Reporter, BBC Radio 4: Crossing Continents
From weary red-eyed Indian labourers on plantations to urban middle-class Malay Muslim women, a new generation of Malaysians is pushing to end a system of racial inequality. But can their different visions for the future be brought together?
Many Malaysians are opposed to their country’s system of racial preferences
Malaysia is gearing up for political shifts in 2009. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has announced he will step down and a successor is being found from within the ruling Malay party.
It comes after protests by ethnic minority groups precipitated an electoral drama in 2008. The opposition won votes by promising racial equality.
What will the future Malaysia look like?
I’ve been on a journey to meet young Malaysians from across the racial spectrum: Indians and Chinese from the ethnic minorities and the majority Malay Muslims who have special rights because of their “son-of-the-soil” legal status.
Tall, intense 20-year old Vasantarao Apalasamy was part of an explosion of anger from Malaysia’s smallest racial group, the Indians, which first shook the country in 2007.
He showed me around palm oil plantations in his home state, Perak, where Indian workers hack at prickly palm oil fruits with machetes.
Fewer than one in 10 Malaysians are ethnic Indians, mostly Hindus. They came to work on plantations during British colonial times and Vasantarao is furious that many Indians have failed to climb the social ladder and still work in the same kinds of job as their ancestors.
He blames the fact that despite being in Malaysia for generations, Indians don’t qualify as “sons of the soil”, or bhumiputras, and therefore do not have special access to benefits like government jobs and discounts on housing, as the Malays do.
We are not against the Muslims, we want to tell them that we are Malaysian too
So he marched with the Hindu Rights Action Force, Hindraf, an angry but peaceful protest movement against the demolition of Hindu temples.
“Malaysian Indians are not very educated, they are illiterate,” says Vasantarao. He argues that temples were simply used to fire up sentiment for a wider Indian rights struggle
They’ve been called religious extremists but Vasantarao points out that temples are just one of several demands.
Hindraf’s former leaders are now jailed or exiled to the UK. Even young Vasantarao served a short stint behind bars when he was arrested after a protest.
“We are not against the Muslims,” he says of the Malays. “We want to tell them that we are Malaysian too.”
He admires US President-elect Barrack Obama. “The world is changing,” he says. “So why not Malaysia?”
I met 22 year old undergraduate Luqman Ul-Hakim Bin Muhhammad Idris under a metal Arabic letter M, known as “meem”, which keeps watch on the extensive campus of the Universiti Teknologi Mara.
Meem stands for Malays – because while other parts of the education system have ethnic quotas, only bhumiputras are allowed to study here.
Luqman is the elected head of the student body. Last year he led a street protest after a state official remarked that perhaps one in 10 university places should be opened to minorities.
Education is a live issue, not only for Indians but also for the entrepreneurial Chinese. They make up a quarter of the population and hold much of the nation’s wealth, which allows many to study privately.
This is our land basically. We have already given one special privilege to the non-Malays, that is citizenship
But in Malaysia’s growing blogosphere, there’s an increasingly vocal sense of exclusion, mixed with frustration at severe security laws that allow detention without trial.
Luqman, a proud Malay, has no sympathy for this new activism. He points out that even after decades of affirmative action policies the ethnic Malays remain relatively impoverished.
But it isn’t just about wealth. “This is our land basically. And we have already given one special privilege to the non-Malays, that is citizenship,” he says.
Regarding the blogosphere he has a question for Malaysia’s new Prime Minister: “When you’re talking about opening the freedom of speech, how far do you want to go?”
Sue Nasar, aged 26, is also Malay but has a very different view on racial equality.
We watch as a cow that her family donated is slaughtered and bled in the traditional Halal way by villagers on the misty, green hillsides of Jandabaik near Kuala Lumpur. They are celebrating the Muslim festival of Eid Ul-Adha.
Sue lives with her husband in nearby Kuala Lumpur but her family own a weekend retreat in this Malay-reserved village. It is a place where the rural Malay heartland comes together with the new ideas of the big-city set.
Religion is important to her. “In the Koran if I’m not mistaken, the only difference from one man to another is his virtue,” she says. “You can’t actually judge people based on their race.”
“I don’t think Islam makes that distinction.”
Sue is motivated by a longstanding Islamic religious revival among Malay Muslims. The Islamic Party, PAS, won votes for the opposition by mixing the call for Islamic government with the idea that racial discrimination is incompatible with religious faith.
If all of the Muslims would actually practice Islam like the Prophet did, then I don’t think the Chinese and Indians would have a problem with the Islamic system
This shift in religious values represents a seismic change. After all, the Malay heartland would have to be persuaded before any shift on racial policies.
But “Islamisation” is already a worry for the mostly non-Muslim ethnic minorities. I ask Sue if there’s a danger that Islam, rather than race, could become the new divider in her vision of a future Malaysia?
“I can see that happening,” she admits. But “if all of the Muslims would actually practice Islam like the Prophet did, then I don’t think the Chinese and Indians would have a problem with the Islamic system.”
Anwar Ibrahim has nominated himself for the tricky mission of delivering racial equality without alienating the Muslim Malay community.
The 61-year-old has had several political lives already: Muslim student leader, then number two in the pro-Malay government, then jailed on a sodomy charge which he insists was fabricated.
That charge still dogs his new career as leader of the political opposition.
My promise is to all Malaysians: to dismantle discriminatory practices
While the ruling party has now opened up some Malay-only quotas, Anwar has pledged to go much further.
“My promise is to all Malaysians,” he says. “To dismantle discriminatory practices, including obsolete economic policies.”
Instead, he says, “affirmative action based on need” would mostly end up benefiting Malays anyway.
But Anwar is a former Islamic youth activist and told me religious conservatives should be given space, as long as they don’t violate the constitution.
He denies he has one face for the West, and another for the Malay heartland. Instead he is taking on the task of somehow combining liberal equality with Islamic revival.
“You talk to a liberal, Western-educated crowd, you can cite Eliot or Shakespeare, or whatever. But if you go to a remote village who have not heard of Shakespeare, why can’t you recite the Koran? The essential element, the message about justice remains the same.”