The Price of Malaysia’s Racism – WSJ

This is an article in a renowned paper and written by a former Ambassador to Malaysia:

* The Wall Street Journal


* FEBRUARY 8, 2011

The Price of Malaysia’s Racism

Slower growth and a drain of talented citizens are only the beginning.


Malaysia’s national tourism agency promotes the country as “a bubbling, bustling melting pot of races and religions where Malays, Indians, Chinese and many other ethnic groups live together in peace and harmony.” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak echoed this view when he announced his government’s theme, One Malaysia. “What makes Malaysia unique,” Mr. Najib said, “is the diversity of our peoples. One Malaysia’s goal is to preserve and enhance this unity in diversity, which has always been our strength and remains our best hope for the future.”

If Mr. Najib is serious about achieving that goal, a long look in the mirror might be in order first. Despite the government’s new catchphrase, racial and religious tensions are higher today than when Mr. Najib took office in 2009. Indeed, they are worse than at any time since 1969, when at least 200 people died in racial clashes between the majority Malay and minority Chinese communities. The recent deterioration is due to the troubling fact that the country’s leadership is tolerating, and in some cases provoking, ethnic factionalism through words and actions.

For instance, when the Catholic archbishop of Kuala Lumpur invited the prime minister for a Christmas Day open house last December, Hardev Kaur, an aide to Mr. Najib, said Christian crosses would have to be removed. There could be no carols or prayers, so as not to offend the prime minister, who is Muslim. Ms. Kaur later insisted that she “had made it clear that it was a request and not an instruction,” as if any Malaysian could say no to a request from the prime minister’s office.

Similar examples of insensitivity abound. In September 2009, Minister of Home Affairs Hishammuddin Onn met with protesters who had carried the decapitated head of a cow, a sacred animal in the Hindu religion, to an Indian temple. Mr. Hishammuddin then held a press conference defending their actions. Two months later, Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told Parliament that one reason Malaysia’s armed forces are overwhelmingly Malay is that other ethnic groups have a “low spirit of patriotism.” Under public pressure, he later apologized.

The leading Malay language newspaper, Utusan Melayu, prints what opposition leader Lim Kit Siang calls a daily staple of falsehoods that stoke racial hatred. Utusan, which is owned by Mr. Najib’s political party, has claimed that the opposition would make Malaysia a colony of China and abolish the Malay monarchy. It regularly attacks Chinese Malaysian politicians, and even suggested that one of them, parliamentarian Teresa Kok, should be killed.

This steady erosion of tolerance is more than a political challenge. It’s an economic problem as well.

Once one of the developing world’s stars, Malaysia’s economy has underperformed for the past decade. To meet its much-vaunted goal of becoming a developed nation by 2020, Malaysia needs to grow by 8% per year during this decade. That level of growth will require major private investment from both domestic and foreign sources, upgraded human skills, and significant economic reform. Worsening racial and religious tensions stand in the way.

Almost 500,000 Malaysians left the country between 2007 and 2009, more than doubling the number of Malaysian professionals who live overseas. It appears that most were skilled ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians, tired of being treated as second-class citizens in their own country and denied the opportunity to compete on a level playing field, whether in education, business, or government. Many of these emigrants, as well as the many Malaysian students who study overseas and never return (again, most of whom are ethnic Chinese and Indian), have the business, engineering, and scientific skills that Malaysia needs for its future. They also have the cultural and linguistic savvy to enhance Malaysia’s economic ties with Asia’s two biggest growing markets, China and India.

Of course, one could argue that discrimination isn’t new for these Chinese and Indians. Malaysia’s affirmative action policies for its Malay majority—which give them preference in everything from stock allocation to housing discounts—have been in place for decades. So what is driving the ethnic minorities away now?

First, these minorities increasingly feel that they have lost a voice in their own government. The Chinese and Indian political parties in the ruling coalition are supposed to protect the interests of their communities, but over the past few years, they have been neutered. They stand largely silent in the face of the growing racial insults hurled by their Malay political partners. Today over 90% of the civil service, police, military, university lecturers, and overseas diplomatic staff are Malay. Even TalentCorp, the government agency created in 2010 that is supposed to encourage overseas Malaysians to return home, is headed by a Malay, with an all-Malay Board of Trustees.

