In 2003, Prof. Chua had also written a thoughtful book entitled "World on Fire," which "explores the ethnic conflict caused in many societies by disproportionate economic and political influence of 'market dominant minorities' and the resulting resentment in the less affluent majority." In the book, she relates a very personal and engrossing story involving her extended family in the Philippines. The following paragraphs are excerpts from the book:
One morning in September 1994, I received a call from my mother in California. In a hushed voice, she told me that my Aunt Leona, my father’s twin sister, had been murdered in her home in the Philippines, her throat slit by her chauffeur. My mother broke the news to me in our Hokkien Chinese dialect. But the word “murder” she said in English, as if to wall off the act from the family through language.Click here to read the remainder of the essay in Prospect Magazine.
The murder of a relative is horrible for anyone, anywhere. My father’s grief was impenetrable; to this day, he has not broken his silence on the subject. For the rest of the family, though, there was an added element of disgrace. For the Chinese, luck is a moral attribute, and a lucky person would never be murdered. Like having a birth defect, or marrying a Filipino, being murdered is shameful.
My three younger sisters and I were very fond of my Aunt Leona, who was petite and quirky and had never married. Like many wealthy Filipino Chinese she had multiple bank accounts, in Honolulu, San Francisco and Chicago. She visited us in the US regularly. Having no children of her own, she doted on her nieces and showered us with trinkets. As we grew older, the trinkets became treasures. On my tenth birthday she gave me ten small diamonds, wrapped in toilet paper. My aunt loved diamonds and bought them by the dozen, concealing them in empty Elizabeth Arden moisturiser jars. She liked accumulating things. When we ate at McDonald’s, she stuffed her Gucci purse with free packets of ketchup.
According to the police report, my Aunt Leona, “a 58-year-old single woman,” was killed in her living room with a “butcher’s knife” at 8pm on 12th September 1994. Two of her maids were questioned, and they confessed that Nilo Abique, my aunt’s chauffeur, had planned and executed the murder with their assistance. But Abique, the report went on to say, had “disappeared.” The two maids were later released.
My relatives arranged a funeral for my aunt in the prestigious Chinese cemetery in Manila where many of my ancestors are buried. After the funeral, I asked one of my uncles whether there had been any developments in the murder investigation. He replied tersely that the killer had not been found. His wife added that the police had essentially closed the case.
I could not understand my relatives’ almost indifferent attitude. Why were they not more shocked that my aunt had been killed by people who worked for her, lived with her, saw her every day? Why were they not outraged that the maids had been released? When I pressed my uncle, he was short with me. “That’s the way things are here,” he said.
My uncle was not simply being callous. My aunt’s death was part of a common pattern. Hundreds of Chinese are kidnapped or murdered every year by ethnic Filipinos. Nor is it unusual that my aunt’s killer was never apprehended. The police in the Philippines, all poor ethnic Filipinos themselves, are notoriously unmotivated in these cases.
My family is part of the Philippines’ tiny but economically powerful Chinese minority. Although they constitute 1 per cent of the population, Chinese Filipinos control about 60 per cent of the private economy, including the country’s four airlines and almost all of the banks, hotels, shopping malls, and big conglomerates. My own family runs a plastics conglomerate and owns swathes of prime real estate – and they are only “third-tier” Chinese tycoons. They also have safe deposit boxes full of gold bars, each one the size of a chocolate bar. I myself have such a gold bar. My Aunt Leona sent it to me as a law school graduation present a few years before she died.
Since my aunt’s murder, one childhood memory keeps haunting me. I was eight, staying at my family’s splendid hacienda-style house in Manila. It was before dawn, still dark. Wide awake, I decided to get a drink from the kitchen. I must have gone down an extra flight of stairs, because I stumbled on to six male bodies. I had found the male servants’ quarters, where my family’s houseboys, gardeners, and chauffeurs – I sometimes imagine that Nilo Abique was among them – were sleeping on mats on a dirt floor. The place stank of sweat and urine. I was horrified.
