RACIAL DISCORD IN MALAYSIA AND THE RIOTS ON MAY 13, 1969

RACIAL DISCORD IN MALAYSIA

At the time of independence in 1957, the Malays were 55 percent of the population, the Chinese 35 percent and the Indians 10 percent. This balance was altered by the inclusion of the majority Chinese Singapore, upsetting many Malays. The federation increased the Chinese proportion to close to 40 percent. Both UMNO and the MCA were nervous about the possible appeal of Lee's People's Action Party (then seen as a radical socialist party) to voters in Malaya, and tried to organise a party in Singapore to challenge Lee's position there. Lee in turn threatened to run PAP candidates in Malaya at the 1964 federal elections, despite an earlier agreement that he would not do so (see PAP-UMNO Relations). Racial tensions intensified as PAP created an opposition alliance aiming for equality between races. This provoked Tunku Abdul Rahman to demand that Singapore withdraw from Malaysia, which it did in August 1965. [Source: Wikipedia]

The most vexed issues of independent Malaysia were education and the disparity of economic power among the ethnic communities. The Malays felt unhappy with the wealth of the Chinese community, even after the expulsion of Singapore. Malay political movements emerged based around this. However, since there was no effective opposition party, these issues were contested mainly within the coalition government, which won all but one seat in the first post-independence Malayan Parliament. The two issues were related, since the Chinese advantage in education played a large part in maintaining their control of the economy, which the UMNO leaders were determined to end. The MCA leaders were torn between the need to defend their own community’s interests and the need to maintain good relations with UMNO. This produced a crisis in the MCA in 1959, in which a more assertive leadership under Lim Chong Eu defied UMNO over the education issue, only to be forced to back down when Tunku Abdul Rahman threatened to break up the coalition.

The Education Act of 1961 put UMNO’s victory on the education issue into legislative form. Henceforward Malay and English would be the only teaching languages in secondary schools, and state primary schools would teach in Malay only. Although the Chinese and Indian communities could maintain their own Chinese and Tamil-language primary schools, all their students were required to learn Malay, and to study an agreed “Malayan curriculum.” Most importantly, the entry exam to the University of Malaya (which moved from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur in 1963) would be conducted in Malay, even though most teaching at the university was in English until the 1970s. This had the effect of excluding many Chinese students. At the same time Malay schools were heavily subsidised, and Malays were given preferential treatment. This obvious defeat for the MCA greatly weakened its support in the Chinese community.

As in education, the UMNO government’s unspoken agenda in the field of economic development was to shift economic power away from the Chinese and towards the Malays. The two Malayan Plans, and the First Malaysian Plan (1966–70), directed resources heavily into developments which would benefit the rural Malay community, such as village schools, rural roads, clinics and irrigation projects. Several agencies were set up to enable Malay smallholders to upgrade their production and increase their incomes. The Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) helped many Malays buy farms or upgrade ones they already owned. The state also provided a range of incentives and low-interest loans to help Malays start businesses, and government tendering systematically favoured Malay companies, leading many Chinese-owned businesses to “Malayanise” their management. All this certainly tended to reduce to gap between Chinese and Malay standards of living, although some argued that this would have happened anyway as Malaysia’s trade and general prosperity increased.

Chinese and Malay Riots

In 1965, there were mass killings in Malaysia and Chinese were often the targets. After that tensions were very high between Malays and Chinese. In 1967 there were rumors that the Muslim Malays had poisoned pork eaten by the Chinese and many Chinese men came down with a mental disease called koro in which they believed their penises were being sucked into their bodies.

Zainon Ahmad wrote in The Sun, “In fact, even as early as the 1959 general election when there was much racial tension within the Alliance and outside of it, some observed that the country’s worst enemy was not the communists in the jungles but communalism in the cities. Bloody incidents were also not new to the country. Beginning with the January 1957 incident in Penang where four people were killed, there were minor clashes between small groups of Malays and Chinese long before 1969. But the foretaste of the communal violence to come erupted in November 1967 in Penang where political demonstrations eventually spread to Perak and Kedah, resulting in 25 people being killed. [Source: Zainon Ahmad, The Sun, July 26, 2007]

