Divided They Stand: Analyzing the Effects of Recent Ethnic Politics on Chinese Minorities in Malaysia
September 1, 2008
The Institute for Philosophy, Politics and Economics
Glossary of Abbreviations
BA – Barisan Alternatif
BN - Barisan Nasional
DAP - Democratic Action Party
HINDRAF – Hindu Rights Action Force
MCA – Malayan Chinese Association
MIC – Malayan Indian Congress
NEP – New Economic Policy
PAS - Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (formerly PMIP)
PMIP - Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party
UMNO - United Malays National Organisation
The Chinese dilemma in Malaysia
A tropical country sandwiched between Thailand and Indonesia, Malaysia is one of the most stable democratic regimes in South East Asia, curiously balancing parliamentary democracy with Muslim law in a land populated by three distinct ethnic groups. It is also one of the region’s wealthiest, owing largely to the successes of its rubber, palm oil and manufacturing industries in helping to generate a GDP (PPP) of approximately $357 billion a year.1 Of late, however, there has been trouble in paradise. With the world economy dipping into recession, several of Malaysia’s political troubles have resurfaced and many Malaysians, especially the non-Muslim population, are pointing fingers at the dominant ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN). They are worried over corrupt government practices and the continued insistence of the BN on promoting ethnic-centered politics, which has often protected Muslim Malays at the expense of the Chinese and Indian minority groups. Still, the BN maintains a tight hold on the reins of political power and makes it extremely difficult for any opposition party to win an election.
So it was quite surprising that—after years of soliciting public affection through extensive government patronage, silencing public opposition to the national agenda and enacting affirmative action policies to help the country’s majority population—that the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysia’s single dominant party since the country’s independence, obtained a disappointing number of votes at the national elections in March 2008. Although it did not lose the elections, UMNO and its ruling coalition, the BN, was outmaneuvered from its usual two-thirds majority in the Parliament by the coalition of the opposition, the Barisan Alternatif (BA), which advocates a non ethnic-based, ‘Malaysian’ Malaysia. Malaysia, by most standards, is still going about ‘business as usual’, but this new turn of events has set many Malaysians on edge about the future of Malaysia’s ethnic politics.
At stake in this future is the ability of the Chinese to influence how the government treats the Chinese communities in Malaysia. The BN is a fourteen party, multi-ethnic coalition led by UMNO. Although technically an alliance, the BN operates on an agenda that almost always puts UMNO’s Malay-centered policies first. In some ways, this power dynamic reflects the ethnic distribution of the country’s population: the Malays comprise about 60 percent of the total population, the Chinese 24 percent and the Indians roughly 8 percent. On the surface, then, power seems to be distributed fairly according to population size, with the majority getting the loudest voice in the decision making. However, majority rule might well become a ‘tyranny of the majority’, where minority groups and their rights are considered politically inconsequential. Unless the Chinese and Indians are willing to act to secure more democratic rights for themselves, Malaysia is likely to move in this direction in the future.
For the Chinese, aligning on the side of the BN has historically been a way of gaining some power and influence within the system, while ensuring a political harmony that will avoid reproducing the traumatic race riots that occurred in May of 1969. This method may have worked well in the past, when the Chinese were still a formidable group that needed to be addressed. Yet, as the dynamics of Malaysia’s society are rapidly changing, so is the ability of the Chinese community to influence the government. Although they are politically divided between the BN and the BA, the Chinese in Malaysia stand to lose significantly if they continue supporting the incumbent UMNO and the BN in the future. UMNO continues to justify the special status of Malays based upon on the accusation that the Chinese unfairly dominate the economy. It maintains its political position through overt government patronage and manipulation of a large public sector. Additionally, the Chinese are increasingly outnumbered in elections by the sheer size of the Malay vote. Together, these factors are bringing the BN dangerously close to cementing ethnic-based, Malay-centered politics for good in the country, unless the Chinese are willing to act in favor of the opposition. If Malaysia’s democracy develops further in support of the BN coalition, the Chinese will inevitably lose influence over the fate of their communities.
The interviews in this paper were conducted in the Malaysian cities of Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and Ipoh from May 29-June 12, 2008. Most of the interviewees, particularly those in government, preferred to communicate via email correspondence and submitted answers anonymously because of the sensitive nature of the topic. Interviewed in this paper were three political leaders, all of whom were of different political affiliations, and all of whom were Malay except for one, who was half Malay and half Chinese. Also interviewed was a Chinese doctor and a Chinese official involved in the government administration of education in the country. Finally, the author conducted one-on-one interviews with eight university students, all of whom were Chinese-Malaysian, with the exception of one Indian-Malaysian.
This paper seeks to introduce the complex dynamics of Malaysian ethnic-based politics in Malaysia and its particular effect on the Chinese Malaysian population. The first section will elaborate on the development of Malaysia’s parliamentary democracy, highlighting the underlying causes behind the construct of the Constitution, the race riots in 1969, the New Economic Policy under Mahathir and the Reformasi movement. The second section will look at how leaders from both the BN and the BA have understood these political dynamics, drawing from first-hand interviews to reveal their personal beliefs about ethnic and national identity, democracy, and the socio-economic challenges facing the country. The third section will take a closer look at the Chinese communities and how they self-identify as a group, how they are perceived in the cultural context of Malaysia generally and how they have reacted to bumiputera policies—affirmative action policies for Malays—in both political and non-political settings. The concluding section will discuss how elements in Malaysian politics are forcing changes in the country.
