Minority rights mar freedom jubilee

Vijay Joshi

Vijay Joshi

Malaysia marked 50 years of independence on Friday with dances and parades.

However, the colourful show of ethnic unity belied worsening race relations and growing fears about eroding minority rights.

Smartly dressed Malays, Chinese and Indians danced in a parade at the Merdeka Square, or Freedom Square, where Malaysia's first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman announced independence from Britain on August 31 1957.

In a midnight speech to about 100000 Malaysians, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said that the struggle to fulfil the objectives of independence was still to be won, despite remarkable economic progress and prosperity for nearly all citizens.

"The struggle is for all Malaysians. We will hold true to the concept of justice and fairness for all citizens," Abdullah said.

But racial unity appears to be unravelling, say many observers.

They cite an affirmative-action programme and the growing influence of Islam that ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities say is undermining the constitutional rights and freedom to practice their faiths.

Malay Muslims make up about 60percent of the country's 26million people. Chinese 25percent, Indians 10percent and the rest of the population belong to other minorities.

At independence, Malays were the poorest ethnic group. But an affirmative- action programme started in 1971 gave Malays privileges and preferences in jobs, education, businesses, housing, bank loans and government contracts. - Sapa-AP