Second, economic reform and adjustments to the government’s affirmative action policies are on hold. Although Mr. Najib held out the hope of change a year ago with his New Economic Model, which promised an “inclusive” affirmative action policy that would be, in Mr. Najib’s words, “market friendly, merit-based, transparent and needs-based,” he has failed to follow through. This is because of opposition from right-wing militant Malay groups such as Perkasa, which believe that a move towards meritocracy and transparency threatens what they call “Malay rights.”

But stalling reform will mean a further loss in competitiveness and slower growth. It also means that the cronyism and no-bid contracts that favor the well-connected will continue. All this sends a discouraging signal to many young Malaysians that no matter how hard they study or work, they will have a hard time getting ahead.

Mr. Najib may not actually believe much of the rhetoric emanating from his party and his government’s officers, but he tolerates it because he needs to shore up his Malay base. It’s politically convenient at a time when his party faces its most serious opposition challenge in recent memory—and especially when the opposition is challenging the government on ethnic policy and its economic consequences. One young opposition leader, parliamentarian Nurul Izzah Anwar, the daughter of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, has proposed a national debate on what she called the alternative visions of Malaysia’s future—whether it should be a Malay nation or a Malaysian nation. For that, she earned the wrath of Perkasa; the government suggested her remark was “seditious.”

Malaysia’s government might find it politically expedient to stir the racial and religious pot, but its opportunism comes with an economic price tag. Its citizens will continue to vote with their feet and take their money and talents with them. And foreign investors, concerned about racial instability and the absence of meaningful economic reform, will continue to look elsewhere to do business.

Mr. Malott was the U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia, 1995-1998.


17 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Daniel Wälchli
    Feb 08, 2011 @ 20:53:28

    And where Ms Kaur got the “requests” / guidelines from?


  2. wisely
    Feb 09, 2011 @ 06:40:37

    I agree that racial and religious issues still exist but i totally disagree that it is worse than 1969.


  3. wisely
    Feb 09, 2011 @ 07:01:00

    We Chinese percieve clearly the discrimination but they don’t simply because they are on the better side, Mr. Mallot also can see simply because he is White but how about in US itself, isn’t it the same that better treatment being given to the white because they are dominant and can Mr. Mallot says the same about US, maybe not simply because he is White! A black president only after over 200 years of independent, woman president? Asian president? or Hispanic president?

    What i trying to say is racial and religious issues happen everywhere, why exist terrorism? Today wars are fought in the name of Gods. Mr. Mallot should also advise his president to be fair to the Palestines. Worse still when a particular race is link to a particular religion. Actually this type of war has been going on since time begin but with this realisation we all should rise about it. We should not point finger at others but also look at how we treat other races as well. Set a good example in our living! I see my self a Malaysian. All elements that divide i once cast and i still keep to that the last time i check myself. All the best to u Dr. Hsu and an enjoyment to read ur articles and Happy C.N.Y to all out there!


  4. Li Li Fa
    Feb 09, 2011 @ 10:47:08

    Thanking for your posting of observations from a former US Ambassador.
    Being an outsider and observing from without, the view can be crystal clear ; so much so that any negativity within the country can be exposed. To some, the truth may not be their version of truth. But the fact is that truth hurts.

    It pains the heart and soul of the spirit upheld by our forefathers to build a harmonious, peaceful and prosperous nation for all its people. There is no point in shouting slogans – so empty and void that the people are immuned by their daily rantings that jar the ears and mind. Even the ex-PM, the PM and DPM do not agree on this one slogan.

    Then, let the people decide to put right people to run the country for all Malaysians. Is the time to decide, coming soon?


  5. son of muhammad
    Feb 09, 2011 @ 11:14:38

    Many people live like the malay saying “katak bawah tempurung” or “kera sumbang”. This applies to the malay race especially. These are the people easily conned by the UMNO government and they are the contented lot as long as you built a big mosque or surau and play religion with them. In the fifties I mixed with lots of chinese girls and boys as we are coed schools. We are all like loving brothers and sisters . We camped and sticked together for days mixing around without any problems. So the situation at that time is definately better than now. Only those mentally retarded don’t see the point.
    And of course our English standard is also very high compared to the “rotten” Inggrish now! This is the making of the UMNO government to make the raayat dump so they can be easily control and only the so called blind malay bumis can’t see what is


  6. Chauncey Gardener
    Feb 09, 2011 @ 14:17:01


    I don’t know how old you are but if one was to compare pre-1969 and now, one will notice that the racial and religious differences are now institutionalised.