The evolution of Malaysia and bumiputerism
British colonialism and sources of ethnic politics
Malaysia was still a British colony up until the late 1940s, one of the last remaining footholds of the once-vast British Empire. The introduction of British rule to Malaysia in the 19th Century brought more than just wealth into the hands of aggressive British entrepreneurs, it established a new social and political order. Their divide-and-rule policy carved out different socio-economic functions for each of the dominant ethnic groups present in Malaysia, planting the seeds of divisiveness in Malaysian politics which are still evident today. For example, the British brought in Indians to help manage the abundant rubber plantations in the countryside, but appointed Malays to official government posts, so that only Malay rule was legitimized under the British. As one scholar explained about the policy, “The British regarded the Malays as the legitimate owners of the land, while the non-Malays were seen as temporary guests.”2 Significantly, most Malays still actively participated in the agricultural sector, making their living through the land, instead of through trade and commerce.3 Their ties to the rural economy meant that many of them remained poor during the period of the colony’s economic growth, when trade was flourishing.
Meanwhile, British demand for tin attracted immigrants from China. According to Koon, the British “were quick to grasp the fact that great profits could be made in the agricultural and tin-mining industries of the west coast Malay states, provided the necessary pioneering work…[was done] by a regular and large supply of cheap coolie labour.”4 Along with working the tin mines, many Chinese were able to set up small shops and businesses in their communities. While the Chinese and, to some extent, the Indians flourished in the new economy, the Malays ruled as local sultans and government officials. Consequently, the legacy left by the British in Malaysia goes beyond the parliamentary democratic system, an English-language education and Western architecture. It is also the legacy of a Chinese-controlled economy, a protected, Malay-dominated administration and an often overlooked Indian population. These historical divisions continue to influence contemporary politics in Malaysia.
In 1948, a twelve-year period of political turmoil known as the Emergency began in Southeast Asia. In Malaysia, the Chinese Malayan Communist Party started targeting high ranking officials and terrorizing cities and villages, calling for a Socialist State and the removal of the British. The resistance movement was further energized by the Communist fervor that had overtaken China under Mao Zedong in October 1949, when Mao announced the People’s Republic of China. Some in Malaysia even suspected that China would eventually try to control Southeast Asia through its overseas Chinese community.5 Although the Communist party in Malaysia at first enjoyed strong backing from the Chinese Malaysians, the power of the resistance movement was greatly diminished after the British managed to isolate the party from its source of support in the villages. Nevertheless, a general distrust of the Chinese community in Malaysia lingered on long after the Emergency was over.
The Malaysian constitution: building on divided foundations
Just prior to Malaysia’s independence from Great Britain in 1957, discussions in the newly formed government over the language of the constitution were inundated with concerns about Chinese economic domination. The country’s first elected political leaders, UMNO and its Alliance coalition partners in the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), had to find a way to address the strain in ethnic relations. Yet, an initial proposal to incorporate all ethnic groups into the new country on relatively equal footing was widely rejected by the Malay community. Many Malays were still very poor compared to non-Malays and saw little chance for their own advancement if everyone else was to be granted equal rights.
After much deliberation, however, the parties were able to settle on a constitution that would lay the democratic foundation for a constitutional monarchy, by establishing regular elections, rule of law, a bicameral legislative parliament, civil courts and a Prime Minister position. At the same time, however, it cemented a moderate Muslim Malay-centered national identity by declaring Malaysia an Islamic country, creating Shariah courts for Muslim affairs, establishing royal rule by Malay sultans and making Malay the only official national language. The constitution made religious and ethnic politics nearly inseparable in Malaysia, by defining in Article 160 that the ‘Malay’ is someone, who regularly speaks Malay, practices Malay customs and “professes the religion of Islam.”6 Additionally, the constitution articulated the legality of special provisions for the protection of the Malays (presumably, from the Chinese), citing concern for Malay ‘backwardness’ in society. According to scholar R. K. Vasil,
The sole basis on which the Constitutional Commission [the independent body commissioned for the constitutional draft] had accorded the Malays a special position was the fact that they had lagged behind the non-Malays in certain spheres and it was necessary to enable them to catch up.7
Although special status was originally accorded to the Malays as a temporary measure and was accepted as such by the Chinese and Indians, Malays would later claim it as a fundamental right.
The politics of change in post-colonial Malaysia
The demographics of Malaysia’s population and its territorial borders were in constant flux during the initial years of independence. In 1963, Malaysia’s borders extended to include Singapore and the off-shore territories of Sarawak and Sabah (originally part of the Indonesian island of Borneo). Singapore brought a large Chinese constituency into Malaysia, increasing the Chinese vote, but this was counterbalanced by the heavily Malay populations of Sabah and Sarawak. When Singapore’s prominent People’s Action Party began pushing for greater equal rights among ethnicities, however, the situation greatly angered the Malays. Following much political turmoil on both sides, Singapore left the country in 1965. With Singapore now gone, local politics changed tone as Malaysia’s population became overwhelmingly Malay.
Despite the tireless efforts of upper-level leaders to come to an agreement on a working constitution, the post-colonial period only served to reinforce communal divides and not resolve them. Many in the Malay community felt that UMNO’s rather moderate position and its alliance with the MCA and the MIC overemphasized multi-ethnic harmony at the expense of Malays. Consequently, they began favoring parties that championed communal interests, such as the extremist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PMIP), who wanted to turn Malaysia into a full-fledged Islamic country. Further complicating matters for UMNO was a new generation of Malay politicians—among them the future Prime Minister Mohammed bin Mahathir—who were increasingly critical of UMNO’s leadership. They accused UMNO of failing to act quickly on improving the deteriorating economic status of Malays. Meanwhile, UMNO’s coalition partners were also losing ground. For instance, the Malayan Chinese Association lost popularity among the Chinese after independence, because many Chinese believed that the MCA had ‘sold out’ to the Malays by compromising Chinese claims to equal status in the constitution. Several people in the Chinese community started supporting more pro-ethnic parties, such as the PAP-affiliated Democratic Action Party (DAP), instead of the Alliance.
