Nov 29, 2007
KL's season of discontent
POPULAR discontent among Malaysians is not unusual for the nation's weighted multiracial construct. But a troubling trend has emerged lately of citizen activism that hints at more than surface dissatisfaction. Two big street protests in Kuala Lumpur this month captured attention not for the thousands of participants they drew in defiance of police prohibitions, but for what a public show of anger in times of stress could portend. When the people are feeling the pinch from rising food and fuel prices, all manner of buried annoyances - unequal opportunities, political featherbedding, police corruption, crime, declining pubic university standards and poor job fit - come to the fore. The first rally two weeks ago featuring advocacy groups besides political parties pressed for electoral reform. The objective was uncharacteristic of a flourishing democracy, but this was still an eye-opener. Federal elections in Malaysia are relatively untainted by unsavoury practices. These have never needed the endorsement of international observers to be so regarded. Indeed, the government dismissed the rally as a contrived challenge to embarrass and pressure the Barisan Nasional (BN) governing coalition. But this ought to be subject to what party strategists will make of the strained national mood, with elections thought likely to be called soon. They would not want to be caught unawares. BN remains Malaysia's stabilising force.
The second protest last Sunday carried a much more serious political undertone of Indian grievances. The rally was in support of a Hindu activist group's court action against the British Crown for alleged exploitation and neglect of Indians in colonial-era Malaya. Nobody need pretend: The target audience was Putrajaya and Umno. This was a 21st- century political harangue. The government has treated the protest variously as an act of irrelevance and as racial incitement. It maintains that Indian interests are well represented within the coalition by the Malaysian Indian Congress. Regardless, the impulse to ignore troubling signs should be resisted.
Indians complain they have been left on the fringe in employment, education and business. They are disproportionately represented in violent crime and poor scholastic rates. This has partly been a result of the plantation sector being decimated when Malaysia industrialised. Indian families to whom rubber estates were a generational home were not helped adequately to navigate the transition to a post-agrarian economy. The harvest three decades on has been bitter. Away from the glare of public challenge, the coalition partners owe it to themselves and the nation to deal honestly with the issues, free of cant and preconceived notions.