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Originally published Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 3:29 PM

Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Striving for equal though separate in Malaysia

Seattle Times columnist Bruce Ramsey reflects on the politics of racial preference, neutrality and separatism after an interview with author Rehman Rashid in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

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It was a sultry November evening in Kuala Lumpur, and Rehman Rashid was explaining the contradictions of Malaysia. "Homosexuality is illegal here," he said. "But sitting behind me is not a woman."

I craned my neck. A cross-dresser in an Islam-majority state.

Rashid chuckled. His country is not always what it seems. The former columnist for the New Straits Times and author of "A Malaysian Journey" was explaining his country's contradictions, including the "national myth," he said, of racial unity.

Malaysia is mainly peopled by Malays, Chinese, and Indians. All over Malaysia are billboards showing a child of each group with the slogan, "1 Malaysia." Americans would recognize the message instantly: E Pluribus Unum. From many, one. But Malaysia has also had 40 years of affirmative action, in which the state favors Malays in jobs and the use of the Malay language.

The aim of this policy is to close the gap in wealth with the Chinese. It was a large gap when the policy started, because the Chinese were an urban, commercial people. The Malays were farmers — "a gentle, tractable people," Rashid says in his book.

They are different peoples. "The Malay wants to work so that he can live and pray and go to heaven," Rashid told me. "The Chinese works as long as he breathes."

The preference policy has boosted the Malays, though a Malay lawyer told me that the rich ones have taken the most advantage of it. As a young beneficiary of the policy, Rashid resented it. He felt it undercut his achievements, and he says now that the Malays have become dependent on it.

How do you end a policy like that? You have a political fight.

An election is coming in Malaysia. The Prime Minister, Najib Razak, was quoted a few days ago urging Malaysians to go beyond tolerance to acceptance. It was a fine thought, though it came with a statement that the Malay preferences shall remain. Najib has also ended a state of emergency, which has allowed detention without trial. He has done this because he wants to win the coming election.

Since independence in 1957, essentially the same coalition has run Malaysia's government. It has held to power partly by appealing to racial solidarity and fear of chaos, partly by muzzling the opposition and partly by taking credit for Malaysia's economic success. That success is real. Still there are issues to be settled.

The opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, heads a party that wants a race-neutral policy. His party made big gains in the 2008 elections and hopes for more. The government has charged Anwar with sodomy. It did this before and convicted him, also at a politically opportune time.

I asked Rashid whether the charge is true. He shrugged: How would you know?

What he did know, he said, was that in Malaysia, where the three races have kept their separate languages, religions, political parties and primary schools, E Pluribus Unum is not going to happen. After years of writing about the issue, he has concluded that even with a policy of race neutrality, which he favors, some degree of separatism is necessary for social peace.

For example, pork. The Malays, who are Muslim, have conceded the right of the Chinese to raise pigs and eat pork — "and it is a very great concession," he said.

But as a result, he said,. "We cannot eat off the same plates. We know that."

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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