A kampong dweller near Singapore said: In 1961, “a racial riot happened when I was about five or six years old. The Malays and the Chinese were killing one another. The Malays wanted to kill the Chinese. When I was young, I was not very sure what racial riot was. People told me that it was racial riot. When I heard that the Malays were coming, I would run for the other way. When the Malays were coming from this way, I would run that way. The direction I ran depended on which direction the Malays were approaching...One or two people. I heard that one or two Chinese were killed by the Malays...My legs turned jelly when I heard about it and was supposed to run for my life. Actually, I did not have not much feeling because I was too young at that time. Hence, I only felt frightened. [Source: Evelyn Chua Sok Huang, msevelynchua@mail.nie.edu.sg]

May 13, 1969 Riots

There were bloody race riots between Chinese and Malay on May 13, 1969 that nearly ripped Malaysia apart. Dozens were killed and 4,000 were arrested. Some say at least 63 people were killed. Most sources say at least 200 people were killed. They occurred after a hotly contested general election in which the ruling party lost many seats to the opposition and the parties tried to win voters by making racial attacks at one another.

Philip Bowring wrote in in the Asia Sentinel: “ The official Malaysian government version of events was that the riots were sparked by opposition parties “infiltrated by communist insurgents” following huge opposition gains in the election. Although the UMNO-led Alliance, the predecessor of the Barisan National, retained an overall majority, it lost its two thirds majority and its control of Selangor state was threatened. Certainly there was much celebrating among the mainly Chinese opposition parties at the election result, which angered Malay politicians who sensed their political dominance was under threat. By the time the riots were over, official figures said 196 people had been killed, 6,000 made homeless and more than 700 buildings destroyed or damaged. [Source: Philip Bowring, the Asia Sentinel, May 16, 2007 /~/]

“Non-Malays in particular have long believed that though there was violence on both sides, it was a mostly one-sided affair with some Malay politicians, notably Selangor Chief Minister Harun Idris, encouraging mobs to attack Chinese areas and that the security forces initially did little to prevent violence. This is largely confirmed by contemporary reports such as those of Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent Bob Reece.” /~/

Zainon Ahmad wrote in The Sun, “While it is a dark blot in the nation’s history, Malaysians – old and young – will never be allowed to forget May 13. Mostly, it is used to scare people away from public discussions and debate on such subjects as citizenship, education, culture and religion. We are constantly reminded of the incident so that we will refrain from questioning the regime in place, from saying things about it or doing things that may be construed as undermining racial harmony and national unity.” [Source: Zainon Ahmad, The Sun, July 26, 2007]

Events During the May 13, 1969 Riots

Zainon Ahmad wrote in The Sun, In 1968 the UMNO ruling coalition “began preparations for a renewal of its mandate which was due to end in 1969, little did it suspect what the results would unlock. As far as it was concerned, the 1969 general election was to be a routine affair, and there was no doubt in the mind of Alliance leaders that it would win as decisively as it did in 1964. After all, the cancer that was Singapore had been cast off in 1965, the economy was happily humming, the Indonesian confrontation had just ended and diplomatic relations with the Southeast Asian giant re-established, and the opposition was weak and fragmented. The Alliance boasted that it could easily win more than two thirds of the 144 seats in the Dewan Rakyat or about two thirds of the 104 Peninsular Malaysia seats, capture Kelantan, and retain control of all the other state legislatures. But that confidence was shattered in the early hours of May 11, 1969 when the results of the May 10 elections were known. [Source: Zainon Ahmad, The Sun, July 26, 2007 ***]

“The Alliance had won only 66 seats, down from the 89 it won in 1964. It also lost Penang, failed to capture Kelantan, and came close to losing Perak, Selangor, Kedah and Terengganu. The Opposition was surprised, too. The DAP, which reconstituted itself from the People’s Action Party (PAP), won 13 seats when the Singapore-based party had only one in 1964. PAS got 12 seats, an increase of three; PPP won four, an increase of two; while the new party Gerakan won eight. Even though the Alliance had not lost power – and Sabah and Sarawak had yet to decide – the Malays were alarmed. They felt that the government they had dominated all this while was going to collapse.” ***

“During the Alliance meeting held to assess the results, a number of Malay representatives blamed the losses on the MCA (Malaysia Chinese Association) which saw 20 of its 33 candidates defeated. Hurt and weak, the MCA announced on May 13 that it would not participate in the government at federal and state levels. What appeared as punishment of the MCA by UMNO became an additional factor contributing to further racial tensions and anxieties. Opposition supporters, especially the Chinese and Indians who had voted for the DAP and Gerakan were jubilant. And they showed it. ***

