Over the last two weeks, Kuala Lumpur saw as many protests that underscore the pitfalls of Malaysia’s policy of ethnic nationalism.
In the previous week, at least 10,000 people gathered in central Kuala Lumpur to demonstrate against the unfair treatment they claim to have experienced. The protesters were Indians, who make up around 8% of the population.
The country has quotas that ensure preferential treatment for Malays looking for work or those who want to set up a business. Malaysia’s Indian population argues that the bumiputra policies leave them out in the cold.
Police used tear gas and water cannon to break up the marches.
In a smaller protest the next week, the riot police were again called in to break up a protest in Malaysia’s capital city Kuala Lumpur, using tear gas to disperse thousands of demonstrators who had gathered.
This time, the protesters were Malays, voicing their disproval over the use of English in local schools. The protesters marched through busy traffic, chanting "Long live the Malay language!" for about half an hour.
For six years Malay schools have been teaching math and science in the English language in an effort to improve language skills and to make Malaysia more competitive in the world economy.
Though the protests were organized by two different ethnic groups, they can be said to stem from the same source - the bumiputra laws which affirm positive discrimination in favour of the ethnic majority of Malaysia, the Malays who comprise some 60% of the population.
It comes as little surprise that Malaysia’s ethnic minorities feel alienated from this programme of positive discrimination.
Education and religion are among the key issues that drive the Indian protesters.
They say their Tamil-speaking schools do not get the same funding as other public schools. The two million Indians in Malaysia are predominantly Hindus, and the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) campaigners also claim that Hindu temples have been torn down to make way for new buildings without proper consultation.
The issue that the Malaysian government has not come to terms with is that the positive discrimination policies it still upholds are hindering its efforts to modernize the Malaysian economy.
Even as Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said late Friday that mastering foreign languages is a beneficial skill that should not be misconstrued "as negating the importance of the Malay language itself”, the Malay-dominated political scene is still occupied by parties that use the race card as a bargaining chip.
At the recent annual assembly for Umno - the main party of Malays and the main party in the governing coalition – the politicians warned people not to challenge Malay rights, which they argue lie at the foundations of modern-day Malaysia. This pronouncement comes just ahead of general elections widely expected to be held soon.
Gulfnews.com, Malaysia police fire tear gas at language protest , 7 March 2009, http://www.gulfnews.com/world/Malaysia/10292462.html
BBC News, Malaysia's lingering ethnic divide, 4 March 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7121534.stm
International Herald Tribune, Malaysia police fire tear gas at language protest, 7 March 2009, http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2009/03/07/asia/AS-Malaysia-Language-Protest.php