KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA -- The Malaysian government is about to dub "Dallas" into Bahasa Malaysia, the country's official national language.
The prospect has brought more than a few snickers here. "Will J.R. keep his Texas drawl when he has to speak in BM," quipped one Indian lawyer.
Most of the laughter is coming from the roughly half of the country who are not ethnic Malays, but who have had BM, the national language, in their view "shoved down our throats."
Beneath the sarcasm, however, is a very real fear among Malaysia's ethnic Chinese and Indians of Malay cultural domination that threatens to ignite traditional racial animosities and erode the long-held dictum that Malays, called bumiputras, or "sons of the soil," could run the country's politics as long as they respected the rights and freedoms of the other ethnic groups.
"The bare-faced reality of the erosion of our rights is starting to come clear," said one Chinese community leader. "In the last 10 years or so, our rights have been further and further eroded. But when they talk about education and language, they are touching a raw nerve."
Modern Malaysia has been forced to cope with a delicate and potentially explosive racial balance ever since British settlers arrived in the straits of Malacca at the beginning of the last century and began encouraging Chinese and Indians to immigrate as low-wage workers for the tin and rubber industries.
Now, about 48 percent of the population are ethnic Malay, 32 percent ethnic Chinese, and 8.5 percent Indian. The rest are of other ethnic groups. To prevent racial violence, leaders of the dominant Malay, Chinese and Indian political parties agreed to a power-sharing arrangement that has persisted, for better or worse, for more than three decades.
Now, 30 years after independence, Malaysia appears more racially polarized than at any time since race riots erupted here 18 years ago. The new tension has been aroused by a visible Islamic resurgence, a more assertive bumiputra nationalism, and an economic recession that is raising questions about the government's policy of official discrimination in favor of ethnic Malays.
"The economy has acted as a kind of lubricant on racial tension," said one western diplomat. "When the economy goes bad, you see racial tension increasing. Politicians are now outdoing each other with inflammatory statements. There's also been a fair amount of stupidity on the part of the government."
Some analysts said the racial tension has also been prompted by a government that has increasingly been forced on the defensive. The powerful United Malay National Organization, the country's main political party, is aggressively pursuing a campaign of bumiputra nationalism, the analysts said, as a way to rally support from its ethnic Malay constituency while deflecting public attention from an economic downturn and government corruption scandals.
Few expect the tension to bring a recurrence of rioting on the scale of what happened in 1969, particularly since the Malays control the security forces. However, several political analysts and business leaders said they feared a possible breakdown of a 20-year spirit of compromise, whose most marked success has been the durability of the multiracial ruling coalition. Chinese and Indian leaders, buttressed by a relatively open press, are asserting their rights, they said, and are less willing to accept second-class status.
The racial tension is so thick in Malaysia today that Kasitah Gaddam, chairman of the prime minister's National Unity Advisory Council, last month sternly warned politicians and the media to stop raising "sensitive issues."
"Open discussion will only worsen the situation and divide the people," Gaddam said.
The government announced last month that all programs on the state-run Channel 1 will be broadcast in Bahasa Malaysia, by the end of the year. Foreign programs now broadcast in English would be dubbed. That announcement came after a series of actions by that have raised political temperatures:
In August, local officials in Johore Bahru, across the causeway from Singapore, ruled that participants in a seafood festival who wanted to display signs had to include some Bahasa Malaysia words on them. In a ruling aimed at Chinese vendors, who had posted signs with Chinese characters, the municipal council said that on any sign, the Bahasa Malaysia words must be more prominent than any other words or characters.
A controversial ruling earlier this summer by the University of Malaya required that elective courses in the English, Chinese and Indian studies departments be taught in Bahasa Malaysia. It is already the primary classroom language at the university for required courses. But Chinese students taking, for example, a course on Chinese literature and culture as an elective would usually speak Chinese in that class.
"By saying that a non-Malay cannot study Chinese or Tamil in the relevant departments is to deny him the study of his mother tongue in the country of his birth," said Tan Chee Khoon, an opposition politician.
The University of Technology of Malaysia required students to wear the traditional Malay songkok cap during official functions. Chinese students protested that the songkok is of Malay origin, with Moslem religious overtones.
In mid-June, the government indicated that the 25-year-old National Education Act was being reviewed to give primacy to Bahasa Malaysia as the mother tongue. Many Chinese community leaders fear Malays will use the review to further impose Malay language and culture on non-Malays.
"It all boils down to the question of whether the federal government is committed to sustain the use of the languages and cultures of non-Malays," wrote Kua Kia Soong, in a report on the education review, or whether it "intends to continue with the retrogressive and divisive trend of eroding these legitimate rights of non-Malays further."
Chinese community leaders fear that the current education law revision may try to force the Chinese primary schools either to join the national system or become independent, further antagonizing the Chinese. "If they try to do to the primary schools what they did to the secondary schools," said one Chinese community leader, "the result will not be pleasant."
Population: total of 15.7 million (June 1985 estimate)
Moslem (mostly Malays)-60%
Hindu and Sikh (mostly Indians)-8%
Buddhist and Taoist (Mostly Chinese)-30%
NOTE: The Malaysian government does not provide updated statistics on citizens' religions. These numbers are rough estimates.