Mahathir praises ethnic Chinese, criticizes Malays

Jasbant Singh,KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, AP

Challenging the Malay Muslim ethnic majority to work harder, Malaysia’s prime minister said Thursday that the country would be nowhere without the economically dominant Chinese minority.

Mahathir Mohamad gave the Malay Muslims — the bedrock of his support — a tongue-lashing during his keynote address to the congress of his United Malays National Organization, saying they had not yet met the hopes of three decades of affirmative action programs.

“The Malays are still weak, the poorest people, and are backward,” Mahathir said.

“If we take out the Chinese and all that they have built and own, there will be no small or big towns in Malaysia, there will be no business and industry, there will be no funds for the subsidies, support and facilities for the Malays,” Mahathir said.

Affirmative action policies to improve the lives of Malay Muslims were imposed after race riots in 1969. They guarantee places to Malays Muslims in public universities and government jobs and make it easier to obtain bank loans and government contracts.

The goal was to bring Malay Muslims to own 30 percent of the economy, but the government acknowledges that it has not been met.

Mahathir, 76, who has transformed Malaysia into one of the developing world’s richest countries during 21 years in power, has become critical of the programs and says they shield Malays from improving themselves.

“Learn from the Chinese,” Mahathir said in the nationally broadcast speech. “Remember that when we sell licenses, contracts and other things to them, their cost of doing business increases.”

“We do not have to carry the cost of buying licenses of contracts,” Mahathir said. “But even though the cost to the Chinese businessmen is higher, they can still make profits. Why is that with lower cost, Malays … cannot make a profit?”

Malay Muslims account for about 60 percent of Malaysia’s 23 million people. Ethnic Chinese comprise about 25 percent and ethnic Indians some 8 percent, with the rest scattered among smaller groups.

In the race-based political system, UMNO champions the rights of Malays Muslims and forms the core of the government with junior Chinese and Indian parters. Since Sept. 11, UMNO appears to have won back Malay support from Islamic fundamentalist opposition.