    Examples :

    a) University entrance is now based on racial quota
    b) Allocation of equity participation in the stock market is found in the guidelines of the Ministry of Finance/Trade & Industry/etc
    c) A particular class of govt approved contractor licence is reserved for a particular ethnic race ONLY
    d) Holy scriptures written in Bahasa Malaysia are banned, thus depriving certain minorities of access to reading material in the national language
    e) A pointed out by Daniel Wachli in the first post of this thread, JAKIM has a written guideline on how Muslims should act when celebrating other religions festivals.

    And the list goes on.

    The point is that pre-1969, there were no such hindrances for the minorities.

    It would be fine if these guidelines actually helped Malaysia continue to be an investment destination but the facts are that Malaysia’s efferescence is diminshing. We are no longer the world’s largest exporters of rubber or tin nor of palm oil. We used to be a big player in the electronics field. Oil will run out in the next 15-20 years.

    We are the 3rd most popular country for outsourcing. If our English standards continue to deteriorate, our ranking will slide.

    The only recent bright spark was that our football team won a regional football tournament … and we got a public holiday. A case of shiok sendiri ???


  7. CYC
    Feb 09, 2011 @ 16:29:27

    Some wise men in Gelakan still dreaming and trying to justify the unjustifiable. Good luck to Gelakan if they wish to be gelakan of others forever. Looks like Dr Hsu’s day in Gelakan is numbered as he definitely does not behave like minded with the rest.

    Wsie man, Malays have no problem having meals at our homes in 1969, or even 1979. Does this enough to proof you wrong. Wake up and stop denying for the sake of wanna to sit among the elites. I don’t blame u as I got a similar argument from one of your ex MP. And he thought Dr Hsu simply politically naive. Sorry Dr, as I mention this to tell the world what Gelakan is made of.


  8. Dr Hsu
    Feb 09, 2011 @ 16:41:07

    I knew many of them think that i should not even be in the party and i am a thorn really; so the label of being politically naive. But i think i am one of the few that is standing firm in the struggle to realise the party’s ideology of a fair and equal society.

    It means only one thing. That these leaders cannot stand people criticising the racist and unequal policies, and that those like ‘yours truly’ who do things on a matter of principle and do not twist and turn like them will be labelled as naive. When they cannot answer me satisfactorily on the wrong doings of the Big Brother, i am called naive..


  9. klm
    Feb 10, 2011 @ 10:50:56

    With this Teraju and the continuation of APs, where is this NEM. Looks like Najib will maintain status quo on the economic policies. AND the brain drain will be a tsunami.

    So much for all the big ideas and the backdoor KPI minister. It was all a big expensive PR exercise by BN.


  10. CYC
    Feb 10, 2011 @ 12:00:52

    为僧只合居山谷, 国士筵中甚不宜。 Dr Hsu, this phrase by Master Hong Yi may suits you well.

    klm, the immediate impact will be food price inflation as China face severe drought. This definitely will further drive up food price. Forget about KPi minister as he is a fake scholar as far as he can’t feel the pulse of the commoners. At best, he is only someone who have studied well and got a PhD to decorate his outlook.


  11. Dr Hsu
    Feb 10, 2011 @ 13:58:34

    Some in the party think that they are politically savvy by saying one thing to the public and grassroots but act otherwise when it comes to the Big Brother.

    Putting aside ideology, which i think is most important for any member to follow, let us just assume that we just think of party interest and survival.. Most of the party’s seats are in urban areas (besides a few), and the party is supposed to be multi-racial, so to win these seats , their candidates must get the votes of all races instead of just banking on one ethnic group with the help of the Big Brother. They can never win back these urban seats with support from just one group alone, and without the seats, the party is going to face disaster after the next GE.. So even if we don’t think of ideology and the common goods of the people (which I repeat, is utmost important),and we just think about the party, how are we going to survive without the support of the multiracial voters when contesting in multiracial urban areas?? So did the political savvy members do anything to win back the hearts of the other races ?