“The victorious opposition celebrated by holding a motorcade on the main streets of Kuala Lumpur with supporters holding up brooms as a signal of its intention to make sweeping changes. Fear of what the changes might mean for them (as much of the country's businesses were Chinese owned), a Malay backlash resulted, leading rapidly to riots and inter-communal violence in which about 6,000 Chinese homes and businesses were burned and at least 184 people were killed. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006]

“They celebrated their “victories” by marching through Kuala Lumpur and in their exuberance shouted insulting epithets at Malays living near the city fringes. They even showed vulgar gestures at Malay women. On May 12, Gerakan got police permission for 1,000 party members and supporters to hold their own demonstrations that evening. Word got around quickly and the number swelled to 4,000 which later broke up into smaller groups that conducted their own “demonstrations” away from the restrain of party leaders. They, too, taunted the Malays with insults, using similar words that had been hurled by the previous day’s demonstrators, such as: “Melayu balik kampung, kita sudah berkuasa sekarang” (“Malays, return to your villages, we are now in power”) and “Hey Sakai bolih balik ke hutan” (“Hey Sakai, you can return to the jungle”). Meanwhile, groups of Malays from outside Kuala Lumpur gathered at Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Harun Idris’ house in Kampung Baru. They urged Harun to lead a victory demonstration to show they had not lost power. Before long, it was announced a demonstration would begin from Harun’s house at 7.30pm on May 13. ***

Violence During the May 13, 1969 Riots

The riot ignited the capital Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding area of Selangor – according to Time, spreading throughout the city in 45 minutes. Many people in Kuala Lumpur were caught in the racial violence – dozens were injured and some killed, houses and cars were burnt and wrecked, but except for minor disturbances in Malacca, Perak, Penang and Singapore, where the populations of Chinese people were similarly larger, the rest of the country remained calm. Violence concentrated at urban areas. The infuriated Malays lashed out and murdered eight Chinese. According to police figures which are disputed, 196 people died and 149 were wounded. 753 cases of arson were logged and 211 vehicles were destroyed or severely damaged. [Source: Wikipedia]

During the campaign period, Zainon Ahmad wrote in The Sun, “Police shot dead a Labour Party member for resisting arrest in Kuala Lumpur. The party applied for a police permit to hold a funeral procession on May 10 – polling day. Permission, however, was granted for May 9.About 10,000 people took part and they flouted every police instruction, including the routes they were supposed to take. They passed through the heart of Kuala Lumpur and clogged up traffic on almost every street. They carried the Red Flag and portraits of Mao-zedong and sang The East is Red. They provoked Malay bystanders with shouts of “Malai si” (“Death to the Malays!”) and “Hutang darah dibayar darah” (“Blood debts will be repaid with blood”). It was to the credit of the Royal Malaysian Police that nothing ugly happened that day. But it set the stage and primed the mood for what was to happen following the “celebrations” on May 11 and 12.

On May 13,Zainon Ahmad wrote, “Violence started at about 6pm that day when about 100 Malays from Gombak made their way through Setapak – the scene of the previousevening’s demonstrations – carrying banners and shouting slogans. Soon, street clashes broke out between them and Chinese and Indian youths. Parang, sticks and iron pipes were used. Most of the Malay demonstrators made it to Harun’s house where exaggerated versions of what happened had already reached the 5,000 people gathered there. They were in an ugly mood. When some Chinese and Indians in a passing bus made some taunting remarks at them, the vehicle was attacked. By 6.40pm, the first three Chinese lay dead beside the road. Word of what happened in Setapak and Kampung Baru spread and within hours the whole city was engulfed in communal rioting the size of which had never been experienced by the country before. The worst of the rioting burned itself out during that first night. [Source: Zainon Ahmad, The Sun, July 26, 2007 ***]

Time reported: “ Malay mobs, wearing white headbands signifying an alliance with death, and brandishing swords and daggers, surged into Chinese areas in the capital, burning, looting and killing. In retaliation, Chinese, sometimes aided by Indians, armed themselves with pistols and shotguns and struck at Malay kampongs (villages). Huge pillars of smoke rose skyward as houses, shops and autos burned. Firemen drew sniper fire as they attempted to douse the flames, and outnumbered police watched helplessly at times as the street gangs rampaged. One man, trying to escape from his burning car, was thrown back into it by a howling mob, and died. By the time the four days of race war and civil strife had run their course, the General Hospital's morgue was so crowded that bodies were put into plastic bags and hung on ceiling hooks. Government officials, attempting to play down the extent of the disaster, insisted that the death toll was only 104. Western diplomatic sources put the toll closer to 600, with most of the victims Chinese. [Source: Time, May 23, 1969 ^^^]