Ethnic harmony came to a grinding halt in the 1969 elections, when the Alliance lost an alarming number of seats to other parties like the PMIP and the DAP. In particular, the MCA was crippled at the election, having lost the most votes to the more pro-Chinese opposition in the DAP. The MCA, having aligned with UMNO, was losing its legitimacy as a representative of the Chinese community’s interests to other parties. Race riots broke out in the cities immediately after the results were announced, which killed thousands, most of them Chinese. The reasons for the riots were twofold. First, Malays had concluded that the success of the opposition marked the beginning of the end of their political survival. Second, Malays were extremely offended by the exuberant Chinese demonstration of victory in the streets. In the months following, the government suspended democracy and implemented martial law to restore order to the country. A long period of political restructuring had begun, one in which the government would compromise the place of minorities in society.
Shaping a Malay Malaysia
In Malaysia, to be a bumiputera—literally translated, a ‘prince of the soil’—is to be one of the privileged recipients of the government’s affirmative action policies. The term emerged shortly after the race riots of 1969, marking the transition of Muslim Malay special status from temporary to permanent, since the government now took the view that Malays had a fundamental right to their constitutional provisions. Bumiputera has added implications. For the non-bumiputera, it is a means of segregation that Fee notes when he writes,
The terms bumiputera and kuam pendatang [“migrant community”] have been coined by the Malays, as the political majority, to ascribe and exclude the Chinese (and by default Indians) from a society they perceived to be increasingly appropriated by the latter in the late 1960s and early 1970s.8
Bumiputerism emerged at a time when UMNO leaders were no longer assured of the Malay vote and were convinced that the MCA’s lack of support in the Chinese community was dragging down the Alliance. As a result, they realigned the Alliance’s goals so that Malay interests were noticeably front-and-center, while other interests— Chinese interests—were considered negotiable. UMNO had also convinced other parties by 1974, such as the Gerakan Raayat, the People’s Progressive Party and the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS, formerly the PMIP), to join it in creating the BN.9 The presence of more political parties in the coalition extended UMNO influence, but further weakened the bargaining power of the MCA and the MIC. UMNO hoped that these changes would help it avoid future rioting by drawing back the Malays who had been politically on-the-fence, and by keeping Chinese and Indian political ambitions in check.
In the 1970’s, the Malaysian government implemented an ambitious, interventionist plan to extend Malay privileges into all areas of society. Known as the New Economic Policy (NEP), the plan had two objectives: to eradicate poverty and to reduce and eventually eliminate common perceptions of occupation as linked to ethnicity.10 The first objective sought to address persistent Malay poverty, while the second sought to fix the general lack of credibility in Malay businesses vis-à-vis Chinese businesses. Although the economic issues were complex, the NEP approach was simple: to establish a quota system that would reserve some of the best jobs, land and training available for the bumiputera. For example, the policy stipulated that thirty percent of all shares of corporate ownership by the 1990s and sixty-percent of all placement at public schools and universities were to be set aside for the bumiputera.11 The government would also give preference to Malays in the approval of licenses, permits and public appointments. The abundant opportunities provided under the NEP eventually helped to create an economically powerful, educated Malay middle-class, but placed heavy burdens on non-bumiputera to accommodate them.
Mahathirism, Malaysian economic development and reviving Islam
The most influential leader in shaping a Malay Malaysia at the time was Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, who governed Malaysia for an unprecedented twenty-two years. Mahathir was originally ousted from his party, UMNO, for blaming the race riots of 1969 on the soft-line approach of the Tunku government, but was later reinstated after publishing an influential book entitled The Malay Dilemma, in which he explained the necessity for an urbanized Malay populace. In 1981, he assumed the post of Prime Minister and became instrumental in modernizing Malaysia’s economy and projecting its international image.
In The Malay Dilemma, Mahathir wrote that the inequalities that the Malays experienced in both wealth and opportunity were due to genetic, traditional and historical limitations and prejudices. He concluded that,
Racial equality can only be said to exist when each race not only stands equal before the law, but also when each race is represented in every strata of society, in every field of work, in proportion more or less to their percentage of the population.12
For Mahathir, then, economic equality was the overarching answer to Malaysia’s ethnic problems. Mahathir’s argument hinged not on the democratic principals of rule of law, checks and balances or a representative government, but rather on the black-and-white principals of proportion and economic parity. In fact, one scholar noted that “Mahathir resented the imposition of the ‘complexity of a democratic government’ upon formerly colonized people who were not ‘skilled or knowledgeable about democratic administration’.”13 His assurance that these policies were for “the betterment of Malays, not the destruction of others” might have had the appearance of objectivity and sensitivity towards non-Malays, but his authoritarian moves to silence the opposition during his time in office put his sincerity towards the non-bumiputeras in question.14
During his time as prime minister, Mahathir worked diligently to implement the changes he had articulated in The Malay Dilemma. However, his ambitions often fell short, and he compromised a lot of administrative integrity along the way. In many Western journals, Mahathir was labeled an authoritarian, a dictator, or a crony, because of some of harsh laws he used to keep his policies and power in place. Some within Mahathir’s party, most notably former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, even grew uneasy with the party’s hard-line approach, but were quickly forced into silence. Anwar, for example, was thrown into jail on September 3, 1998, after trying to cut back on excessive government spending and put a stop to “the crony capitalism that was all too familiar across the region.”15 Interestingly, the charges justifying his arrest were not based on his defiance of the government, but on the claim that Anwar had engaged in the act of sodomy, which is an anathema to conservative Muslim sensibilities. The removal of this popular political figure, however, ignited calls for change among the Malays in what was later known as the Reformasi movement. Reformasi, in turn, sparked the formation of the BA, the coalition of opposition parties that today is trying to challenge the BN for power, but is still burdened by many of the same political problems that had confronted Ibrahim previously.
