Malaysia, Truly Asia or Ethnic Cleanser and Cultural Thief?

Updated On: Dec 04, 2007

Of late, Malaysia’s repute has taken a severe beating.

As expected, the treatment of the Indian ethnic minority in Malaysia has blown to even greater proportions leaving the Malaysian government furious and defensive, and even more adamant that the Internal Security Act (ISA) may be unleashed. Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak declared the government will “give priority to national stability and public order” when tackling the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF).

As it stands, HINDRAF chairman P. Waythamoorthy has left Malaysia for IndiaEurope and the United States to drum up international support. In particular he is hoping to meet officials from the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. Presently, HINDRAF has submitted a law suit in London and a plea to UK PM Gordon Brown to get the UN Security Council to issue a statement against the “ethnic cleansing policies” of the Malaysian government.

An infuriated Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi thundered to the media, “Ethnic cleansing is something that was done in Bosnia. We do not do it in this country. I'm really angry. I rarely get angry but this blatant lie cannot be tolerated at all.” He even vowed to resign if the allegations were true. Furthermore, DPM Najib felt that the HINDRAF’s internationalization of a domestic issue was a direct challenge to the government to use the ISA. He warned, “If they keep challenging, one day they will cross the line… It is up to the authorities to determine the appropriate action on HINDRAF.” Despite such threats, three more protests are lined up for this month. NGOs have said that they say they will “demonstrate against the increase in highway tolls, mark Human Rights Day on December 9 and protest a constitutional amendment outside Parliament on December 11”.

Additionally, undeterred by Malaysia’s ticking off of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi for bringing the issue to the Union government, the treatment of Tamil Indians in Malaysia disrupted the Indian parliamentary session. According to The Hindu, there was a heated discussion over the matter in the Upper House with legislative members seeking “immediate intervention by the Centre and a statement from the External Affairs Ministry” against Malaysia. Although Parliamentary Speaker Somnath Chatterjee was averse to interfering in Malaysia’s domestic affairs, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s staunch insistence on discussing the issue caused Chatterjee to order an adjournment and for media coverage to be switched off.

The raucous outcry has led the ruling coalition of India –the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) –to be arm-twisted in releasing a statement opposing the alleged mistreatment of ethnic Tamils. Initially averse to interfering in this affair, Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee had to eventually soothe the legislators. He assured both Houses of Parliament, “The government remains deeply solicitous about the welfare of people of Indian origin living abroad. There is a large community of people of Indian origin in Malaysia who are citizens of that country. We have friendly relations with Malaysia and we are in touch with the Malaysian authorities in the related matter.” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh echoed, “This is a matter which concerns us. Whenever people of India run into difficulties, it is a source of concern.”

The former deputy prime minister of Malaysia Anwar Ibrahim, has seized the chance to praise the Indian government. He told the media at the International Islamic Peace Conference in Mumbai he supportedIndia’s statement against Malaysia. He said, “In these days no leader has a right to say lay off to any other country since we live in a globalized world. I had warned them off a crisis building up, but they ignored the signals. You cannot deny the rights of indigenous communities, but at the same time you must protect the right of ethnic minorities as well.” Not everyone in India has supported the cause againstMalaysia though. The Times of India reflected the other view that Malaysia as an independent sovereign country was justified in telling India to “lay off” as India would definitely not “take kindly to Malaysia's intervention in any internal uprising in any of its states”.

Whatever it is, the Malaysian government is not impressed. Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar reiterated the government’s “mind your own business” stance to the international community on this issue. Hamid Albar said sarcastically, “I hope there is no misunderstanding of what is happening here. If they are talking about Indian citizens, we would understand the concern, but what happened involves Malaysian citizens. If they break any law, it is our right to deal with them in accordance with Malaysian laws.” This was Malaysian Law Minister Nazri Abdul Aziz exact sentiment in reaction to the US’ defence of HINDRAF’s right to peaceful assembly. Nari Abdul said, “What is good for their country is not necessarily suitable for our country. We are a sovereign nation.”

This tension with India comes on top of the continuing Malaysia-Indonesia friction. Shortly after the “Rasa Sayang” song row, another cultural dispute has erupted over a traditional Javanese mask dance, known as Reog Ponorogo, which Indonesians are claiming Malaysia has misappropriated for its “Malaysia, Truly Asia” tourism campaign. About a thousand Indonesians dressed in traditional costumes performed the Reog dance outside the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta, carrying placards with the words “Malaysia thief!” boldly emblazoned. Some Indonesians have even carried things further by “producing T-shirts emblazoned with the word “Malingsia” (Thief of Asia) in a parody of Malaysia’s tourism campaign logo”. (3 December 2007)


Reports: Outraged Malaysian PM says charges of ethnic cleansing of Indians are lies (AP, 2 December 2007)

Malaysia objects to India's statement on ethnic Tamils (Economic Times of India, 2 December 2007)Govt. concerned over plight of ethnic Indians in Malaysia (Times of India, 2 December 2007)

Former Malay deputy PM backs Indian protests (Times of India, 2 December 2007) Malaysia tells India not to meddle in its affairs (Times of India, 2 December 2007)DPM: Hindraf move will hurt Malaysia(Star, 2 November 2007)

Three Anti-Government Protests To Follow Two Successful Major Rallies in Malaysia (AHN, 1 December 2007)

COUNTER VIEW: It is Malaysia's problem (Times of India, 1 December 2007) National Stability Takes Priority In Hindraf Issue – Najib (Bernama, 1 December 2007)

US, M'sia face off over mass protests (Today, 30 November 2007)

Malaysia incident figures in Parliament (The Hindu, 30 November 2007)

Indonesians picket Malaysia embassy in dance row (Reuters, 29 November 2007)

MalaysiaIndonesia Likely To House East Asia Think-tank (Bernama, 15 November 2007)

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