“The trouble began two weeks ago, when newly formed Chinese opposition parties cut heavily into the Alliance's majority in parliamentary elections. It became suddenly apparent that many Chinese were no longer satisfied with just economic hegemony, but wanted a protective share of the political power as well. Nothing was more surely calculated to frighten the Malays, in particular the Malay "ultras" (right-wingers), who have long preached the doctrine of Malaysia for the Malays. Alarmed, the ultras began to discuss ways of retaining control. At a Malay post-election meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Chinese onlookers began to taunt those in attendance. Infuriated, the Malays attacked. At least eight Chinese were killed and within 45 minutes fast-spreading riots forced the Tunku to clamp a 24-hour curfew on the capital. ^^^

“Struggling to restore order as the fighting mushroomed, the Tunku and Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak took power into their own hands. Parliament was suspended, as were constitutional guarantees. Total administrative power was taken by the newly formed, all-powerful National Operations Council headed by Razak, which proceeded to suspend publication of all Malaysian newspapers for several days. Arrests began. Ninety-three alleged terrorists were bagged in a swoop on a Chinese apartment building in Kuala Lumpur, and Razak reported that all Communists and known sympathizers were being rounded up. Razak and the Tunku blamed all the troubles on Communist China, which, they charged, had funneled large sums of money to Communist agitators in Malaysia. Later, however, the Tunku backed off slightly, and praised "loyal Chinese elements," adding that he had been mistaken when he blamed Chinese Communists for all the troubles. As tensions eased late in the week, curfews were lifted long enough to allow householders to go out and buy food. The fires burned on, however, and there were still occasional racial clashes. ^^^

On May 14, a state of Emergency was declared and Parliament was suspended indefinitely. On May 16, Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman set up the National Operations Council (NOC) to rule the country by decree with his deputy, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, as director of operations. Sporadic small clashes continued after May 14 and they fizzled out only after about a month. The last serious outbreak was between Malays and Indians on June 28 in Kuala Lumpur in which five people were killed. ***

Lead up to the May 13, 1969 Riots

After the separation of Singapore and Malaysia, ethnic issues continued to simmer between Malays and Chinese. In the elections of May 1969, the Alliance was opposed by the Democratic Action Party, which had a predominantly Chinese following and advocated the abolition of Malays’ special status. After a bitter campaign between the two sides, the Alliance maintained power but lost a significant share of the total vote. Opposition party supporters held public demonstrations to celebrate their election gains, and violence broke out between opposition supporters and Malay bystanders. Riots ensued for two weeks, mostly in Kuala Lumpur, and resulted in hundreds of casualties, primarily Chinese and Indians. The government declared a state of emergency and ultimately passed laws against questioning governing institutions and Malays’ special status. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006]

The collaboration of the MCA and the MIC in these policies weakened their hold on the Chinese and Indian electorates. At the same time, the effects of the government’s affirmative action policies of the 1950s and ‘60s had been to create a discontented class of educated but underemployed Malays. This was a dangerous combination, and led to the formation of a new party, the Malaysian People’s Movement (Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia) in 1968. Gerakan was a deliberately non-communal party, bringing in Malay trade unionists and intellectuals as well as Chinese and Indian leaders. At the same time, an Islamist party, the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) and a Chinese socialist party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), gained increasing support, at the expense of UMNO and the MCA respectively. [Source: Wikipedia]

At the May 1969 federal elections, the UMNO-MCA-MIC Alliance polled only 48 percent of the vote, although it retained a majority in the legislature. The MCA lost most of the Chinese-majority seats to Gerakan or DAP candidates.

Consequences of the May 13, 1969 Riots

The government declared a state of emergency, and a National Operations Council, headed by the Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak, took power from the government of Tunku Abdul Rahman, who in September 1970 was forced to retire in favour of Abdul Razak. It consisted of 9 members, mostly Malay, and wielded full political and military power.