Mahathir’s power rapidly declined after the fall of Anwar Ibrahim. However, global circumstances had done more to facilitate this decline than the incident itself. In 1997, the currency of Thailand, the Thai Baht, crashed in the exchange market, causing other economies in Asia to plummet. Also, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, caused massive economic and political problems in many Muslim countries across the Third World. Although in Malaysia, shrewd economic policy helped buffer the effects of the economic downturn, the market still had a major effect on the political scene. In 2003, Mahathir resigned from his post, unable to keep pace with the massive socio-economic and political problems that burdened the government. His former Deputy Prime Minister Abdulla Badawi, succeeded him as head of UMNO and leads the current government.
Mahathir brought into effect many positive changes in Malaysia. For instance, he helped modernize the Malaysian economy, by encouraging the creation of Malaysian-brand automobiles and the development of Malaysian industries in capacities such as oil. He also pushed for Malaysia to take advantage of cutting-edge technologies, creating two specialized, high-tech cities—Putrajaya, the government’s main hub of operations, and Cyberjaya, the Silicon valley of Southeast Asia. Through the NEP, he contributed to the rise of an urbanized, Malay middle class and set a minimal standard of education for Malays. The effect of these policies won the praise of many scholars, among them Ian Rae and Morgen Witzel, who wrote that,
This policy of positive discrimination has worked, and the Malay businessman is now as frequent as he once was rare…Gone are the days when any business with a Malay name was only a front and practically no Malay middle class existed. Gone too, with occasional exception, are the rivalries between Malay and Chinese.16
Rae and Witzel are optimistic about the developments under the NEP, but they fail to understand how Mahathir contributed to the deterioration of ethnic relations in Malaysia. While a Malay middle-class has emerged, ethnic ‘rivalries’ still very much exist.
One constant source of ethnic tension, for example, is religion. Mahathir helped reinforce the centricity of Islam in Malaysia when he strengthened the position of Islamic institutions and integrated Islam more fully into the educational curriculum. His decision to de-secularize a part of Malaysian society had more to do with warding off the extremist Islamic movements which were threatening the country than with isolating non-Muslims. At the time, radical Islamic parties, such as PAS, were gaining popularity in the country, by claiming that the government ignored the Muslim laws and principals they were committed to upholding. In response, the government, though moderate, took a more pro-Muslim stance when dealing with societal matters, in order to ensure that Malays would be united behind a more moderate, Islam-centered UMNO and not behind the more extreme, global movements calling for a Muslim nation. Unable to compete with UMNO’s strategy, PAS eventually toned down its extremist call for a pro-Islamic Malaysian state and became more willing to work with other parties. However, de-secularization further aggravated interfaith relations as much as it did to unify the bumiputera. Contrary to Rae and Witzel’s opinion, therefore, these inter-ethnic rivalries are as active as ever. However, they are not easily observable in public, because of heavy public controls.
UMNO’s unchecked powers and political entrenchment
The NEP’s greater emphasis on quantity over quality compounded the sense that ethnic politics in Malaysia had been reduced to a type of zero-sum game, where Malays could only gain when non-Malays lose, and vice-versa. Consequently, the Malay population fared much better in the economy with the NEP than it had before, but only at the cost of limiting many of the freedoms and opportunities previously enjoyed by non-Malays. The Constitutional Act of February 1971, for example, essentially placed a muzzle on public discussion of issues that pertained to the national ideology, language, Malay special status, sultan rule or citizenship.17 Although minority groups may have had reasonable grounds on which to raise objections to the NEP, their ability to voice these concerns was drastically reduced by a series of political controls the government had placed on the public.
Emergency powers: silencing the opposition
Severe limitations on the freedom of speech, in the press or otherwise, are legally justified under the government’s Emergency rule. Any communication deemed a threat to matters of national security, especially anything that may try to put into doubt bumiputera status or religious law, is subject to intense scrutiny under the Internal Security Act and the Sedition Act. These acts allow the government to legally detain offender(s) without trial. Even those in government are restricted in their speech. For example, the public release of internal government information is prohibited, making transparency in government operations nearly impossible. Throughout the 1970’s and the 1980’s, these laws were used to censor foreign and domestic media, place political opposition in prison and undermine the recruiting efforts of parties that opposed UMNO or the BN.
Significantly, the emergency powers were originally evoked in response to the 1969 race riots, but have not since been lifted. Thus, Malaysia’s proclaimed state of emergency has been in effect for almost forty years. Passage of legislation in 1989 also restricted judicial review of these cases, therefore prohibiting any attempt to question the emergency rules’ continued relevance to Malaysian society or to limit the scope of its authority. In essence, emergency powers have become untouchable, to the point that bumiputerism “is now a political matter beyond discussion and criticism, along with questions such as the status of the Sultans, Islam as the state religion and other principals of the Rukunegara (National Ideology). The NEP is now as sacrosanct as ever.”18 Although the number of those imprisoned under the ISA and the Sedition Act had fallen by the 1980s, the suspension of habeas corpus in “sensitive” cases still presents enough of a threat to keep public opinion at bay on these matters.
Opportunities were ripe for big business and government to make enormous profit without effective bodies or procedures to hold the government accountable. Since the government maintained control over the permits and licenses necessary to the operation of businesses, entrepreneurs would align themselves with specific politicians in the hopes of greater access to lucrative deals. These special business relationships consequently skewed NEP objectives, which were originally intended to enlarge the corporate Malay sector and not to put money in the hands of a select few.
