By Sean Yoong
The Associated Press
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — The last time Hung Poh Lee walked unassisted was 40 years ago, before a bullet fired in the heat of Malaysia’s worst race riots and sliced through her spine and shattered her future.
Neither the 57-year-old Lee nor her country has ever completely recovered.
To be sure, Malaysia, a Southeast Asian nation of 27 million people, has been remarkably stable since the weeklong mayhem that began on May 13, 1969. But as the country marks the 40th anniversary of the riots, its uneasy racial detente is coming under stress.
Ethnic Chinese and Indians, the two largest minorities, have become more vocal in demanding racial equality in part because of growing economic hardships. Mindful of the mounting disenchantment, a new prime minister is proposing a partial rollback of a main legacy of the riots, an affirmative action program for the majority Malays.
If change goes smoothly, it may be for the better. As Malaysians have grown wealthier and better educated, they have demanded a more open discussion of race, and the government has acquiesced to a degree. But the shift is also stirring old passions — the Malays and Chinese in particular don’t fully trust each other, and therein lies a risk.
“All of us want peaceful lives. Nobody wants to fight each other. But you read the newspaper and keep seeing problems with racial issues,” said Lee, who locks herself at home every May 13 for fear of breaking down in public if the memories overwhelm her.
The bloodshed of 1969, which took at least 200 lives, erupted when Malaysia was still emerging from the legacy of colonial rule, only a dozen years after attaining independence from Britain.
Racial divisions ran deep. The Malays held political power but were largely poor. The Chinese, many of whose ancestors immigrated in the 18th century, had prospered through trade and tin mining. Indians, mostly laborers, had little say in politics or business.
The riots were sparked by politics. Chinese opposition supporters, whose parties made sweeping election gains, held a victory march in Kuala Lumpur and jeered at residents in Malay neighborhoods. The Malays staged their own rally, and in ensuing clashes, mobs armed with pistols and knives roamed the streets, killed people of other races, and torched their homes.
The carnage changed Malaysia’s course.
Seeking to curb economic disparities, the government launched an affirmative action program in 1971 that enabled Malays to get into universities more easily, buy homes at reduced prices, and enter business through rules requiring many companies to be partly Malay-owned. The main government-funded schools teach in the Malay language, while schools that use Chinese and Tamil get less aid.
Many Malays prospered. Their share of corporate wealth surged from 2.4 percent in 1970 to about 20 percent today, and they make up nearly two-thirds of the population.
The minorities say it is time to wind up the program. Chinese make up a quarter of the population and own about 40 percent of corporate equity. Indians make up about 8 percent of the population and have a stake of less than 2 percent, while the remainder is mostly foreign ownership.
“There has been a maturing of Malaysian democracy in trying to resolve disputes,” said Denison Jayasooria, a researcher at the Institute of Ethnic Studies at the National University of Malaysia. “What people want is more public openness and intellectual discussion on race.”
The wider freedoms led to clearer expressions of dissent, such as a street protest in Kuala Lumpur two years ago where tens of thousands of Indians demanded economic fairness. Police quelled the protest with tear gas, and five organizers were jailed under a security act that allows indefinite detention without trial. Two were freed recently.
Lee, the Chinese woman shot in the riots and paralyzed from the waist down, believes that if she can shed the bitterness that once consumed her, others can too.
“I used to hate [the Malays] because of what happened to me,” she said in a wheelchair behind the counter of a tiny grocery store that she opened several years ago.
“Time hasn’t made me well again. I never got the chance to get married. I’m lonely and I live by myself. So of course I’m sad but I’m not angry with anybody anymore.” ♦