I mentioned the incident to my Aunt Leona, who laughed affectionately and explained that the Filipino servants were fortunate to be working for our family. If not for their positions, they would be living among rats and open sewers. A Filipino maid then walked in; she had a bowl of food for my aunt’s Pekingese. My aunt took the bowl but kept talking as if the maid were not there. The Filipinos, she continued – in Chinese, but not caring whether the maid understood or not – were lazy and unintelligent. If they didn’t like working for us, they were free to leave.
Nearly two thirds of the roughly 80m ethnic Filipinos in the Philippines live on less than $2 a day. But poverty by itself does not make people kill. To poverty must be added indignity, hopelessness and grievance. In the Philippines, millions of Filipinos work for Chinese; almost no Chinese work for Filipinos. The Chinese dominate industry and commerce at every level of society. Global markets intensify this dominance: When foreign investors do business in the Philippines, they deal almost exclusively with Chinese. Apart from a handful of corrupt politicians and a few aristocratic Spanish mestizo families, all of the Philippines’ billionaires are of Chinese descent. My relatives live literally walled off from the Filipino masses, in a luxurious, all-Chinese residential enclave, on streets named Harvard and Princeton. The entry points are manned by armed guards.
Each time I think of Nilo Abique – he was nearly six feet tall and my aunt was 4’11″ – I find myself welling up with a hatred and revulsion so intense it is actually consoling. But over time I have also had glimpses of how the vast majority of Filipinos, especially someone like Abique, must see the Chinese: as exploiters, foreign intruders, their wealth inexplicable, their superiority intolerable. I will never forget the entry in the police report for Abique’s “motive for murder.” The motive given was not robbery, despite the fact that jewels and money were taken. Instead there was just one word – “revenge.”
My aunt’s killing was just a pinprick in a violent world. But there is a connection between her murder and the Serbian concentration camps of the early 1990s, the murder of 800,000 Tutsis by ordinary Hutus in Rwanda in 1994, the mobs in Indonesia in 1998 which looted hundreds of Chinese properties leaving nearly 2,000 dead and even the terror attacks of 11th September. The connection lies in the relationship among the three most powerful forces operating in the world today: markets, democracy and ethnic hatred. There exists today a phenomenon – pervasive outside the west yet rarely acknowledged, indeed often viewed as taboo – that turns free market democracy into an engine of ethnic conflagration. I am speaking of the phenomenon of market-dominant minorities: ethnic minorities who, for varying reasons, tend under market conditions to dominate economically, often to a startling extent, the indigenous majorities.
Market-dominant minorities can be found in every part of the world. The Chinese are a market-dominant minority throughout southeast Asia. In 1998, Chinese Indonesians, only 3 per cent of the population, controlled roughly 70 per cent of the private economy, including all of the big conglomerates. In Myanmar, the Chinese dominate the economies of Mandalay and Rangoon. Whites are a market-dominant minority in South Africa – and, in a more complex sense, in Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala and much of Latin America. Indians have historically been a market-dominant minority in east Africa, the Lebanese in west Africa and the Ibo in Nigeria. Croats were a market-dominant minority in Yugoslavia, as Jews are in post-communist Russia (six of the seven biggest “oligarchs” are of Jewish origin). India has no market-dominant minority at the national level but plenty at the state level.
Market-dominant minorities are the Achilles heel of free market democracy. In societies with such a minority, markets and democracy favour not just different people or different classes but different ethnic groups. Markets concentrate wealth, often spectacular wealth, in the hands of the market-dominant minority, while democracy increases the political power of the impoverished majority. In these circumstances, the pursuit of free market democracy becomes an engine of potentially catastrophic ethnonationalism, pitting a frustrated indigenous majority, easily aroused by opportunistic politicians, against a resented, wealthy ethnic minority. This conflict is playing out in country after country today, from Bolivia to Sierra Leone, from Indonesia to Zimbabwe, from Russia to the middle east.
Since 11th September, the conflict has been brought home to the US. Americans are not an ethnic minority. But Americans are perceived as the world’s market-dominant minority, wielding disproportionate economic power. As a result, they have become the object of the same kind of popular resentment that afflicts the Chinese of southeast Asia, the whites of Zimbabwe, and the Jews of Russia....
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