Gomez remarks that government patronage is still a frequent practice in the country today because, “in spite of the rise of huge enterprises and the development of capital in Malaysia by 2000, capitalists remained very subservient to the state.”19 Thus, instead of raising a class of successful entrepreneurs through the NEP, government patronage helped to foster an environment in which businesses often piggyback on government handouts.
Perspectives in government
Some of the most popular politicians tend to champion the cause of bumiputerism as if it were a political ideology, rather than an applied policy of affirmative action. This is problematic, as bumiputerism then distorts the meaning of democracy. For these politicians, the principal of ‘rule by the majority’ requires the sacrifice of certain minority liberties for the sake of peaceful coexistence and future mutual prosperity, although they may disagree among themselves as to the extent of the sacrifice. They do feel, however, that the standards of democracy in Malaysia should be different from the standards found in Western countries. One political figure, for instance, submitted that “a country with a plural society may need a unique system of democracy…democracy is a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people[,]’ but it need[s] some minor tuning for a country like Malaysia.” The need for revised democracy is repeated in the response of another politician, who felt that only “a 'collectively guided democracy' with some understandable limits” was viable in Malaysia, “because too much freedom of anything just can't handle all the myriad sensitivities.” Granted, several developing countries in the past have found it necessary to adopt less liberal versions of democracy than those in Western countries, because troublesome country-specific situations have caused a level of political-economic instability that is not conducive to the formation of a ‘regular’ democracy. Also, democracy as a Western concept is highly suspicious to many non-Western countries or, at least, unfamiliar and often confusing in its complex network of checks and balances. As the divergence between theory and practice in Stalin’s Communist USSR or Mao’s China demonstrates, however, countries that opt to drastically revise a certain ideology risk falling short of the political ideal.
Across the board, bumiputeras are depicted as ‘tolerant’ and ‘peaceful’ people, who must protect themselves from others who do not possess the same communal characteristics. In America, this may appear racist, but in Malaysia there is little else that a leader can say on the subject of bumiputerism without losing major political support. A political figure would paint himself into a corner, if he tried to deny the claims of the bumiputera because the Malays, who still constitute the majority vote at any election, would oppose him. However, some politicians have had better luck persuading the masses on other areas of policy, such as when arguing for a merit-based education system or placing pressure on the government to get rid of corrupt officials.
Perceiving ethnic differences
Despite the marked advancement of Malays in many sectors of the political economy and long-term presence of vibrant non-Malay communities in Malaysia, Malay political perspectives on other ethnic groups have hardly changed since the time of independence. Some politicians still argue that Malays are at a great disadvantage in the economy, because of the continued practices of “predatory” Chinese businesses. A few of the more extreme politicians interviewed in this paper still considered non-Malays to be outsiders. When asked what characterizes a Malaysian, for example, one of the respondents wrote that it “mean[s] i have nowhere else to go. Chinese can always have China, Taiwan and Hong Kong to refer to. I have only Malaysia to be sensitive of.”
The persistence of these views over time bears witness to the fact that Malay politicians have been slow to comprehend any changes in the behaviors and attitudes of other ethnic groups. The Chinese, for instance, can be said to have changed at least some of their ‘predatory’ outlook when they accepted the NEP arrangements for the bumiputera. If the Chinese are really as bent on wresting the benefits of society from the Malays as predicted, then no amount of political controls could have stopped the Chinese from blocking these arrangements. As it stands, however, the Chinese relinquished part of their rights in education, real estate and the economy under the NEP rather peacefully. Therefore, though Malay politicians may have actively engaged others in the past, as UMNO did with the MCA and the MIC at independence, Malays have not been willing to see past the lens of old, cultural stereotypes.
Religious tolerance, but not freedom
Religion is another area where the ‘us versus them’ mentality has been reinforced. In matters of the state, accentuating the sense of loyalty to Islam can be a stronger draw for Malay votes than most other factors, but can also create difficulties for people of other faiths. For example, a Muslim is at liberty to persuade others to convert and build mosques without restrictions concerning distances to non-Muslim sanctuaries. He never has to convert to another religion in order to marry because, by law, non-Muslims must convert to Islam in intermarriage. He can also take assurance in the fact that in legal matters regarding interfaith disputes, Muslims generally have had the advantage over non-Muslims. On the other hand, a non-Muslim does not have the same liberties. Ultimately, though the non-Muslim can openly practice his religion because of the country’s policy of religious tolerance, he is disadvantaged in several ways by the preeminence of Islam.
The political leaders who responded to the questionnaire did not comment in the section about religion, which asked about the role of Islam in Malaysian politics. One political leader did write about the merits of interfaith dialogue, saying that it was necessary to “be made to understand each other,” but left his appeal for greater relations between the religions at that. Although there have been no violent outbreaks over inter-religious disputes in the past, it has been suggested in the literature that “religion has been used to legitimate[sic] Malay political hegemony” in the past.20 The connection to bumiputera status and the entrenched position of the government may best explain the apparent hesitation to answer questions about religion.
That said, though, there was one person who managed to answer at length about government attitudes on religion. He argued that “logical tolerance and moderation by all people” was the best way to ensure religious harmony. However, he also warned non-Muslims that “Malaysian Muslims are the so-far peaceful and tolerant majority and all should realise that they should not be taunted or unduely[sic] challenged or the reaction could lead towards extremism.” Although he does not directly address what might constitute an undue challenge for Malaysian Muslims, he does suggest that at times in interfaith dialogue, the people who are “asking for [dialogue] are using it to undermine the majority religion. Obviously in this case it undermines national unity.” Thus, even the pursuit of interfaith dialogue might elicit unwarranted trouble. The opinions set forth by this politician support the idea that, even though violent conflict over religion in Malaysia’s history is notably absent, non-Muslims face formidable challenges in government when it comes to exercising their religious freedoms.
