MALAYSIA'S proud experiment in constructing a multiracial society exploded in the streets of Kuala Lumpur last week. Malay mobs, wearing white headbands signifying an alliance with death, and brandishing swords and daggers, surged into Chinese areas in the capital, burning, looting and killing. In retaliation, Chinese, sometimes aided by Indians, armed themselves with pistols and shotguns and struck at Malay kampongs (villages). Huge pillars of smoke rose skyward as houses, shops and autos burned.
Firemen drew sniper fire as they attempted to douse the flames, and outnumbered police watched helplessly at times as the street gangs rampaged. One man, trying to escape from his burning car, was thrown back into it by a howling mob, and died. By the time the four days of race war and civil strife had run their course, the General Hospital's morgue was so crowded that bodies were put into plastic bags and hung on ceiling hooks. Government officials, attempting to play down the extent of the disaster, insisted that the death toll was only 104. Western diplomatic sources put the toll closer to 600, with most of the victims Chinese.
No Longer Satisfied. From its inception, Malaysia has been haunted by racial divisions. By tacit agreement, the Federation's 4,300,000 Malays under Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman wielded political power. Economic power was largely in the hands of Malaysia's 3,400,000 Chinese. There are also the 1,000,000 Indians and Pakistanis who make up the third major ethnic group. What made it all work was the Tunku's Alliance coalition, in which Malay, Chinese and Indian parties participated. But for some time the Chinese and Indians had feared that eventually they would be pushed out as laws favoring Malays for schools and jobs bore fruit.
The trouble began two weeks ago, when newly formed Chinese opposition parties cut heavily into the Alliance's majority in parliamentary elections. It became suddenly apparent that many Chinese were no longer satisfied with just economic hegemony, but wanted a protective share of the political power as well. Nothing was more surely calculated to frighten the Malays, in particular the Malay "ultras" (right-wingers), who have long preached the doctrine of Malaysia for the Malays. Alarmed, the ultras began to discuss ways of retaining control. At a Malay post-election meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Chinese onlookers began to taunt those in attendance. Infuriated, the Malays attacked. At least eight Chinese were killed and within 45 minutes fast-spreading riots forced the Tunku to clamp a 24-hour curfew on the capital.