Asia: Journey to Nowhere

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Human nature has once again embarrassed the heady plans of social engineers, this time in the unlikely setting of Malaysia. The spectacle hasn't been pretty.

The country's demagogic prime minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, closed several newspapers a few months ago and ordered the arrest of scores of people, from opposition political leaders to environmentalists. The soft shell of Malaysian democracy collapsed, with the government explaining that it had feared a racial explosion.

As well it might. There exists no better showcase than Malaysia of government-sponsored racial favoritism, no place to more clearly observe the corrosive result of penalizing productive citizens in order to shuffle wealth and status.

The victims, who tend to be of Chinese or Indian ancestry, naturally don't like it. They resent the fact that four out of every five slots in the universities are reserved for Malays, who comprise only about half of the country's population. They bridle at the heavy Malay dominance of the overstaffed civil service, not to mention policies giving Malays an edge in obtaining credit, housing, and business deals with the government.

"We're not even treated as well as second-class citizens," exclaimed a Chinese manager of a rubber and palm oil estate with whom I stayed briefly last September in central Malaysia.

The estate manager clearly didn't enjoy talking about politics or ethnic relations. He would become agitated and redfaced. Yet every now and then he couldn't help himself. One morning, for example, after a tour by Isuzu truck between endless rows of rubber trees where Indian tappers were hard at work, my host drove us to a new sawmill. This gave him a chance to expound on the entrepreneurial virtues of the Chinese.

Although Malaysia is a major exporter of wood, he noted, most of it comes from the jungle. Yet his sawmill processed only rubber trees, an inferior product that wasn't sold abroad until recently. Rising timber prices and Japan's insatiable demands at last enabled such sales.

And who had seized the opportunity? Here—and most everywhere else, the estate manager assured me—it had been a Chinese. "These rubber sawmills are so new they aren't even taxed yet," he boasted. "You have to be the early bird to get the worm, like these Chinese chaps."

The Malaysian Chinese, who constitute about 35 percent of the population, are justifiably proud of their accomplishments. Brought in by the British in the 19th century to work the tin mines, many of them eventually saved enough money to start their own businesses. Their penchant for hard work, organization, and family loyalty, as well as an emphasis on education, propelled them toward achievement.

Most Malaysian Chinese are by no means wealthy, or even recognizably middle-class by American standards, yet as a group they've outdistanced the ethnic Malays. For that sin they've had to endure the ludicrous official charge that they owe their position to past favoritism by the British—as if a miner's life lifted any man onto a soft road to success.

The tragedy is that Malaysia is richly endowed, boasting sufficient room and resources for all its communities to prosper. With only 15 million people, it doesn't suffer the population pressure of Indonesia or, increasingly, the Philippines. In fact, Malaysia is more prosperous than either of those nations and has become the destination for thousands of illegal immigrants from both.

It's impossible to guess whether Malaysia could bootstrap itself up the economic ladder in the exhilarating style of South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. Commodity exports such as tin, rubber, palm oil, pepper, timber, and petroleum tend to be fickle allies of development, given their price gyrations. Nor have the easygoing Malays matched the entrepreneurial savvy of some of their neighbors on the Pacific Rim.

Yet rather than deploy all its assets in international competition, Malaysia seems determined to neglect a trump card: its educated Chinese elite. Many of the Chinese I met had one or more relatives studying or living abroad, and a number of the luckier ones confessed they'd considered emigrating themselves.

Take the case of Rose Vu (not her real name). At 30, she directs a team of computer programmers for a small firm in Kuala Lumpur, the national capital. Her team customizes software for businesses preparing to introduce computers to their operations. She then handles the inevitable glitches during the shakedown period after installation. Vu makes good money, travels widely, and has steadily expanded her realm of responsibility—a profile of success by any nation's standards.

And yet she says she must emigrate someday, at least if she marries and wants to start a family. "I don't know what kind of future my children would have in Malaysia," she says, adding that she doesn't trust the government to be fair with the Chinese.

Already one of her brothers has moved to Australia, to join a girlfriend who herself left Malaysia a year before. Vu meanwhile pays the tuition of another brother attending medical school abroad. Like so many from his ethnic community, he couldn't get into a university at home. Vu's own alma mater is a college in the Philippines.

The Malaysian Chinese never expected their government to treat all ethnic groups the same. From the outset of independence, in 1957, their community agreed to Malay demands for political dominance and for Islam to be declared the national religion. The Chinese have dutifully learned to speak Malay in school, too, while the Malays make no similar effort to master a Chinese dialect.

Still, the political accommodation always assumed sufficient latitude for each community to prosper in tandem, unthreatened in any basic sense by cultural or economic encroachment. Although that prospect was always problematic—interracial riots in Kuala Lumpur killed hundreds in 1969—it seemed at least possible as recently as the late 1970s. Annual growth had reached 7 percent, largely as a result of surging commodity prices. By 1985, however, the economy was actually shrinking, thus undermining the dream of a painless redistribution of wealth and power to the Malays. (The economy has rebounded somewhat since then.)

Whether the Chinese today are truly threatened, a good number feel they are. Nor has Prime Minister Mahathir done much to quell the concern. Rather, he periodically goads it. The recent crisis, for example, followed a government move to assign administrators who aren't fluent in Mandarin to Chinese-language schools.

To be fair, Dr. Mahathir is a model of tolerance by the standard of some of his countrymen. Islamic nationalists on the right consider the present government far too accommodating of non-Muslim prerogatives. Their dreams for Malaysia make most Chinese (and many Malays, as well) shudder.

The attractions of Islam can't be underestimated in a still-traditional society undergoing wrenching change, especially one that isn't providing enough good jobs for its increasingly educated youth. The Malays, in other words, are also victims of the politics of racial favoritism. Impossible expectations and the preposterous goals of state planners have let them down, and they're left to search for scapegoats. In a pinch, the Chinese will do.

It's possible, of course, that racial tension would be just as bad and the Islamic nationalists as militant—or worse—if the Malaysian government had never embarked upon racialist policies. After all, this is a country in which many Malays look upon the rest of the population, even those dating back generations, as newcomers and interlopers.

Yet by playing the racial card, the government alienates the community that is perhaps best equipped to propel Malaysia forward. Once inspired, the rhetoric of victimization is not easily turned off, either.

An example of the self-sustaining nature of racial politics occurred during my visit to the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. Sabah is the only Malaysian state ruled by a coalition dominated by non-Muslims and thus looms as a special target of the prime minister's ire. In mid-September, he charged—without citing a speck of evidence—that Muslims on Sabah had been harassed. Non-Malays, vexed by the groundless charge, chalked it up as another proof of the uncertain tolerance upon which they depend.

Despite obvious tensions, though, Malaysian racial affairs have a strange, understated character—a stiff-backed civility, if you will. People must be drawn out to discuss the issue. Meanwhile, everyone from militant Islamic nationalists to Western-type liberals, to spokesmen for the nation's ruling coalition, contends his program holds the best hope for racial harmony and general progress.

Indeed, the atmosphere is akin to that evoked by Somerset Maugham and Paul Thereoux, whose languid stories of the region often conceal a disturbing and unexpected twist. Malaysia's social engineers thought they'd figured out the future. They would set the country right for the sake of the largest racial group, and they'd simply do it by decree. And then some unseen author of the country's destiny tripped a trap.

The 20th century is a veritable travelogue of such ambitious journeys to nowhere.

Vincent Carroll is a syndicated columnist and assistant editorial page editor at the Rocky Mountain News.

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