Education and educational standards
The Mahathir government announced ‘Vision 2020’ in 1990, an ambitious plan that sought to turn Malaysia into a developed country by the year 2020.21 The plan consisted of short- and long-term national goals, including the production of human capital that, in the words of one official, could “face the challenges in the knowledge-based economy and innovation fields – challenges of the future. The desired human capital should excel in education, be skillful and possess towering personalities.” In practice, however, education policies that claim to contribute towards the nation’s advancement in this area are continuously revised from year to year. The same official mentioned just previously suspects that political agendas shape these revisions, more than any impartial interest in academic progress. His suspicions are based on observations about some of the major policies that are currently being implemented in education. For instance, while one revised policy plans to reintroduce the English language-medium to the system in order to keep Malaysian students domestically and internationally competitive, the other revised policy is planning on gradually removing vernacular schools that teach in languages other than Malay, particularly Indian Tamil or Chinese Mandarin-language schools that serve the non-Malay communities.
A lot of the political debate about education revolves around the choice of language used to teach classes. Those who wish to phase out schools versed in Tamil or Mandarin feel that the Malay language should be the only acceptable medium of instruction, if the country is to get past the problem of ethnic differences in the school system. One informant commented that multiple schools in different languages create a problem of unification. His view is that “it does not make sense that we will have unity when the Chinese and Indians insist on their own language schools, and thus our children are already communally divided from the beginning.” Other politicians, however, believe that the English language, at least, is as indispensible to national education as the Malay language. According to one informant, Malaysia should copy the Singapore education system, where English and the native language, Chinese, are equally taught and used at school.
Another political figure, however, was less concerned about the choice of language and more concerned about what he perceived to be major flaws in the quality of education. He felt that the system promoted so much “spoonfeeding” of information that students have become extremely sheltered in academics. Clearly exasperated at the current state of education, he writes, “Have you seen anywhere else in the world where Universities are behind big high walled gates? Who are they trying to protect? Protect the student from the outside world or protect the outside world from the students?” Although he was the only politician to make this criticism about the system out of those who answered the questionnaire, many in Chinese community have expressed the same sentiments about their education. Their answers are recorded in a later portion of this paper.
One of the purposes of the questionnaire was to learn how different political leaders interpreted the March 2008 elections, the results of which were less than favorable for the incumbent BN. The conclusions are very interesting, as they bring to light the variety of political realities, hopes and fears of each informant. For example, one politician believed that the BN lost seats, because it failed to bolster its political image before the elections. He believed that the election results had nothing to do with the increased strength of the opposition. Another politician believed that it was the absence of strong leadership in government that contributed to the end result. Malaysians, he wrote, just need an effective leader to direct the country, but it “doesn’t[sic] matter if what he [does is] right or wrong, as long as he leads and everyone [tows] the line…people expect no less than Mahathir to lead the country.” He also felt that the opposition parties were too weak in the election to pose a real threat to the BN as a viable alternative coalition, but expressed the desire for a two-party system in time to come. Unlike the previous informant, however, he believed that people were actually trying to show their disapproval of the current government through the elections. Still another informant thought that the government’s suppression of freedoms, through the emergency powers, finally moved the non-Malays to vote for the opposition, in the hopes of creating a more open society. In acting on this hope, however, he quipped that non-Malays “can dream on unless the majority [of] Malays are competing at the same level with other races.” In both the ruling and opposition coalition, then, it seems that at least some politicians do not interpret the elections as threatening to BN hegemony. Rather, they may see it as a reflection of the inherent flaws in the governing ‘machinery’ or the current administration’s leadership. However, discussions about the elections manifesting any sign of displeasure over bumiputerism are noticeably absent.
The Chinese response
Perhaps it was the simplicity of the NEP strategy that eventually compromised the integrity of the country’s ethnic relations. Whereas previously, ethnic harmony depended upon the maintenance of mutual respect between the communities and the sharing of ideas, it now depended upon the maintenance of a ratio or preference in society that would overwhelmingly favor the Malays. Scholar Harold Crouch aptly noted changes in the political environment when he wrote,
In the immediate aftermath of the 1969 rioting the Malaysian political system turned in a markedly authoritarian direction with the declaration of the emergency…Some twenty months later, however, the country returned to what was called normalcy. In fact, however, the political system was less open and liberal than before May 1969.22
These changes, along with the denial of the right to free speech and press, has led to the general erosion over the years of the Chinese position in Malaysian society.
The business elite
Whether or not the Chinese are willing to acknowledge their deteriorating political status in Malaysia is, however, debatable. For one thing, the intra-communal differences that separate the Chinese community are great, especially when compared to the more homogenous, unified character of the Malays. These differences—in class, ideology, cultural heritage and language—are all factors that have influenced how the Chinese tend to perceive their position in Malaysia and how they formulate their political objectives. For example, among the Chinese business elite, or the towkay class, leaders who have reaped considerable profits from their relations with the bumiputera tend to resist calls for the elimination of bumiputera status. They are able to flourish despite the constraints of the system, financially capable of sending their children to private universities or to study abroad, or of acquiring prime real estate not reserved for bumiputeras. It is the towkay class that makes up the backbone of the MCA today. A Chinese businessman even mentioned once in conversation that he preferred working with the Malays over the Chinese, because he thought the Chinese were too calculative and untrustworthy. Moreover, he thought that the Malays esteemed reciprocal relationships more and were readier to help (without exacting a cost) than the Chinese, something that he found valuable in a Malay-dominated society.
