By Kumar David –
Puzzling differences between Peninsular Malaya and Lanka – Malacca and Lanka: What a contrast!
A question often asked is why racial and religious relations in Malaysia, in contrast to Lanka, are relaxed and communities more tolerant of each other; comparatively of course. Recently while in Malacca, I was similarly interrogated by a nubile and durian addicted female. Malacca’s history does resemble Lanka’s, but now exhibits this distinction sharply. Having mulled it over I intend to share my thoughts; but first a short outline about Malacca. The Sultanate (now state) of Malacca was founded by the Hindu Raja Parameswara when he was driven out of Singapura in 1377 by the powerful Mapahit Empire of Java. Myth has it that sitting by the Melaka River (a largish stream) under a nelli tree (phyllanthus emblica) in 1400, pondering his misfortune, he witnessed an incident between his hunting dogs and a deer which persuaded him that this was the best place to set up shop. Islam, however, had arrived in the 12-th Century in the far north, in what is now the state of Kedah, when its Hindu ruler converted. Conversion was by persuasion, not the sword, so Islam in Malaya has been easy-going and plastic. Parameswara converted to Islam in 1414.
Malacca sits athwart the eponymous Straits, the choke point for shipping between the Indian Ocean and the Middle East on one side, and SE Asia and the Far East on the other. To bypass it, ships will have to round the Indonesian Archipelago, navigate the difficult Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, then turn north past the Philippines, before rounding off south again to SE Asia, or steaming on further north to China and Japan. Therefore the Malacca Strait is a vital sea lane. This geography persuaded Admiral Zheng He, the greatest naval commander ever, to steer his Treasure Fleet through the Straits of Malacca on seven voyages to the littoral countries of the Indian Ocean, East African and Arabia, sixty years before Gama reached Calicut or Columbus set foot on San Salvador Island (Bahamas). He always stopped in Malacca, hence Chinese enclaves sprouted there six centuries ago. Large scale Chinese emigration in the 19-th and 20-th Centuries however was under British tutelage, importing labour for roads, railways, and rubber. In its wake first came Chinese traders then businessmen and investors. Now a Chinese community thrives in Malacca and Malaysia.
The next four centuries is like retelling the Ceylon story; the Portuguese took Malacca in 1511, the Dutch ousted them in 1641 and stayed till 1798; then followed the confused period of Napoleonic Wars in Europe. In the subsequent settlement Britain gained Malacca in 1824 and held it till the Japanese captured Malaya in 1942. At this point similarity ends. The Japanese surrender in 1945 re-established British rule but was contested by the Malayan communist uprising influenced by Chinese Communism. The Malays collaborated with the fiendish Japanese occupation, the Chinese did not; a consequence was that the uprising was a Chinese affair. The Malays backed the British in a brutal war to exterminate Malayan communism. In 1957 came independence but again with a twist. Singapore and Malaya joined in a short-lived union (1963-65) from which Singapore was expelled, despite Lee Kwan Yue’s impassioned pleas. Lee called Singapore the “Only place in the modern world to have independence thrust upon it against its will!” It is incredible how time and tide have turned the tables on everyone’s expectations!
Superficially, the demographic ratios of Malacca (and Malaysia) and Lanka seem similar, but small distinctions have had important consequences. Numbers fan out as follows for Malacca and Malaysia as a whole: Islam (mainly Malay) 65%, Chinese (very few Muslims) 25%, Hindus (of Indian descent) 6%, and Christians and small groups 4%. In Lanka the breakdown in round numbers is 75% Sinhalese, 17% Tamils in two distinct communities, and 8% Muslims. While it does not look very different, with one large majority community, the details have had a major effect. At 25%, the Chinese are a bulky and monolithic block, not to be pushed around too much. They are also a much richer community. There has been just one outbreak of communal rioting in Malaya, in 1964, and only 23 people were killed (sic! Yes ‘only’; readers will get my point). Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahaman was convinced that extremism could not be controlled within a unified state and this is what motivated the expulsion of 74% Chinese Singapore from the union.
