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As China’s influence grows, Malaysia’s wounds over 1969 race riots heal slowly

As China’s influence grows, Malaysia’s wounds over 1969 race riots heal slowly
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“Everyone [is] just going about their business, but beneath the everyday hum of activity is a problem that we still have not dealt with,” said amateur historian and researcher Ashaari Azman Shah.

For Ashaari, May 13 is deeply personal: it started at the house of his grandfather Harun Idris, a former chief minister of Selangor state, where Kuala Lumpur is located. His grandfather’s name has been tied to the incident ever since.

Congregating at Harun’s house following a disputed election result, a crowd clashed with supporters of Chinese parties during a victory parade in a Malay-majority village, sparking a wave of violence that ripped across the nation.

Now, framed by a gleaming modern city skyline dominated by the Petronas Twin Towers, Kampung Baru stands as a symbolic reminder of the risks that could unravel Malaysia’s multicultural society.

Residents return to their destroyed homes in Kuala Lumpur after riots between the Malays and ethnic Chinese in 1969. Photo: Bettmann Archive

Resentments that led to the riots in 1969 arose from the perception among some Malays of the Chinese community’s overwhelming economic dominance. The huge wealth disparity between the country’s two largest communities has not changed more than 50 years later.

This is despite Malays accounting for 60 per cent of the country’s 33 million people and having control over politics, bolstered by a constitution that guarantees their special rights over other racial groups.

The New Economic Policy introduced in 1971 to restructure Malaysia’s socio-economic landscape has failed to achieve its goals, with 42 of the top 50 richest Malaysians being ethnic Chinese, according to a Forbes report last year.

Crafted as a short-term measure, the New Economic Policy has become entrenched and is still in place today, making any debate for its removal a non-starter.

Malay special rights – as enshrined in Article 153 of the country’s constitution – continue to leave a sour taste for the Chinese, Indian and other ethnic communities in the ostensibly multiracial nation, made worse by a tilt towards Malay nationalism by the ruling political parties in recent years.

May 13 is still invoked by supporters of Malay conservative factions. In 2022, several provocative videos warned of a repeat of the violence, as Malays apparently risked losing their political dominance to ethnic Chinese.

Present-day politicians have “learned nothing” from their predecessors, Ashaari told This Week In Asia, and there has not been any “conscious and concerted attempt to reconcile” both communities.

“The result is that old animosities are always within reach [with] the tension rising and falling depending on the political debate. These factors remain a problem until today.”

A view of Kampung Baru Sungai Buloh, Selangor, Malaysia. Photo: Shutterstock

Together, apart

Just five years after the riots, then Malaysian Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein flew to China and shook hands with its leader Mao Zedong, as Malaysia became one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to formalise relations with Beijing.

The bilateral relationship has endured since the historic meeting, bolstered by China’s economic rise. Beyond trade, ethnic Chinese from both countries have also forged cultural links.

“China is now the No 1 trading country with Malaysia,” Malaysian political analyst James Chin said. “A lot of our economic prosperity is tied to China, and the Malay establishment understands this.”

As the Covid pandemic started ravaging the world in 2020, the Malay proverb “Bukit sama didaki, lurah sama dituruni” (Together up the hill, together down the ravine) was printed on boxes of face masks donated by the Chinese embassy in Malaysia.

A favourite saying of then-ambassador Bai Tian, he uttered the proverb in Malay in a speech in 2020 commemorating the 46th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations in 1974.

“[Through] ups and downs, China-Malaysia relations have remained strong and stable,” Bai said.

While present-day Malaysia and China came into existence after the chaos of World War II, the rise of national movements and the slow decolonisation of the Malay Peninsula, relations between people from both sides date back to the 14th century.

A poster for “Tanda Putera” at a cinema in Putrajaya in 2013. The film has triggered debates about Malaysia’s May 13 riots. Photo: Reuters

Malay kingdoms historically relied on Chinese dynasties for protection against rivals, particularly the expanding kingdoms of Siam, now modern-day Thailand. During the Ming dynasty, diplomacy and trade increased when famed Chinese Admiral Zheng He visited the Malacca Strait.

But those bonds were broken after China became a communist nation in 1949 and backed the Malayan Communist Party, which tried to overthrow the traditional Malay rulers and establish a communist republic.

That offended many Malays, who were tightly tethered to the idea of the land as theirs and considered ethnic Chinese residents – along with Indians and other races – as “guests”.

Unease towards China still lingers among some sections of the Malay population today, with rumours of “fifth columns” in the community whose loyalty lay with Beijing instead of Malaysia.

Tensions often emerge over Chinese cultural identity, fanned by resurgent Malay nationalist parties.

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In February, a government proposal to seek Unesco World Heritage site status for World War II-era Chinese villages around the country was decried by the Malay-dominated opposition Perikatan Nasional coalition as favouritism of ethnic Chinese history.

Observers say admiration for China’s economic progress among the local Chinese population can be seen in their preference for Chinese-made products, including the Sinovac vaccine.

But despite this sentiment, Chin said Malaysian Chinese continue to see themselves as Malaysians and China as the place where their ancestors came from.

“Their cultural affinity is to Malaysia, not their ancestral home,” he said. Though that does not shield Malaysian Chinese from racial slurs.

Malaysian telecoms executive Mandy Lee said she has had her fair share of derogatory comments telling her to “go back to China”.

Malaysia is my home

Mandy Lee, Malaysian Chinese telecoms executive

“It is something that almost all Malaysian Chinese would have experienced, which is sad,” Lee said. “Malaysia is my home. Aside from my ancestry, I have no ties at all to China.”

Experts say Malay politicians continue to cynically fan anti-Chinese sentiment, fuelling fears of ‘selling out’ to China and suspicion towards ethnic Chinese Malaysians.

In April, former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin accused current leader Anwar Ibrahim of “pawning the dignity and sovereignty of the country to a foreign power” after Anwar said Malaysia was prepared to negotiate with China over oil exploration in the disputed South China Sea.

Social media has become the main platform for some Malaysians to air their grievances against mainland Chinese, with widely circulated misinformation about over 1 million Chinese visitors supposedly living illegally in the country having to be debunked by Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution in March.

Several politicians have also flagged concerns about Malaysia’s increasing economic dependence on China, which is currently the Southeast Asian nation’s largest trading partner, accounting for 17 per cent of overall trade.

“We need to slowly diversify our dependency on key markets so that we can cushion any shock to the big trading partners that we have because of geopolitics,” said Investment, Trade, and Industry Minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz in April.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang meets Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

Chinese nationals also dominate the Malaysia My Second Home residency scheme, with 24,765 of over 56,000 pass holders coming from the mainland.

Over the past five years, Malaysia has been among the top three Southeast Asian destinations for property investment from China, according to data from property technology group Juwai IQI.

New Chinese residents in Kuala Lumpur are reshaping the city’s food scene, introducing dishes such as spicy hotpot and lamian, a popular type of Chinese noodles.

Chinese-language schools have also become the top choice for parents, regardless of racial background, due to their emphasis on technical subjects in contrast with many national schools whose curriculums have skewed towards more Islamic courses in recent years.

Over time, economics will dilute lingering hostilities and suspicion, according to sociologist Awang Azman Awang Pawi.

“May 13 remains a reminder to us of the importance of unity,” he said.

“The new generation of Malaysians have since moved forward and are looking to closer relations with China in a globalised world.”

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