Using the Emergency-era Internal Security Act (ISA), the new government suspended Parliament and political parties, imposed press censorship and placed severe restrictions on political activity. The ISA gave the government power to intern any person indefinitely without trial. These powers were widely used to silence the government’s critics, and have never been repealed. The Constitution was changed to make illegal any criticism, even in Parliament, of the Malaysian monarchy, the special position of Malays in the country, or the status of Malay as the national language.

Philip Bowring wrote in in the Asia Sentinel: “The Tunku effectively stepped aside as emergency powers to rule by decree were (temporarily) placed in the hands of a National Operations Council headed by his deputy Tun Abdul Razak – father of current deputy prime minister Najib Abdul Razak. The Tunku remained prime minister until September 1970 but had little authority any more. In 1971 he also stepped down as president of UMNO after virulent criticism by the Malay “Young Turks,” headed by Mahathir Mohamad, the future Prime Minister. The same year the government enunciated the New Economic Policy and began aggressive affirmative action programs to advance the economic and educational level of Malays. [Source: Philip Bowring, the Asia Sentinel, May 16, 2007]

In January 1970, Tun Razak set up a National Consultative Council to find ways to promote and strengthen racial harmony so that normalcy would return and Parliament restored. On Sept 21, the Tunku retired as prime minister, depressed and sad that the racial harmony he had devoted much of his political life to strengthen had collapsed under his watch. Tun Razak succeeded Tunku as the country’s second prime minister, and eventually the NOC came to an end after 21 months, and Parliament convened again on Feb 23, 1971.

Causes of the May 13, 1969 Riots

Cheah Boon Kheng of the National University of Singapore wrote: The May 13, 1969 communal riots have been attributed to many factors. Although Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman would blame the communists for causing these riots, 24 not many studies have confirmed this. A greater number of specialists have concluded that the riots occurred because of Malay dissatisfaction over Tunku Abdul Rahman’s liberal policies towards non - Malays and non - Malay challenges to Malay rights and privileges. In fact, the failures and weaknesses of multi - ethnic and non - communal parties like the socialist parties in Malaysia 25 allowed the forces of communalism to grow stronger. The negligible participation of socialist parties in the May 1969 general elections, for instance, indicates that they had allowed the communal parties, by default, to dominate the field. After the riots, communalism, not communism, began to be in the ascendancy. [Source: Cheah Boon Kheng, National University of Singapore, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 11, 1 (June 2009): 132]

Zainon Ahmad wrote in The Sun, “Much of the underlying causes could have been resolved early, and some of the symptoms could have been heeded to nip the problem before it conflagrated. In fact, even as early as the 1959 general election when there was much racial tension within the Alliance and outside of it, some observed that the country’s worst enemy was not the communists in the jungles but communalism in the cities.” Communalism reared its ugly head prior to the 1955 general election, during the drafting of the national constitution, and prior to the 1959 elections. [Source: Zainon Ahmad, The Sun, July 26, 2007 ***]

“The various rights – Malay special rights, citizenship rights, language, culture and education – were publicly debated when the People’s Action Party (PAP) participated in Malaysian politics after Singapore joined Malaysia in 1963. Because the Alliance participated in the Singapore elections in 1963, the PAP participated in the federal elections in 1964 and told the Chinese not to vote for MCA for betraying them to the Malays. Preparations were made to defeat the PAP in the Singapore elections scheduled for 1967. Malaysian radio and televisions accused the PAP of undermining racial harmony, while Singapore radio and television called for a “Malaysian Malaysia”, meritocracy and the removal of quotas. ***

“Following the 1965 ouster of Singapore from Malaysia, much of the discussion on these issues were somewhat muffled. But all stops were pulled during the five week campaign period before polling day on May 10, 1969. Meanwhile, the DAP and the newly formed Gerakan grew into formidable rivals. Where the Alliance thought the general election was a walkover, it suddenly had to contend with these two parties which attracted Chinese and Indian voters in droves. ***

“During the long campaign period, the DAP spoke quite unreservedly about a Malaysian Malaysia. It targeted the MCA for letting down the Chinese with the passing of the National Language Act 1967 and for accepting the use of Malay as the sole medium of instruction in school. Gerakan felt strongly that the special Malay rights and the language policy in schools were inequitable to other races. ***

“The MCA and MIC had to defend the Alliance stand, while Umno had to fend off PAS’s allegations that it was “selling out the Malays to the immigrant races”. The Labour Party, allegedly communist infiltrated, did not participate in the elections but were busy organising demonstrations against the government. Just a fortnight before polling day, an Umno member was murdered, allegedly by a Labour Party member. Tensions ran high but was quickly contained.

