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KL's urban strife bares poverty cuts across race
By Brendan Pereira

MALAYSIA CORRESPONDENT

MADAM Ainon Kuntom remembers the night of March 9 like it was yesterday.That was the day she watched two Malay men alight from a car and bash an Indian man for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.Shocked at what she witnessed at a road junction in a squatter colony, she walked up to one of the assailants and demanded: Why did you do this? Why has it come to this?

The boy offered nothing but anger.Somewhere during that incendiary night when groups of Malays and Indians clashed, it crossed her mind that she had failed in her job as the director-general of the National Unity Department.She said the episode proved that unity among younger Malays, Chinese and Indians in the multi-racial country of 22 million was only
skin-deep.

She commented: 'It is only make-up. There are young people who only care for one race, and that is their own race. This denies the fact that we are a multi-racial country.'The majority of the 170 people arrested after four days of violence
were under 25 years of age. Two of the five Malay boys suspected of killing an Indian man who was visiting relatives in Kampung Medan were underage.

WIDENING GAPS WITHIN RACES

BUT the involvement of the young in violence should not come as a surprise.They belong to a generation whose knowledge of the country's worst race riots is limited to only knowing when the last major clash took place - May 13, 1969.

Absent is the gut-wrenching fear of violence and death, and the conviction that there is too much to lose when people take up arms against their fellow citizens.Also missing from this generation's DNA is a real sense of ownership or purpose in life. Many float from job to job, go home to broken homes and live out their dreams in crime gangs or a drug fix.

Put much of the blame for the March 9 convulsion on uneven economic development. The young Malays and Indians who spilled blood in five squatter settlements are products of a system that has created two classes within communities, the haves and have-nots.

Said Dr Mansor Mohd Noor, a researcher on race relations at the Science University in Penang: 'The NEP (New Economic Policy) has widened the gap within a race. The Indians and the Malays in the lower-income level have been sidelined from the high economic growth that Malaysia enjoyed.

'With this social divide, the government should create a policy that gives priority to the socially disadvantaged, irrespective of race.'Following the race riots in 1969, the government embarked on the NEP, a programme aimed at raising income and education levels of the Malays, who were significantly poorer than the other races.

A decade after that, the country launched its industrialisation drive that helped the economy chalk double-digit growth rates.

These changes on the economic landscape also led to a seismic shift in demographics. Many Malays migrated to the urban centres to fill assembly-line jobs. They found jobs but could not afford to buy a RM25,000 (S$11,677) low-cost house on a salary of RM500.

Many put up their own houses - a collection of wooden planks and sheets of corrugated iron - on pieces of vacant land. They expected to stay there for only a few months, not 25 years.Today, their children are caught in the same cycle of poverty and
hopelessness. Many believe they are worse off than before.

The reason: uneven development.

While thousands of Malays have received tertiary education on government scholarships and a handful benefited from a policy designed to nurture a Malay business elite, a sizeable number have not tasted the fruits of the NEP.

Some have not even seen a garbage truck. A few days after the violence in Kampung Medan, a 24-year-old Malay man joked: 'I have lived in this place for 15 years. This is the first time I am seeing a rubbish truck.'

For years, the omnipresent mountain of garbage has been part of the landscape.An estimated 250,000 Malays live in squatter colonies on the fringes of the Klang Valley, the most developed area in Malaysia. They are the most visible symbol of the widening income gap within the Malays, a gap with strong political undertones.

By all accounts, Indians are in a deeper hole. They form just 7 per cent of the population but account for 63 per cent of those arrested under the Emergency Ordinance for violent crimes and make up 41 per cent of beggars.

Indians rank lowest in national elementary examinations, about one in every 12 Indian children does not attend primary school. There are insufficient Indians who qualify to take advantage of the number of places in a university set aside for Indians.

One university dean remembers going into estates to look for children of rubber tappers to make up the numbers.

He said: 'If they had the grades, their families could not afford the fees.'

Mr P. Ramasamy, political scientist at the National University of Malaysia, said recently: 'With the strong push for bumiputra economic development, the minorities were neglected.'

ROOTS OF INDIAN UNDERCLASS

THE Indians' descent into the status of an underclass began in the 1970s. Some point the accusing finger at the continuing existence of Tamil schools.

More than 90,000 Indian children are taught in ill-equipped classrooms by lowly-paid and poorly-qualified teachers.

The result: Students with nothing more than a basic education. At the same time, the ranks of urban poor were swelling.

For generations, they worked rubber and palm oil plantations, but those canopies of green gave way to urban sprawl and
industrialisation. Indians struggled to find housing or work and many migrated to Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and other urban centres in the country. They found work as odd-job labourers, petty traders and found homes in shanty towns.

Today, more than 150,000 Indians live in slums around Kuala Lumpur, where sanitation and paved roads are a luxury.

The younger Indians in these squatter colonies belong to the 30 Indian gangs that operate in West Malaysia.

These gangs are involved in drug trafficking and extortion. The sense of hopelessness and frustration at their lot combines to make them a formidable enemy. They do not understand the odds and are not afraid to die.

That could explain why Indian boys patrolled the moon-lit streets of Kampung Medan on March 9, despite being outnumbered.

But the tell-tale signs of trouble were already evident in the area long before a quarrel over a shattered windscreen exploded.

GANG CLASHES RAISED NO ALARM

FOUR years ago, a teenager died and several others were injured in a gang clash. In 1999, several people were injured and six cars damaged in a gang clash. Last June, three samurai sword-wielding youths slashed a foodstall
worker.No one gave these incidents a second thought. Just as no one gave serious thought to the country's underclass before March 9.

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