers are easily frayed even among the same ethnic group when neighbors infringe into one another's often un-demarcated private zones. When this involves people of different ethnic groups, the situation could get ugly. "You just need a small issue to spark off ill feelings," he remarks.
An often unnoticed but crucial factor is the sense of
deprivation that the poor feel, and which is heightened when they live
next door to the wealthy. "It is easier to compare yourself with
the well-to-do in such a situation," says Ishak. Social tensions
are not helped any by race-based politicking in Malaysia - in which
the main ethnic groups Malays, Chinese and Indians
In the wake of the clashes, analysts are now questioning the wisdom of holding talks between the dominant United Malays National Organization (Umno) and the opposition Islamic Party (PAS) to discuss only Malay unity - rather than national unity.
"These talks have become irrelevant," says P Ramakrishnan, president of the non-government group Aliran. "What the opposition front has been calling for - national unity - seems more relevant now in the aftermath of these racial clashes," he says. The PAS-Umno talks, he adds, will fizzle out.
But despite the clashes, analysts still believe that the ethnic situation in Malaysia has improved since the 1980s. This explains why the clashes have not spread to other multi-ethnic neighborhoods. Still, the violence has spurred the realization that the Indian Malaysians, poorer Malays and other groups continue to lag behind their better-off neighbors.
Apart from the sensitive subject of race in Malaysia
- government officials quickly said the violence was not anything like
ethnic violence in Indonesia - society also has to deal with economic
and social deprivation among the new underclass.
The Malaysian government is downplaying a weekend of ethnic Indian-Malay fighting that left at least six dead and more than 190 arrested. The rise in ethnic tensions, which raises the specter of the 1960s race riots that left hundreds dead, is increasingly troublesome to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. His actions to retain ethnic minority support have undermined his support base among the majority Malay population.
At least six people have been killed in suburbs of Kuala Lumpur in what has been called the worst race-related violence in Malaysia since March 1998. Fighting between ethnic Malays and ethnic Indians erupted on March 8, triggered by an earlier incident where an Indian funeral procession passed through a Malay wedding party, according to local media reports. By March 12, six people were dead, 52 injured and 190 arrested.
Malaysian government officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, quickly downplayed the racial aspect of the fighting. Increasingly, ethnic tensions between Malaysia's Malay majority and the Chinese and Indian minority are rising to the surface. With fears of a repeat of the 1969 race riots that left hundreds dead, Mahathir and his party face the ever more difficult challenge of balancing the support of the ethnic minorities and the majority Malay constituency.
While the ethnic Chinese and many ethnic Indians are counted
among Malaysia's economic elite, the recent violence in the suburbs
of Kuala Lumpur occurred in poor neighborhoods of ethnic enclaves that
had previous gang problems. Commenting in the Sunday Star on the violence,
Mahathir said, "There were no racial clashes, but when people start
spreading rumors that Indians are attacking Malays, then people come
out and it happens." While his comments were an attempt to play
Malaysia's population is made up of 8 percent ethnic Indians and 30 percent ethnic Chinese, with the remainder comprising ethnic Malays and indigenous groups. Before the 1997 Asian economic crisis, Malaysia's economic growth helped keep racial tensions in check. Mahathir's ruling National Front coalition, which includes his United Malay National Organization (Umno), the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Malaysian Indian Congress and several other parties, dominated Malaysian politics.
With the onset of the regional economic malaise and the
trial of popular then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir's
Since the election, Mahathir has undertaken two simultaneous, yet seemingly incompatible agendas. He has sought to maintain the support of Malaysia's ethnic minorities, calling for national unity and suggesting that a non-Malay could be prime minister some time in the future. And he has sought to reunite the ethnic Malay community behind his party and agenda. With PAS exploiting the issue of Malay rights and Islamic rule, ethnic minority groups have reacted with calls for increased rights, further complicating Mahathir's calls for unity.
The latest outbreak of ethnic violence comes two months after Malaysia narrowly avoided confrontations in the street between Malays and Chinese over demands to end special rights for Malays. The Malaysian Chinese Organizations Election Appeals Committee, Suqiu, had issued a series of demands, including an end to affirmative action programs for Malays, but withdrew its demands after threats of massive Malay street demonstrations.