Did the Ruling UMNO Orchestrate the May 13, 1969 Riots?

Philip Bowring wrote in in the Asia Sentinel: “A book by a Malaysian Chinese academic is on the point of being officially banned for suggesting that May 13 was the occasion for what amounted to a coup against the independence leader and Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman by his United Malays National Organisation colleagues who were pushing pro-Malay policies. Officials of Malaysia’s Internal Security Ministry confiscated 10 copies of the book from a Kuala Lumpur bookstore, advising the store not to sell it as it may be banned. According to a letter issued by ministry officials, the book is suspected of being an “undesirable publication.” [Source: Philip Bowring, the Asia Sentinel, May 16, 2007 /~/]

“Declassified Documents on the Malaysian riots of 1969” by Dr. Kua Kia Soong, the principal of New Era College, is based not directly on Malaysian sources but on now-open British documents held at the Public Records Office in Kew Gardens, near London. These consist of contemporary British diplomatic and intelligence reports which suggest that the riots were not spontaneous acts of communal violence, as is constantly alleged by UMNO, but were fanned by Malay elements, with support from the army and police, wanting to discredit the accommodating prime minister and impose a much more rigorous Malay agenda. One British document concluded that the goal was to “formalize Malay dominance, sideline the Chinese and shelve Tunku. /~/

“Kua’s thesis suggests that there was a grander political design behind the episode, which from the beginning was intended to create a new political agenda and new leadership. He attributes this to a younger Malay group dissatisfied with the aristocratic, pro-British the Tunku. However, while the consequences of May 13 may be clear, there are disagreements about Kua’s thesis even among those who attribute the riots to Malay politicians. For example, Dr Syed Husin Ali also a respected academic and deputy head of the opposition Keadilan Party, has suggested that while some UMNO figures used the events as an opportunity to sideline the Tunku and set out a pro-Malay agenda, it was not planned as such. In other words, Razak and others took advantage of the situation which arose after the election and the appearance of Malay mobs to grab the reins of power from the Tunku, with whom they were dissatisfied, but that it was not premeditated. Syed also takes issue with Kua’s view that they represented an aspirant Malay capitalist class when most had traditional and feudal links.” /~/

New Economic Policy: Malaysia’s Affirmative Action Plan

The New Economic Policy (NEP) is an affirmative action plan implemented in the 1970s in response to the ethic riots of 1969 to counter the economic dominance of the country's ethnic Chinese minority and improve economic position of naive Malays. The policy has helped indigenous Bumiputras (native Malays, literally "sons of the soil") improve their positions by giving them preferential treatment in education, business and government, and setting quotas that limited the number of Chinese and Indians in universities and public jobs. Malays were given preferences in housing, bank loans, business contracts and government licenses.

The policy is backed by a special clause in the Constitution guaranteeing preferential treatment for Malays. It imposes a 30-percent bumiputra equity quota for publicly listed companies and gives bumiputras discounts on such things as houses and cars. Money is provided by banks and investment firms to Malays and indigenous people to start businesses. Businesses are required to have a bumiputra partner, who would hold at least a 30 percent equity stake.

The policy was adopted when Abdul Razak, the father of current Prime Minister Najib, was Prime Minister. Shamim Adam of Bloomberg wrote: “ The 1969 riots started in part because the Malays felt the Chinese controlled the economy. To raise the share of national wealth held by Malays and indigenous groups to at least 30 percent, Najib's father crafted a policy that gave them cheaper housing as well as priority for college enrollment, government contracts, and shares of publicly traded companies. For the most part, the pro-Malay policy has kept the peace. "Malaysia has done very well, and affirmative action was a strong contributor to the stability that allowed for such development," says Masahide Hoshi, a director at Phalanx Capital Management HK in Hong Kong. "However, these same policies could impede Malaysia in the long term.[Source: Shamim Adam, Bloomberg, September 09, 2010]

The policy worked quite well for the Malays. Over they years Malays have taken over many business run in the past by Chinese and Malays prospered without destroying Chinese business. By the 1990s, Malays controlled the nation's major businesses and achieved more prosperity while it seemed relatively few Chinese and Indians resented the quotas. One minister of Chinese descent told National Geographic, "I've been quite critical of some specific cases when Chinese people got blatantly unfair treatment. But the situation we had at the end of the sixties, where the distribution of wealth was so skewed—it couldn't last. It made for an inherently unstable society. Because of NEP, there is less racial resentment now, and more a feeling of Us—you know, Us Malaysians."