Lessons from the university
Admittedly, the Chinese have, in their private lives, enjoyed similar positive interactions with the Malays as the aforementioned businessman.23 Yet, while they may have felt little social discrimination coming from the Malays in average, day-to-day settings, they do not share the same political perspective as the towkay class. In particular, those who have attained higher education seem eager to move beyond ethnic politics. One university student expressed frustration at the persistent tone of politics:
Let’s not play the racial card anymore, that’s immature. That’s not what being a Malaysian is about. Being a Malaysian means all of us are the same countrymen, not just Malay, Chinese, Indian and all that.
Another student considered many of the issues discussed in Parliament to be of little consequence to the development of Malaysia as a whole. In her opinion, the emphasis on bumiputerism only served to reduce the quality of governance:
Our ministers bring inside jokes into the Parliament, which is actually not proper, [because it] is really racist. And these are our ministers—the people we look up to, the people who are running our country—so how do we trust [them]?
One informant, a medical professional, wrote that it was a “pity” that the government treated non-Malays as if they were second-class citizens. When asked what he considered to be the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the present government, he replied,
Greatest strengths: a basic proven governing machinery. Weaknesses: Arrogance with total disregard of the feelings of the general public… Our government wants to be an island with a managed political and social environment. In this globalised world with no borders and easy dissemination of information, this just won’t work in the years to come.
As demonstrated by the three cases above, some of the more highly educated Chinese in Malaysia feel exasperated by the lack of change in the system and the overemphasis on bumiputera versus non-bumiputera in society.
The online community
An interesting development over the past decade and a half has been the impact of online interaction and blogging on the Malaysian community. The internet provides instantaneous, uncensored public feedback on controversial issues, providing a necessary medium to get around government controls. Although the government still manages to detain a few outspoken bloggers under the Internal Security Act, the threat of government action is now less intimidating, simply because the internet is so much harder to monitor.
All sorts of Malaysians have now taken to blogging, including government ministers. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell the race of the blogger or commentator, unless it is explicitly stated. Nevertheless, these blogs, and the comments left on them, help paint the most complete picture of Malaysian opinion that one is likely to get. For example, in response to one posting by Mahathir on the deteriorating state of Malaysia and the call for the ‘silent majority’ to lend its voice, a sympathizing commentator noted the following about the current political conundrum:
Our current "so called leaders" want to lead, but they do not know how to lead; they want to be liberal, but do not know to what extent; they want to be democratic, but they do not [know] what is democracy…basically, this current bunch of so called leaders are actually just a bunch of losers!24
On the same page, however, were commentators who felt that Mahathir was no less at fault in the problems of the current state of Malaysia than the leaders he mentioned in the blog. The current administration and those before it contributed to the state’s failure to govern well. As one commentator wrote,
I love Malaysia. I always had. I loved the great times when there were genuine efforts to better ourselves. I loved you for being at the helm of that ship. Then I grew up. I saw the racism. I saw how people abused their 'constitutional rights' with glee and how you stood by and watched them.
I saw how you encouraged corrupt officials for the glory of the nation (and the glorification of your self)… In a few short years we are where we are today.
Though many commentators on these sites have championed the cause of the NEP and are thankful for the opportunities afforded to the bumiputeras, many are also evidently angered by the status quo. Like the first commentator mentioned earlier, some are simply frustrated by the apparent incompetence of PM Badawi’s leadership. The second commentator, however, expresses a deeper frustration in perceiving injustices in the system itself.
Preserving a Chinese identity
The Chinese community in Malaysia is comprised of several culturally distinct groups from China, including the Hokkien, Hakkar, and Cantonese. Despite their cultural and linguistic differences, many of them share a common bond in the celebration of Chinese New Year’s and other traditions, the Chinese written language and the frequent sharing of meals. Many take pride in their rich, cultural heritage; several Chinese families opt to send their children to private, Chinese language schools and some continue to maintain close business and personal relationships with China.
In Malaysia, politics tends to center on ethnicity. This pressure is evident in the Chinese-dominated parties of the DAP and the MCA, and the Indian-dominated parties of the MIC and the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF). In less public settings, however, most Chinese consider their ‘Chineseness’ to be a matter of bloodline and physically visible attributes rather than a matter of common tradition, language or any other type of cultural element, though this may be slowly declining. Therefore, according to Fee, though “a Chinese in Malaysia is Chinese because he is neither Malay nor Indian,” there are many cases in which the Chinese have been able to emphasize or de-emphasize their ethnic affiliation in order to get by in Malaysian society.25
Sidestepping market preference practices
One example of the Chinese deemphasizing ethnic ties can be seen in business. Traditionally, Chinese businesses dealt exclusively with other Chinese, and small businesses were owned and operated by the family. Some of these Chinese networks were so efficient, that foreign investors went directly to the Chinese when searching for new business opportunities. Meanwhile, Malay businesses had little success in the cities and were less interconnected in their business relations with each other compared to the Chinese. As a result of the NEP, however, bumiputeras have an easier time obtaining licenses and permits, or getting approval for business loans. Additionally, the government is committed towards helping them in their business endeavors. A Chinese who wishes to stay competitive in business must either arrange for a bumiputera to obtain a license on his behalf and, in exchange, give the bumiputera a share of the profit,1 or he must incorporate a bumiputera as one of the leading partners in his business. In either case, the Chinese businessman sheds some of the close business relationships he has with other Chinese in order to accommodate his new relations with the bumiputera.