Mutual suspicion between leaders of Lanka’s two Tamil communities fragmented the minorities. LTTE insistence on the concept of a “Tamil speaking people”, hoping to draw in the Muslims, was tactically shrewd, though heavy handed abuse got it nowhere. Gross minority ratios may seem similar, but the Chinese community in Malaya was, and is, in a position to stand up. This is one reason why the Malay majority was compelled to compromise. India is similar; the Hindi speaking plurality accounts for 40% of the population; some 50 to 80 million each of Bengalis, Telugu speakers, Marathis, Tamils and Urudu speakers are no push over. And don’t forget that with 180 million adherents, India is the second largest Muslim nation in the world, easily outnumbering Bangladesh, Pakistan and Iran. Nor are Sikhs and tribal hill people to be toyed with. The moral is simple; demography counts! The Tamils of Lanka don’t have a chance in hell unless they win a degree of Indian and international support. The way out for the Muslims, however, is different; they must persist in breeding ferociously.
It was not demographics alone but also the quality of political leadership that made the difference. Tunku Abdul Rahman and Mohamad Mahathir were no saints, they were Malay nationalists and made unjust anti-Chinese concessions to Malay demands (Bhumiputhra mumbo-jumbo for example), but they were not innate racists. Many of Lanka’s first and second line leaders were cast in a lesser mould – JR, SWRD, Rajapakse, Cyril Mathew and Gotha, to name but a few. (Tamil chauvinist leaders did not hold state power so they are not of comparable importance). The ways of Lee Kwan Yue next door was no doubt a restraining example on the Malay political leadership. One would have expected the tolerance and broadmindedness of Gandhi and Nehru to rub-off on Ceylon/Lanka; but palpably it did not!
A better polity
Lanka is predominantly Buddhist, so is Burma. Both, at this point in time, are flashpoints of extremism incited by monks. Does this bear a deep relationship to religion, like the connection which Catholicism, in league with a craving for Inca gold and the delectable bliss of that other sport which so popularised syphilis in Europe, bore to the Spanish conquest of South America? I think not, because today’s Buddhist extremists are bogus; the Catholic missionaries and monks of yore were deadly serious about their theological stuff. Since it is so fake, today’s Buddhist extremists will win no converts, they can only stir a political can of worms.
Apart from demography and leadership, there are some four or five other reasons why Malaysia is more stable and therefore ethnic relations less disorderly. (Of course there are shared downside habits, for example the Malays are lazy buggers, like the folks at home). Malaysia’s nominal per capita GDP is $10,000 and the state of public finances is better; a broader and better administered tax regimen ensures that deficits and debt are better managed than Lanka. Hence the state spends more on education and health as a percentage of GDP. There is corruption, but my impression is that it is not as widespread, and more important, it does not reach as far up as in Lanka. The public service functions better; perhaps the neighbouring sterling Singapore public service is an exemplar. There is political stability in Malaysia; Rajapakse seems entrenched, but in truth he is an Ozymandias with feet of clay. Democracy seems secure in Malaysia, brazen election rigging is absent and 18A style power grabs have never been contemplated. People, and crucially the government, have respect for law, order and the judiciary. To encapsulate all this in one phrase: The Malaysian state is not a sick institution, nor are people degraded by ethnic conflict.
Let me conclude with a little matter that says a lot in more ways than one. Services in Malacca are much better regulated than in Lanka, an example is the ubiquitous tricycle rickshaw. The price per hour is forty Ringgits (1 Malaysian Ringgit = 41 Sri Lanka rupees) and none of the ragged looking band of peddlers attempt to cheat customers, locals or tourists. A four hour day on average, of admittedly back breaking work, earns a living wage (Rs. 6560 a day). I was impressed not only by the superior income and living standards of the lowest rungs of the working class, but also by the proper regulation of services.