The rights programs for Malays, originally put in place put in place after 1969 race riots between Chinese and Malays, were sparked by concerns that ethnic Chinese were dominating Malaysia's business environment while ethnic Malays were lagging behind. While Malaysia avoided the brunt of the Asian economic crisis, economic uncertainties exacerbate the underlying resentment among Malaysia's ethnic minorities toward the affirmative action program for the majority.
While Mahathir struggles to maintain support of these minorities, he also faces the waning support of the fractured Malay populace, many of whom feel disenfranchised and are now backing the opposition National Justice Party and PAS. Mahathir's Umno has undertaken an initiative to hold a Malay unity meeting, calling for participation by all Malay political parties, including PAS. But, the event has been delayed several times, in part over concern that it will further isolate the minority races. PAS officials have called for establishing one party to represent ethnic Malays, saying such a party must be true to the tenets of Islam.
With Malaysia's economy trapped in the regional slump, Mahathir's troubles will only worsen. Throughout Southeast Asia - from Indonesia to Vietnam, Laos to Myanmar - ethnic and religious tensions are erupting into violence. Without a surge in economic growth, MalaysiaÕs ethnic tensions are likely to boil over, leading to other clashes and increasingly weakening Mahathir's hold on power.
Riots raise old fears for Chinese
Memory of 1969 racial violence still vivid for community worried it
may be target again IAN STEWART in Kuala Lumpur
On Tuesday, stores in the upmarket Bangsar Shopping Centre, which are normally open until 9pm, closed early so owners and staff could get home before dark, while restaurants and bars were unusually quiet. A Malaysian Chinese businessman said he was not surprised that people were nervous. He said the clashes in the Old Klang area, in which authorities say six people died and 52 were injured, had left him feeling uneasy.
Noting that fighting occurred over several days before police were able to restore order in the affected areas, he said he was worried that Chinese people might become targets of racial attacks if trouble flared again. It is more than 30 years since Malaysian Chinese were involved in serious racial conflict, but memories of the riots of May 1969, in which nearly 200 people died, were rekindled by the violence in Indonesia in the period leading up to the ousting of president Suharto.
During that time, Indonesian Chinese were victims of murder, rape and robbery. The businessman said he was concerned about the reported involvement of Indonesians in the Old Klang fighting. Similar concern was expressed in a news analysis by a Chinese editor in the Star newspaper, who said the increasing number of Indonesians in the Old Klang area had added to the pressure-cooker atmosphere.
He said Indonesians had brought with them a different political and social culture. With their survival instincts sharply honed by events back home, they were more aggressive than Malays, he said. The nervousness of Malaysians has fuelled the rumour mills, and threats by the police to arrest people spreading false information under the Internal Security Act have done little to curb the practice.
Telephone calls frequently begin with, "Have you
heard . . .?" or "A friend told me . . .". A problem
for the authorities is the
Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said on Monday that he had ordered the police to release all information so that the people would get a true picture of the situation and there was no reason to believe that the official figures for the dead and injured were not correct. But many people were prepared to believe opposition statements questioning their accuracy.
Selangor state's police chief, Nik Ismail Yusof, said members of the opposition National Justice Party (Keadilan) and the Parti Islam se-Malaysia had distributed pamphlets that questioned the official casualty figures. He said he would lodge a police report "on the false claims" which would be investigated under the Sedition Act.
Mr Ismail said the police were always transparent and
there was no need for them to give inaccurate details. Deputy Home Minister
Chor Chee Heung charged the opposition with trying to seek political
mileage from the clashes and said this would
Home Ministry Secretary-General Aseh Che Mat said it had been decided that only the deputy police chief, Jamil Johari, and Mr Ismail would be authorised to issue statements on the Old Klang clashes. He said no other parties should make any statements "to avoid duplication and, more importantly, exaggeration".
Meanwhile, the Selangor Government announced plans to
build 5,000 low-cost homes to re-house squatters in the affected areas,
where Indians and Malays have been living in squalid conditions without
proper water or electricity supplies.
KUALA LUMPUR, March 15 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Mahathir
Mohamad on Thursday accused his political opponents of
"We know if such riots are allowed to continue, as is the case in another country, there is a possibility the government can be toppled ... this is the political aspiration of the opposition," Mahathir said after attending a party meeting in the east coast state of Pahang.
