Racial clashes show rise of new Malaysian underclass
PENANG, Malaysia - This week's ethnic violence
did not erupt in the upper-class, multi-ethnic residential area
of Damansara near the capital Kuala Lumpur, nor in its trendy Bangsar
neigborhood with its posh nightspots and watering holes.
Instead, Malaysia's worst ethnic clashes since
1969, when violence erupted between Malays and Chinese Malaysians,
broke out in some of the poorest areas just outside Kuala Lumpur.
Last week's clashes have been largely portrayed in foreign media
as racial rioting between ethnic Malays and Indians that has marred
Malaysia's record of social harmony.
The local media, in a bid to douse passions,
downplayed the ethnic aspect of the clashes but generally failed
to highlight the socio-economic forces that may have sparked them.
The ethnic nature of the clashes appears to have masked the undercurrents
in Malaysian society and the emergence of a frustrated underclass
in an economy long touted as the next Asian tiger economy.
The clashes between Malay Muslims and ethnic
Indians erupted March 8 in run-down sections of Petaling Jaya, a
largely upper- middle class residential town just next door to Kuala
Lumpur. Six people have been reported killed, 52 hurt and 190 detained.
In socio-economic terms, "the area is one of
the worst areas around Kuala Lumpur", says professor Ishak Shari,
head of the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies. "I
suppose the feeling of frustration [at their plight] is there. The
feeling of dissatisfaction must have been brewing all along," he
These neighborhoods are made up of plank squatter
houses, longhouses, low-cost flats and terrace houses - largely
populated by Malay and Indian Malaysians as well as Indonesian and
Bangladeshi migrant workers. The majority are from the lower income
group and work in factories and small businesses. Some 60 percent
of the 22 million Malaysians are ethnic Malays or indigenous people.
About 50 percent of the people are Malays, almost
all of whom are Muslim. A quarter are Malaysian Chinese, while 8
percent are ethnic Indian. For several years now, a few academics
have been pointing to a growing underclass in Malaysian society,
the result of an unbridled, lopsided approach to "development".
During his 20-year tenure as premier, Mahathir
Mohamad has pursued a model of heavy industrialization, complete
with towering skyscrapers, a glittering airport and an impressive
Formula One racing circuit. But he has neglected social security
nets for the poor, critics say.
How one defines poverty in the country is problematic
to start with. The official poverty line in peninsular or western
Malaysia, where Kuala Lumpur is, in 1997 was a monthly income of
460 ringgit (US$121) for a household of 4.6 persons, says Ishak.
If that figure is used, Malaysia's level of poverty does not look
so bad - 8 percent overall in 1998 with urban poverty less than
But most households need a combined income of
1,000 ringgit to meet the demands of modern urban living, asserts
Ishak. The Malaysian Trades Union Congress, for instance, has been
demanding a minimum monthly wage of 900 ringgit. This is where the
crux of the problem lies: many among the working class, including
factory workers, barely earn that amount. Indeed, those at the lower
end of the ladder, especially plantation workers, general workers
and laborers, struggle to earn 500 ringgit monthly.
Before the Asian crisis in mid-1997, academics
had argued that 750 ringgit would be a more appropriate gauge of
the minimal cost of living for urban households, said a report prepared
by the Malaysian Institute for Economic Research for the United
Nations Development Program in 1998. Given this measure, during
the boom decade between 1985 and 1995, the percentage of poor households
increased from 14.3 to 23 percent, much of the rise occurring in
the urban areas.
"With reduced income through retrenchments
or pay cuts, and price hikes in fixed cost necessities such as food
and utilities, poor urban households will suffer a noticeable decline
in welfare," the report added. While there have been programs to
alleviate rural poverty, there are no specific ones related to urban
poverty, it noted.
Low incomes breed a multitude of frustrations,
leading perhaps to outbreaks of hostility shown the clashes last
week. "It's not just lack of income but a lack of accessibility
to all the basic necessities of urban living," points out Ishak.
A major need in areas like these is housing. Squatter areas and
low-income housing in Malaysia tend to be congested, higher- density
areas. The squalid conditions and poverty in squatter areas are
breeding grounds for social problems like gangsterism and drug addiction.
"These areas are usually oppressive," Ishak
points out, with little space for weddings, funerals, and other
public functions. Tempers are easily frayed even among the same
ethnic group when neighbors infringe into one another's often un-demarcated
private zones. When this involves people of different ethnic groups,
the situation could get ugly. "You just need a small issue to spark
off ill feelings," he remarks.
An often unnoticed but crucial factor is the
sense of deprivation that the poor feel, and which is heightened
when they live next door to the wealthy. "It is easier to compare
yourself with the well-to-do in such a situation," says Ishak.
Social tensions are not helped any by race-based
politicking in Malaysia - in which the main ethnic groups Malays,
Chinese and Indians are urged by the government's ruling coalition
to unite to protect the interests of their groups. This lays conditions
that are ripe for inter-ethnic frustration, where each group blames
the other for its problems.
In the wake of the clashes, analysts are now
questioning the wisdom of holding talks between the dominant United
Malays National Organization (Umno) and the opposition Islamic Party
(PAS) to discuss only Malay unity - rather than national unity.
"These talks have become irrelevant," says
P Ramakrishnan, president of the non-government group Aliran. "What
the opposition front has been calling for - national unity - seems
more relevant now in the aftermath of these racial clashes," he
The PAS-Umno talks, he adds, will fizzle out.
But despite the clashes, analysts still believe
that the ethnic situation in Malaysia has improved since the 1980s.
This explains why the clashes have not spread to other multi-ethnic
Still, the violence has spurred the realization
that the Indian Malaysians, poorer Malays and other groups continue
to lag behind their better-off neighbors.
Apart from the sensitive subject of race in
Malaysia - government officials quickly said the violence was not
anything like ethnic violence in Indonesia - society also has to
deal with economic and social deprivation among the new underclass.