UNDER the glare of national attention, many Umno politicians have used the party’s annual general assembly as a platform to hit out at Malaysian Chinese without giving a thought to the feelings of this group that has contributed significantly, along with other ethnic groups, to nation building. It was no different at the most recent party assembly last month.
Though this racially charged “Chinese bashing” at the latest annual political gathering of Umno’s leaders had been correctly predicted by many commentators, nonetheless many Chinese still feel hurt.
Their sentiment is justified. History has shown that ethnic Chinese, who currently account for 25% of multi-racial Malaysia’s 30 million population, have played an important role in achieving political stability and social and economic development along with the dominant Malays and bumiputeras, Indians and other groups in the country.
In the mid-1800s, the Chinese had put in hard work to open up the forests of Malaya and Sarawak. Then they entered agriculture, and developed tin mines and the rubber industry. In the 1950s, the descendants of these immigrants joined forces with Malays and Indians to fight against colonialism and help Malaya gain independence from British rule in 1957.
In the mid-1900s, local Chinese controlled many sectors of the economy until the Umno-led Malaysian government launched the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1970 to re-distribute wealth and at the same time eradicate poverty.
Though in absolute terms Chinese wealth has grown with the economy, percentage-wise Chinese holding of national wealth has dropped to about 20% compared with 40% before 1969, according to various political estimates. In the meantime, bumiputera wealth has grown, according to some estimates, to about 30% from under 1% in 1969.
For the sake of national unity and harmony, the Chinese have generally accepted the spirit of the NEP by sharing up to 30% of their equity interest in their companies when going for listing in the stock market, though there was initially strong resistance to this practice.
And while there are more tycoons within the Chinese community than other groups, many within the community still have to struggle to make ends meet.
Given their past and present contributions to the country, Chinese generally feel they do not deserve the barrage of attacks targeted at them every year.
But it happened again this year. Ahead of the Umno general assembly, Serdang Umno deputy chief Abdul Rahim Mohd Amin set the racial tone for the gathering by calling for the closure of all vernacular schools. This is despite the fact that 95% of Chinese children attend Chinese primary schools.
And equally disappointing was the policy speech by Umno Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin, whom many had previously considered a party moderate. But in his speech, Khairy said non-Malays were threatening the “special rights” of Malays. “If we do not rise, if we do not defend our race, religion and country, we will be ridiculed,” he said.
During the assembly, one of the most offensive accusations came from Penang Umno delegate Datuk Mohd Zaidi Mohd Said, who said on Nov 28 that the Penang Chinese were wealthy due to earnings gained from gambling, prostitution and entertainment outlets.
This statement drew instant rebuke from MCA vice-president Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun, who described the statement as “inflammatory, offensive to the Chinese community” and urged Umno to act against him.
A China Press journalist who covered the Umno proceedings wrote this summary: “Others, including the Chinese, were to be blamed for almost everything Umno has failed to achieve. Even Chinese success was a sore point for them … Like in previous years, it was all about race rage. But this year, the speakers were bolder in their speeches.”
Anger in silence
Though most Chinese chose to stay silent in the face of these onslaughts — with the exception of opposition politicians — they have expressed anger in private.
“The Chinese and the Chinese educated certainly do not deserve constant bashings from Umno. This is because along with other ethnic groups, Chinese have contributed a lot in nation building, particularly in the realm of commerce and economy,” says Mew Jin Seng, president of the Nanyang University Alumni Association of Malaya.
Mew points out that after independence, the Chinese educated were instrumental in leading the development of the small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
“As Chinese university degrees were not recognised and many graduates from Nanyang University and Taiwan universities were jobless in the 1960s and 1970s, they entered business and set up SMEs. With government help and incentives, SMEs have grown and now provide 90% of the country’s employment,” he said.
Indeed, the Chinese educated could also claim credit in helping Malaysia to establish bilateral ties with China in 1974 and boosting bilateral trade volume to last year’s US$120 billion from several hundred million in 1974, argues Mew in an interview. Many Chinese had started China trades even before 1974.
“Do you know that in those days, traders had to be interrogated by Special Branch before they went to Canton Fairs?... Despite these bad memories, leaders of the Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce have been promoting Malaysia as an investment destination and are helping fellow Malays and Indians to do business in China.”
Taiwanese investments in 1990s
Datuk Ng Peng Hay, a retired MCA leader, shares the sentiment and views of Mew. This former senator had played a crucial role in bringing in Taiwanese investors after Malaysia was badly hit by a recession in 1986 when gross domestic product (GDP) shrank 1%, and the Asian financial crisis in 1997-1998.
“Chinese certainly do not deserve these attacks. Our loyalty to the nation should not be doubted too. We have contributed to Malaysia in many ways and many forms. And even when the country faced crises, we came to the fore. But we have kept a low profile,” he said.
Ng says he brought in 60 Taiwanese companies with investments worth RM2 billion in the early 1990s. Among the leading companies was Ornasteel Enterprise Corp (M) Sdn. Bhd, which invested RM1 billion in 1992.
But it should be noted that the relaxation of investment rules in late 1986 by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the then prime minister, to allow 100% foreign equity, had provided the pull factor. And the rise of the Taiwanese dollar was the push factor for the Taiwanese.
However, luring Taiwanese was an uphill task as Ng had to “correct” the perception that Malaysia was “anti-Chinese”.
“I managed to bring in total investments of RM2 billion from Taiwan from 1987 to 1992. The impact was huge as this spurred the setting up of supportive industries and created a lot of jobs in Malacca,” Ng tells The Edge Financial Daily.
Partly buoyed by investments from Taiwan, Malaysia posted a high annual GDP growth of 9% to10% for most years in the 1990s until it was hit by the 1997/1998 Asian financial crisis.
“During the 1997/98 Asian crisis, I persuaded bigger Taiwanese industrialists to come here. They invested billions,” Ng says, taking pride in the accomplishment.
From then on, Taiwanese investments streamed into other states of Malaysia and now they are one of the largest foreign investors in Malaysia.
This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on December 8, 2014.