The Malay privileges stem from a "national social contract," drawn up by various races at the time of independence in 1957, which put the majority community on a higher footing in exchange for sharing political power with minorities and giving them citizenship. According to Associated Press: “Today the policy is considered by most Malays as their birthright. No notable politician of any race has ever suggested scrapping it for fear of alienating Malays. [Source: Associated Press, August 6, 2005]

Criticism of the New Economic Policy

Many people feel the New Economic Policy has outlived its usefulness. The Malays have made great advances and are no longer a marginalized people like they were when the policy was adopted in 1970. According to Associated Press : “The policy is widely acknowledged to be only a moderate success, benefiting largely a few Malay elite and taking away from others the incentive to excel. Although Malays form 60 percent of the country's 26 million population, they control only 19 percent of the corporate equity and most of the country's wealth is in the hands of the Chinese. Indians are about 7 percent and are at the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

Thomas Fuller wrote in York Times: “The government's apparently indefinite extension of an affirmative action program for the Malays, a policy that has been in place since 1971, has stirred impatience among the country's Chinese and Indians. Terence Gomez, a Malaysian academic who has written widely about Malaysian politics and the ethnic Chinese, and who is now a research coordinator at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva, says the notion that one race should have supremacy is an anachronism in a country where ethnic identities are becoming less important in everyday life. "The idea of being Malay or being Chinese or Indian is not something that is part of their daily thinking or discourse," Gomez said. The political elite, he said, "seems to be caught in a time warp."[Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, December 13, 2006 \\\]

“The government says the affirmative action program is still needed to narrow the overall income gap between the Chinese and Malays, the original justification for the policy. But determining which race has the highest ownership levels in the country is also now a point of contention, involving disputes over how assets should be calculated.” \\\

John Burton wrote in the Financial Times, “There has been a debate whether the policy should remain in place since it is seen as obstacle to Malaysia's international competitiveness. A study by a local think tank suggested that Malays had exceeded the government's goal of owning 30 percent of domestic businesses, which called into question the continuation of the affirmative action policy. The government this week revealed its own statistics on Malay corporate ownership, saying the Malays owned 37 percent of listed companies but only 24 percent of all registered companies. [Source: By John Burton, Financial Times, November 9, 2006]

“Economists warn that the NEP represents a barrier to improving Malaysia’s economic efficiency when the country is facing increased competition for foreign investment from regional rivals such as Vietnam. Mr Abdullah has sought to ease some affirmative action provisions in response to those concerns. But when he announced last year that the government would waive such rules for a new economic zone near Singapore, he was criticised by hardliners in his own United Malays National Organisation, Malaysia’s dominant party.” [Source: John Burton, Financial Times, January 9, 2008]

Boat People from Vietnam

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, more than a million people left Vietnam, about 5 percent of South Vietnam’s population, most of them by boat. Many sailed long distances in overcrowded small boats, at risk of shipwreck and pirate attacks. Many were Chinese Vietnamese. Some didn’t make it to their final destinations. Some died. Most settled in the United States, which accepted political refugees but turned back economic refugees. Many of those who didn't make it were detained at camps in Hong Kong or the Philippines.

More than 3 million people fled Communist-controlled Vietnam and neighboring Laos and Cambodia after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. More than a million Southerners, including about 560,000 "boat people," fled the country soon after the communist takeover, fearing persecution and seizure of their land and businesses. The plight of the so-called "boat people" turned into a humanitarian crisis as they came under sometimes deadly assault. More than 125,000 refugees from Vietnam were resettled in the U.S. between 1975 and 1980, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

For this privilege of leaving Vietnam Chinese had to pay the Vietnamese government about US$2,000 a head in gold. At the time these fees were Vietnam's main source of hard currency. At that time the Chinese owned many businesses in Vietnam and there was a lot of hostility towards Chinese in Vietnam. China and Vietnam have long history of animosity. Many Chinese were thrown out of Vietnam at the time China and Vietnam fought a border war in 1979. In the early 1970s there were about a half million ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. In the early 1980s there were practically none. Vietnam made US$2 billion from the forced migration. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, November 1979]