AGITATORS AT WORK
He also said the opposition was trying to incite poor Malaysians to protest against the government.On Tuesday, a court charged a leading member of Parti Keadilan Nasional under the Sedition Act, but released him on bail.A pro-government newspaper had reported Ezam Mohd Noor, Keadilan's youth wing leader, as saying he planned daily demonstrations to bring down the government.
Ezam, whose party is fighting for the release of Mahathir's jailed rival Anwar Ibrahim, says he is being set up.Mahathir also accused opposition leaders of exploiting people's emotions following the clashes."We can see how they are focusing on squatter areas and sympathising with them by visiting the sick and injured in the hospital," he said.
"They are so anxious now to show sympathy for the so-called poor ... as if there are a lot of poor people," he added.Less than seven percent of Malaysia's 22 million people are living below the poverty line, and the government has a far better record for alleviating poverty than other, more populous Southeast Asian nations. But many Malaysians are still unhappy that they have not benefitted more from the country's advances.
Earlier, newspapers reported two cabinet members, including the leader of the main Indian party, suspected an unseen hand may have been behind the racial violence which left six dead in a poor neighbourhood outside Kuala Lumpur.Their comments are at odds with the line taken by Mahathir and his deputy Abdullah Badawi, who have both said the violence since last week was spontaneous and unplanned.Police have arrested nearly 200 people over the past few days to quell the worst racial violence in Malaysia in over 30 years.
"The incidents which happened in the past few days
were believed to be planned and organised by certain quarters and
The Star reported Works Minister Samy Vellu as saying the area was probably chosen by a group as a "testing ground."A heavy police presence has restored peace in the neighborhood on the edge of Petaling Jaya, a satellite town south of the capital, and no trouble has been reported since Sunday.
"This is just the first base. In time they will try it again at another place," Vellu, who is also president of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) party, said.In Kampung Medan, police say there has been a history of tension between poor Malays living there and Indian squatters, whose families migrated to the city from rubber estates.The government is keen to play down the ethnic element in the clashes, and has detained people accused of spreading rumours.
Indians make up eight percent of Malaysia's 22 million
people, Chinese 30 percent and Malays and other indigenous people the
rest.On Tuesday, two Indian men were slashed by unidentified attackers
outside a Hindu temple in Puchong Intan, a working-class housing estate
about 25 kilometres (16 miles) south of Kuala Lumpur, Bernama news agency
Meanwhile the federal and Selangor state government have
begun drawing up plans, including building low-cost housing
Copyright 1999 Reuters...
Detainees will be offered legal assistance: Bureau
KUALA LUMPUR, Wed: The 220 people detained by police for their alleged involvement in the Jalan Klang Lama clashes will be offered legal assistance by the Federal Territory Umno Liaison Committee.Their families will also be given welfare assistance by Umno, said the executive secretary of its public complaints and welfare bureau, Zaharin Mohd Yasin.
He told a press conference today that although Umno does not condone violence, fighting and unlawful acts, it believes that those arrested must be given due legal representation, regardless of race or religion."Many feel that they are innocent. It is up to our lawyers to study this and up to the court to decide, but we cannot prevent their rights to defend themselves," he said.
Zaharin said the party had received many complaints from the families of those detained, adding that Umno will not interfere in police investigations but that it is its responsibility to provide help."I am sure that they cannot afford to hire lawyers. Our lawyers will consider the charges levelled against the detainees and then provide free legal advice," he said.He advised the families of those arrested and injured in the clashes to contact the Umno FT Liaison Committee for help. Zaharin also said that one of those arrested is an Umno Cheras member.
He said the Cheras Umno unit is studying the member's involvement in the clashes, while waiting for police investigations to be completed before deciding whether disciplinary action should be taken against him.He also warned all Umno members not to get involved in groups that are out to create unrest by starting fights and inciting racial tension.
"We will not hesitate to take action against any
member for being involved in such activities ... we will also not provide
It will be headed by BN Federal Territory chief Datuk Seri Dr Sulaiman Mohamed - who is Deputy Health Minister and Titiwangsa MP - said BN Federal Territory's secretary Mohd Kassin Shah.Mohd Kassin Shah was also present at the press conference.
It will also comprise the heads of the FT branches of the various component parties, including MCA, MIC, PPP and Gerakan.
The committee's activities will be carried out at the Federal Territory division and branch levels.
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