Youtube is normally the preserve of light-hearted banalia: dogs and cats doing cute tricks, people falling off diving boards while the scene shakes to the laughter of the one holding the camera. Yet, in July 2007, it found itself at the centre of a nasty little ethnic row that split the Malaysian nation – the consequences of which are still being felt.
A Malaysian guy of Chinese extraction calling himself Namewee uploaded a video of a rap song he wrote to the tune of Negaraku – the Malaysian nation anthem. In it, he mocks ethnic native Malays for being lazy and slow-moving; contrasting their demeanour with those of the hard-working, eternally busy Chinese. He has a go at Islam (the religion of the vast majority of ethnic Malays) too – complaining about being awoken by the ‘out of tune’ call to prayer and jokes that Malay women even put on their veils in a slow, lazy manner.
Namewee was and still is living in Taiwan having been forced (he implies) to go there to find work. This appears to be at least a part of the source of his resentment. For most of the past four decades, Malaysian governments under the New Economic Plan (NEP) have been discriminating heavily in favour of the bumiputera (sons of the soil) as those communities indigenous to Malaysia are known; the term explicitly excludes people of Chinese extraction. This was intended to break the stranglehold which the Chinese minority had on the commercial and corporate sector in Malaysia. On the face of it, the Malays now have a much higher representation in business than before; however it has given rise to the so-called "Ali Baba" type business, where an ineffectual Malay greets visitors in the front room, while the Chinese run the shop and turn the profits in the back.
The NEP was imposed after the seminal date in Malaysian history: May 13 1969 when Kuala Lumpur was engulfed in murderous ethnic rioting between native Malays and ethnic Chinese. Four years previously, Singapore had been expelled from the Malaysian federation due to fears that the city’s large Chinese majority would leave native Malays as a minority in Malaysia. Relations have improved a lot in the last few decades but remain sensitive as evidenced by the prickly reaction of the government who refused to accept Namewee’s apology and have charged him with insulting the country.
Domination by the tiny Chinese minority of the business and corporate sector is a recurring theme in each country in south east Asia and is a source of much resentment. The economic disparity is in many countries remarkable: with 1% of the population in the Philippines and 3% in Indonesia, the Chinese community owned 60% and 70% of the nations' private economy respectively in the late 1990s. Similar statistics apply in Burma.
In the Philippines hundreds of Chinese are kidnapped every year and often murdered regardless of whether or not the ransom is paid. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the police (which is predominantly ethnic Filipino) is largely indifferent to the problem and do little to assist the families of victims or to catch the perpetrators.
Indonesia had its own May 13th moment in 1998 – curiously enough on the almost identical date of May 14th. Due to the collapse in the currency, the price of food had soared and protests against the Suharto régime were getting more and more vociferous. In the capital, Jakarta, these quickly degenerated into anti-Chinese pogroms in which over 2,000 people were murdered.
Anti-Chinese legislation that was in force in Indonesia for decades has been repealed since the overthrow of Suharto. However, prior to 2000, there were serious restrictions on Chinese publications, Chinese religious practice, the display of Chinese script in public and the use of Chinese names.
Burma has seen anti-Chinese riots with market dominance by the tiny Chinese minority being at the centre of local resentment. Things aren’t helped by the way in which the dictatorship has been armed by the Chinese thereby allowing them to expand the army hugely throughout the 1990s and prolong the oppression of their own people.
Alongside the domination of the business elite, close ties to the ruling party (be they democratic or not) has long been another source of anti-Chinese resentment. From Burma to The Philippines, things follow a familiar pattern. The rulers tend to be ethnically indigenous but the Chinese provide the money to back them up. Marcos in The Philippines and Suharto in Indonesia both did very well out of kickbacks from the awarding of public contracts to Chinese owned firms. This cosy little symbiosis benefited both sides until the furious native majority rose up and overthrew their corrupt rulers. As mentioned already, this resulted in a huge backlash against the Chinese in Indonesia. While the 1986 overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines didn’t result in anywhere near the same level of anti-Chinese violence, the so-called People Power Revolution did have barely latent sinophobic overtones.