    I have stressed so much in meetings that we must be truthful to our ideology. And how are we going to achieve the ideology within the context of BN where one Big Party decides all, and where race is being used to try to win back the votes? If being politically savvy means that one has to hookwink the people by slogans and rhetorics, while playing 2 face inside meetings with the Big Brother, I would rather be politically naive… These political savvy people are going to bring the party to “Ho-land”, as Dr Lim Keng yaik likes to say. Just watch the results of the next GE..

    The really great leaders like Churchill do not say one thing to this audience and then another thing to another audience. That is not politically savvy, but rather playing ‘two face” or double standard, which is so common among the so-called politically savvy people


  12. petestop
    Feb 10, 2011 @ 14:59:16

    I’ll just relate what I experienced today as illustration of what kind of govt we want (and make sure we vote for in next election).

    Went to photocopy center to pick up some printing I ordered, I am glad that they put my stuff in empty wrappings that was used to package A4 papers.
    Went and bought some PC accessories after that, and glad that the retail no longer provides plastic bags and I’m expected to bring my own.

    After lunch got a notice from my lawyer to pay almost RM15k in stamp duty (govt tax on property transaction), which gave me a shock.

    Now, you see, on one hand a DAP-led state govt goes about implementing green initiative and everybody in the retail sector chimes in. It feels good to be able to do our bit for the environment, Malaysian just need a little encouragement from govt to do so.

    On the other hand, the BeEnd govt who always tauts development as their carrot to the voters. Now I realise, of course they want more development. Besides the under-table money, they also keep plucking away at us in the form of taxes. What the heck, I buy property also the govt taxes me, I’m not even selling it !!
    And I thought I was doing the developer and economy a favor !!

    Not to mention the cars we bought comes with a 70% tax !! contributing to half the nation household debts. Typical graduates would have taken easily 7 years just to pay off car loans, before able to plan for something else like getting married or buying house.

    This is the typical life of an ordinary citizen who are really fed-up with the continuous lies from the BeEnd govt who thinks we are fools.


  13. Dr Hsu
    Feb 10, 2011 @ 16:28:02


    These are the same people who think they are politically savvy. Going aginst the no plastic movement is like going against public sentiments. Just because some of the people,mainly the more ignorant and kiasu group, does not like the implementation of no plastic bags, these people started attcking the no plastic policy , not knowing that majority of the young people and educated internet crowds are supportive of this movement. SO when someone criticises them on this, this someone will be labelled politically naive.

    They are going against the tide in opposing the no plastic movement. Many places overseas have put in place no plastic policies, 24/7/365. Not just on selected days.


  14. Esther
    Feb 11, 2011 @ 16:54:55

    which is why after my diploma, I’m flying straight to Aussie, finish my degree and stay there!
    There isn’t much hope here. Don’t get me wrong, I have loads of Malay friends. They are not the problem, it is our government. How are we suppose to show support and loyalty to our country when things are so hard for us?


  15. Phua Kai Lit
    Feb 11, 2011 @ 22:14:46

    Dear Dr Hsu

    How to have a strong party when its leader (defeated as a candidate for MP seat in the last GE) does not even have the grace to resign?


  16. Dr Hsu
    Feb 12, 2011 @ 10:21:59

    名不正,言不顺。 Translation: When there is no legitimacy, whatever said will not carry weight.


  17. petestop
    Feb 14, 2011 @ 09:30:19

    Doc, I’m glad to report that supermarkets in Penang nowadays no longer provides plastic full-time 365-days.

    What they do provide are empty carton boxes that customer in need can take their stuff back. This is a good way to recycle the use of those empty boxes.

    I’m also glad to report that we get new road signs erected all over Penang, that really helps in identifying which roads, which previously goes unnamed.

    Moreover, in those heritage areas, we get multi-lingual road signs, reflecting the Penang heritage of being the melting pot of various races as it is in the past and in the present.

    These are at least the visible part of what we can see.

    If only we can back a fair share of the tax Penangites paid to the Federal govt, I belive Penang will soar !


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