The other day we were coming home from the gym in a taxi, which we do every day. We hopped in, and the driver seemed nice enough, a nice Indian chap. He asked what we were doing in Malaysia, a couple things like that. He seemed particularly interested in my (TP) study of Malaysian politics. Pretty soon I mentioned that I was studying Mahathir’s policies during the Asian Financial Crisis. Well, he immediately exploded in a twenty-minute rant about his utter hatred for Mahathir. We ended up driving slowly down the side of the highway while he screamed about how "that a-hole ruined this country!" and "don’t you dare say anything nice about him!" (He didn’t say "a-hole," of course, but this is a family blog.)
At one point he picked up a newspaper on the side of his car (this is while driving slowly down the busy highway, answering his phone, and keeping an eye on us in the backseat so we got his point) and showed us that he had taken the time to scribble out Mahathir’s face from an article about him meeting with Nelson Mandela. Every once in awhile he would turn around and say "I’m sorry lady, but that mutualfunder made the Malays stupid."
What’s his complaint, really? Just another democrat upset that he lives in a dictatorship? Probably a bit more complicated than that. Malaysia’s complex ethnic makeup is no joke, of course. What makes this ethnic mix so important is the fact that politics is tightly tied to ethnicity and redistribution. Under the New Economic Policy, from 1970 to 1990, the government enacted a number of stringent policies aimed at eliminating the identfication of race with economic status and eliminating poverty. What this meant was restructuring society to give ethnic Malays a greater share of the economic pie. Under the British and in the first years of independence, Malaysia had a fragile agreement that the Malays got to control politics while the Chinese got to run the economy. This is of course a simplification, but not that far from the truth. We’ll expand on this more later, but politics since 1969, when racial riots between Chinese and Malays led to a suspension of the fake parliament and introduction of even more heavy-handed anti-democratic measures, has been a struggle to balance the demands of Malays for greater economic participation with the need to protect economic growth, largely determined by the investments of non-Malays.
So where does this Indian taxi driver fit in? In many ways, Indians have gotten the worst of the deal. The worst educated and poorest group in Malaysia is Indian women. Many Indians, imported to work the rubber plantations in Malaya under British, remain in poor rural areas. However, as they are not Malay or bumiputra (meaning "sons of the soil," a term for all so-called indigenous Malaysians), they experienced the same discrimination that Chinese experienced. While the NEP has created a new Malay middle class and a number of new superrich Malay tycoons, Indians–in many ways occupying the same socio-economic niche as the Malays after independence–have received little attention. Our driver, for example, was fired from his job in the 1970s as a doorman because Mahathir wanted all doormen in Malaysian hotels to be Malay (or so our driver claims).
The term in Malaysia for affirmative action, meaning the promotion of Malay interests through special government programs that hold bumiputra equity in companies and give favorable treatment to Malays in education, politics, business, etc., is positive discrimination. Talk about a loaded term.