Nowhere in south east Asia is the Chinese minority more assimilated than in Thailand. There has been extensive inter-marriage between the two communities and for decades now, Chinese business dynasties have been taking Thai names and seeking to integrate themselves with local elites.
However, the rise of China itself is beginning to provoke alarm in Thai society. In the mid-1990s, the election of a Chinese-Thai to the position of Prime Minister and the perception that his cabinet was dominated by his ethnic brethren did whip up resentment. He is widely perceived as having been corrupt and is accused of mishandling the economic disaster of 1997 (which also led to the Jakarta riots mentioned above). The crisis led to widespread allegations of Chinese businesses speculating against the Thai baht which exacerbated the run on the currency.
The Cambodians have in the past looked to China as a counterbalance to Vietnamese attempts to dominate their country. In any case, the ethnic Chinese community has been decimated over the last few decades (both by the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent Vietnamese invasion) and recent estimates put the numbers at only around 60,000. However, there is more than a hint of resentment at the support Beijing gave to the mass-murderers of the Khmer Rouge. Also, recent Chinese investments in the country have been insensitive to the concerns of local people and since the authorities – desperate for foreign investment – have sided with Chinese big business, people see the same relationship developing between corrupt government and Chinese capitalism that has led to such anti-Chinese antipathy in other countries.
In Vietnam, the Chinese were formally in a market dominant position but were decimated by the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of their number in the late 1970s – also known as the boat people. While this was ostensibly driven by a decision by the communist regime to abolish private trade, there is no doubting the racist undercurrents of the policy especially as relations between Beijing and Hanoi had been turning increasingly nasty and were eventually to break out into open warfare.
These days, relations between the two countries are cordial on the surface. However, there is still anti-Chinese feeling amongst the Vietnamese population that expresses itself openly at times despite attempts by the government to keep it under wraps. The Olympic flame run in Hanoi was targeted by protesters highlighting Beijing’s policy on Tibet. However, a simmering dispute over ownership of the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea also stokes Vietnamese resentment.
Indeed, it’s debatable whether those who protested against the Olympic flame in various south east Asian cities were really motivated by concern for Tibet and human rights in China or by baser prejudices. In each country, there were large demonstrations by locally based Chinese in support of the torch run and – in the current climate – such displays of Chinese power might very well be considered provocative.
Even before the Burmese cyclone disaster, these were not good times in south east Asia. The price of rice – the staple food of the vast majority -has soared and the poorer sections of society are threatened with real starvation. People in the Philippines talk openly about how Chinese merchants hoard their rice stocks waiting for prices to get even higher while the Filipino majority go hungry. It doesn’t help that the government’s agriculture secretary, Arthur Yap (himself an ethnic Chinese) has provoked outrage by telling Filipinos to get by on less rice suggesting that most people waste the foodstuff by cooking too much and leaving it behind on the plate. Despite being told by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to hit the hoarders hard, he is widely perceived to be working hand in glove with “Chinese hoarders" allowing them to send their profits back to China.
With food prices getting higher right across the region – there have already been food riots in Indonesia - and millions having been reduced to destitution by the cyclone in Burma, things are arguably as bad now as they were in 1997/8 if not worse. History has shown that when times get hard and the population gets pushed to the brink, people turn on the Chinese traders and merchants who are perceived to be dominating and exploiting them.
“Why do you hate us so much?”, we asked.
"No," you answered, "We don’t hate you."
We don’t hate you either.
But do you understand us?
The nationalistic Chinese poem posted in the thread by thebrom is obviously directed at the West. But if the writer of that poem wants to address the main occurrence of anti-Chinese feeling in the world, he/she would do well to focus much closer to home.