IN his pomp As the irascible Prime Minister of Malaysia (1981-2003 and 2018-20), Mahathir Mohamad will speak for the entire continent. “Asian values are universal values. European values are European values,” he declared in 1996. These days, Dr Mahathir, a grumpy 97-year-old troublemaker who tends to represent only one ethnic group in his country, the majority Malays, tweeted on March 9, “From multiracial There is nothing to be gained in doctrine”. In his view, this is part of a long-winded attack on Malaysian Chinese and Indian minorities for their failure to adapt to Malay culture.
This is not the first time Dr Mahathir has broken a taboo. In Malaysia and many other Asian countries, it is considered divisive and dangerous to discuss race openly; it is often illegal. However, this did not eliminate the political issues that race represented in Asian societies, many of which became multiracial as a result of colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries and witnessed persistent racial tensions. Asia needs to talk about race – even if Dr Mahathir shows exactly how not to. Security has been heightened ahead of the “Malay Manifesto” conference in Kuala Lumpur on March 19, at which he will speak. The event moved online after the hosts of the two proposed venues withdrew their bids.
Sensitivity is understandable. The race riots of the 1960s cast a shadow over the politics of Malaysia and Singapore, which left the Federation of Malaysia and became independent in 1965. In Malaysia, in response to the imbalance in which much of the country’s wealth is in Chinese hands, the Malays enjoy the kind of affirmative action policies and privileges that are often given to disadvantaged minorities. Chinese-majority Singapore restricts inflammatory speech to prevent racial disputes and implements social engineering, such as racial quotas in public housing, to enhance integration.
It should also be emphasized that Malaysia and Singapore look relatively harmonious in a region scarred by racially motivated terror. In some Asian countries, ethnic minorities have been deported: Chinese from Vietnam; Vietnamese from Cambodia; Nepalese from Bhutan; Indians from Fiji; Rohingya from Myanmar; The Chinese minority in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, suffered horrific violence in 1998; hundreds were killed. Sri Lanka has endured a bitter 26-year civil war that ended in 2009, fueled by discrimination against Tamils and the minority’s fight for their homeland.
So race is a delicate topic almost everywhere. However, as Dr Mahathir attests, there is hardly any public discussion of it in Asia, making the issue vulnerable to demagogues. His contention was that the Indians and Chinese in Malaysia retained their own language and culture and should follow Malay norms. He did not insist on converting them to Islam. He reminded readers, however, that he was of Indian descent but was considered a Malay; he met the Malaysian constitutional definition of a Malay as speaking the Malay language, obeying Malay customary law and being a Muslim. He implied that only Malays could become full citizens, and that the loyalty of the Chinese and Indian minorities was somewhat questionable.
The attitudes of the two continental giants to their diaspora have sometimes fueled similar racial accusations and suspicions. India grants “Indian Overseas Citizenship” and ease of entry (but not full citizenship) to those whose parents, grandparents or great-grandparents (and their spouses) were born in India. Since 1954, overseas Chinese are no longer automatically granted citizenship. But public opinion and official statements have sometimes indicated that the Chinese government believes it has a special responsibility toward overseas Chinese. In 2015, after ugly anti-China demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur, the Chinese ambassador traveled to the affected area to warn that China would “not stand idly by” if things got worse.
Such misguided interventions fuel the skepticism of those like Dr Mahathir who refuse to accept that Malaysia is a multicultural, multiracial society and that it is better for it. Like the Hindutva ideology espoused by Narendra Modi’s government in India, this serves political ends, winning over the majority by viewing minorities as threats. This is far more dangerous than the frank dialogue on race that most Asian governments fear. It also flouts the Asian values that Dr Mahathir espouses so strongly in the 20th century. They include valuing consensus building over confrontation, and harmony over hatred.■
Read more from our Asia columnist Banyan:
Russian Weapons Fewer Recipients in Southeast Asia (March 23)
Micronesia vs. China (March 16)
Fissures in Singapore’s first family grow sharper (March 9)
Plus: How the Banyan column got its name