Malaysian Chinese pose major poll test for PM

Mon Feb 11, 2008
By Jalil Hamid

PENANG, Malaysia (Reuters) – Under Malaysia’s “social contract” hammered out by the nation’s founding fathers, the majority Malays will have an unchallenged hold over politics in return for non-interference in Chinese domination of the economy.
Today, ethnic Chinese are starting to wonder whether they have been shortchanged and are likely to put the long-standing deal to test in general elections expected next month amid growing fissures over race and religion.
Chinese businessmen in Penang, Malaysia’s only state where Chinese form a majority, complain that government-linked companies (GLCs), almost all run by Malays, shut their doors to non-Malay businesses.
“We cannot do business with GLCs because they favour those with Malay partners,” said Khor Teng Tong, president of the 103-year-old Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
He said Penang Chinese businessmen, worried about rising costs and a slowing economy, could snub Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s ruling coalition in the polls.
“In the past, support for the government was around 55-60 percent. This time, 45 percent is already considered good,” he said. “So the government must work harder.”
Malaysia is heading into one of its most racially charged election campaigns for many years, with ethnic Indians also complaining of unfair treatment at the hands of the government dominated by Malays.
Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak told Reuters last week racial tensions could contribute to a “slight dip” in support for the coalition, which is considered certain to return to power but with a reduced majority.
Malaysia’s worst race riots, in 1969, killed hundreds of people in the capital and led to the introduction of an affirmative action policy favouring Malays in education, jobs and business.
No one is predicting riots this time around, but an emboldened Chinese opposition could force the government to soften its pro-Malay stance, analysts said.
Many of the grouses are about the pro-Malay New Economic Policy (NEP), which critics say has benefited state firms and a few well-connected Malay businessmen.
The NEP has to a certain extent discouraged foreign investors. Even free-trade talks with the United States have stalled after Kuala Lumpur insisted that Malay firms continued to be given special access to government procurements.
Malays and other “native sons”, who make up around 60 percent of the population, provide the main political support for Abdullah’s United Malays National Organisation party (UMNO).
UMNO is the bulwark of the 14-party coalition, which has ruled the nation since Independence in 1957.
In fact, UMNO, which currently has 110 seats in the 219-seat Parliament, can form the government on its own. Chinese account for a quarter of the 26 million population and Indians 7 percent.
Ruling-party politicians expect the opposition to make greater inroads in Penang as well in other major cities.
“In my view and from my feedback, this will be an anti-Barisan wind,” said Chia Kwang Chye, Secretary-General of Parti Gerakan, which is part of the ruling coalition.
The main beneficiary will be the Chinese-based opposition party, the Democratic Action Party, which saw its heyday in 1986 and 1990 polls by riding on a wave of Chinese discontent then.
“Penang will lead in the protest vote,” Penang DAP chief Chow Kon Yeow said, adding that it hoped to win 7 out of 13 Penang parliamentary seats in the coming elections, up from four now.
“The only saving grace for Barisan is the opposition alliance is not able to get their act together,” said Toh Kin Woon, a veteran Gerakan lawmaker.
Rights groups say Malaysia’s elections have been marked by vote buying, the use of public funds by the ruling parties, gerrymandering and control over mainstream media. The Election Commission has also been accused of bias, which it denies.
But the government has lately been wooing back Chinese support by dishing out an array of pre-election goodies. These include grants to build Chinese schools, land titles for farmers and cutting government red tape.