During the Boat People saga many Vietnamese refugees in camps in the Philippines and Hong Kong were denied political asylum in the U.S. and other counties and were were forced to return to Vietnam. Some refugees were dragged kicking and screaming on to planes which carried them back to their homeland. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, November 1979]

As of 1979, 65,200 boat people went to Hong Kong, 9,500 to Thailand, 49,500 to Malaysia 49,600 to Indonesia, 5,900 to Philippines. Some countries turned away the boats and made them go back to sea. Overland, 233,000 went to mainland China. At that time 233,300 were resettled in the United States, 53,700 in France; 23, 500 in Australia and 16,400 in Canada. Germany repatriated 40,000 mostly North Vietnamese in East Germany

Suffering of the Boat People

Many of refugees crowded onto unseaworthy boats. Large ships with over 2,500 passengers were organized by Vietnamese racketeers. Smaller ships were purchased by people who pooled their money. Life savings were paid for a place on a boat. Families split up. Fat people were sometimes denied a spot because they took up as much room as two smaller people that paid as much.

People died of thirst, hunger, exposure. Some people who got very sick were pushed over the edge. Some boats had engines that conked out at sea. Some of the boats lost more than half their passengers to exposure, drowning, starvation and attacks from pirates.

About 90 percent of the boats didn't make it. Those who made it to Hong Kong, Thailand or Malaysia were often turned back, driven from shore or towed back to sea. In Hong Kong authorities tried to prevent the ships from landing. One ship was moored in Hong Kong harbor for 20 weeks until someone cut the anchor. When the boat drifted into shore hundreds of people jumped overboard and fled to the hills where they were later rounded up and placed in a camp.

Many Vietnamese refugees who made it out of Vietnam are still suffering from problems related to traumatic experiences. A large number of families were separated, fortunes were lost, and many who fled on small fishing boats perished at sea. Some people already had a pre-war trauma in Vietnam, and had to acculturate in a new country, learn a new language, find jobs, and raise their children in a new place. Now, 30 years after the war, there are still people having related health problems. Most of them experienced trauma and torture in the past but were wary of seeking help for mental health issues because it is seen as taboo and is rarely spoken about. For older Vietnamese people, seeking help is more of a last resort. They do not do it until they feel so helpless that they do not know where else to go. [Source: Vietnamese Cultural Profile, Diversicare, March 2009]

Many Vietnamese from the second wave of immigration had severe health problems on arrival to this country as a result of poor living conditions during the war and in camps, injuries, starvation, abuse, and little access to health care. Health problems experienced in this population include TB, hepatitis B, malaria, malnutrition, conjunctivitis, trichinosis, anemia, leprosy and intestinal parasites. Once arriving in the U.S., poverty and crowded living conditions posed health risks, along with under-utilization of health care. [Source: Pamela LaBorde, MD, Ethnomed ethnomed.org/culture/vietnamese <+> ]

Boat People and Pirates

Many Vietnamese boat people sought asylum in neighboring countries. Instead, they were turned away from shore and often robbed by pirates. The photographer Eddie Adams boarded one of the boats being towed away from Thailand. The 10-meter craft was packed with 50 adults and children. The pictures he took were widely published and then presented to Congress by the State Department. According to Mr. Adams, his images helped the government decide to admit as many as 200,000 South Vietnamese to the United States. [Source: Andy Grundberg, New York Times, September 20, 2004]

Piracy surged during the boat people exodus for Vietnam in the 1970s. Boat people were robbed, raped and even murdered by pirates. They were easy targets. The women on these boats were often raped, and men were robbed of everything they had. There were reports of being people being killed so gold teeth could be ripped out their mouth.

Many of the pirates were Thai fisherman who took up piracy because it was easier and more profitable to prey on fleeing Vietnamese than fishing. Vietnamese boat people that escaped from pirates often attributed their good fortunes to large fish or whales that they believe saved them. Whales are considered sacred to the Vietnamese.

Most of the time the victims of piracy were dropped on shore. Sometimes however the boats were cast adrift, drifting into land by chance was the only hope of survival that the passengers had. Sometimes all the passengers were shot or stabbed out right. Survivors that somehow made it to shore had horrible stories to tell.

A Vietnamese painter who painted my house told me about how pirates stripped all men naked on a boat he was on. They were shown a Playboy magazine foldout. If a man got an erection he was shot. There is no way to tell if this story is true. Most pirates carried fishing nets so that if were tracked down by police it was difficult to distinguish them from fisherman.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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