On occasion, some Chinese businessmen even convert to Islam in order to take full advantage of bumiputera policy. Since a bumiputera is one, who adheres to Malay customs and traditions and professes Islam, a Chinese Malaysian can technically become bumiputera if he becomes a Muslim. However, there are a few significant barriers that keep this from becoming a common occurrence. First, conversion for the sake of better advantages is looked down upon in the culture and in both ethnic communities, such that a convert is hard-pressed to prove his/her sincerity in converting. Second, conversion requires the rejection of one’s Chinese identity and non-Muslim rights. For instance, one must legally change from the Chinese name to a Muslim name, be subject to Muslim laws, and stop eating at familiar Chinese restaurants, because pork is considered unclean. Finally, conversion out of Islam is not an option. With some rare exceptions, conversions from Islam are generally not legally recognized. Consequently, becoming bumiputera comes at a hefty price for those who wish to sidestep NEP policies through conversion.
Facing challenges in higher education
The levels of frustration expressed at the university level are not coincidental. In Malaysia, the treatment of bumiputera and non-bumiputera are best observed at public universities, where policies towards these groups can be compared side-by-side. In other areas of society, the two are generally segregated. For example, public administration and organizational leadership tends to be heavily dominated by Malays, with few Chinese and Indians in the mix. Since Malays do not eat pork and Chinese love pork, even common social settings such as restaurants tend to be segregated, but this type of segregation is only socially and not publically enforced. At the university level, however, the tension surrounding bumiputerism is crystallized by the politics of education.
The NEP quota system that dictated how many types of students were admitted to public universities was officially eliminated in 2004. However, in its place arose a more biased system, one that used government-funded scholarships to help bumiputeras gain over non-bumiputeras. Instead of the usual sixty-percent placement rate at the universities for the bumiputera, the new, “meritocracy”-based education system grants up to seventy five-percent of its financial scholarships to bumiputeras. Meanwhile, Chinese and Indian students, especially those who are unable to afford the cost of higher education, are forced to compete over the remaining twenty-five percent. One Chinese official in education remarked in an email the following about the new approach:
The quota system [before] was set at 55% Malays, 35% Chinese and 10% Indians (55:35:10). But if one were to analyse the present “meritocracy system”, it would appear that it has further disadvantaged the Chinese, in particular. For the years 2006 and 2007 intakes, the percentage has been 62:32:6 and for 2008, it was 62:31:7. Whether the consistency in the percetage[sic] is coincidental or otherwise, it will be hard to dispel that the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) is practising “manage-meritocracy System”.
The official’s observations speak volumes about non-bumiputera students, especially when it comes to how poor Chinese students have been affected by systemic injustices. The poorer classes carry the weight of the non-bumiputera burdens, since they are unable to find their way past the policies through political connections or great wealth. Even with excellent academic credentials, merit alone is simply not enough on which to get by in society. One online blogger described his(her) unhappy experience as a non-bumiputera in education without money or connections:
I'm chinese (non-bumi) from Tawau, Sabah. My family is poor. Father left us when i was young leaving my mother have to take care of me and other 5 siblings.…when i finish form 5, she cannot afford me to go for further studies. I try to apply to go ITM (Institut Teknologi Mara), thanks to the NEP, the institute is for Bumis only. Those Bumis who can't study and well-off manage to gain entry. I try to apply nursing, but instead was rejected because i was chinese, instead those bumis who pass form 3 only, manage to gain entry…You think Malay saja yang kena victimize [You think Malays are the only ones victimized]? Well, think again. Orang cina pun kena victimize bah [Chinese are victimized, too].26
Many non-Malay poor feel robbed of the opportunity to thrive in Malaysia by bumiputera policies. Yet, despite the insistence of the government on the equal distribution of wealth, little is being done by the government to publically aid impoverished non-Malays.
Non-Malay lecturers also feel the challenges brought on by the NEP at the university level when seeking to advance in their professions, because government favoritism extends to teachers as well as to students. One informant, now a practicing medical professional, described his former experiences as a senior lecturer at a Malaysian university, seeking permission from the university board to fulfill a prestigious fellowship position in Singapore:
This [fellowship] was given to only one deserving candidate among Asean countries every year and it was then a privilege. However when I asked for permission from the university admin to release me as a lecturer to take up the post, I was told point blank that they would only allow this to a bumi. Go figure.
Ultimately, it seems, the government’s insistence on micromanaging the education system has done more harm than good for the education system. Although more Malays are now educated, it is useless to try to pretend that non-Malays have not been adversely affected or, that racial tensions are not exacerbated, by these policies. The practice of “spoon-feeding”, which was earlier cited by a political figure in his criticism of education, only adds to fuel to the fire. While the government continues to argue over which languages are most appropriate for instruction, lowered standards in education have contributed to high rates of unemployment among recent graduates of Malaysia’s public education system.
Most of the Chinese surveyed in these interviews expressed a desire to see ethnic politics and bumiputerism removed from Malaysia forever, but were wary of the consequences of taking political action. If they vote for the opposition, they risk losing their socio-economic position and connections. Furthermore, the BN has been so entrenched as Malaysia’s ruling coalition, that many find it hard to picture an alternative coalition taking over the BN’s place, or the country undergoing any significant change in policy. Yet if the Chinese stay with the BN, they may risk losing much more than just connections. Even some politicians in government are well aware of the rapidly weakening position of non-Malays because, as one Malay politician, submitting his responses anonymously, wrote,
Muslims and Malays are becoming a bigger majority by the day. So now, while the Malay-Muslims are divided, is the best time for the Non-Muslims to try and push the Muslims down by for example even small things such as rejecting the use of Malay Jawi script on public road signs… In the next 10 to 15 years they will not be able to do this anymore. In fact, if trends continue, more children of Malaysia's Non-Muslims will embrace Islam and become brothers with the Malay-Muslims. That is the ultimate fear and 'defeat' of Malaysia's Non-Muslims. But then with an overwhelming co-religious majority there will no longer be much ethno-religious tension left.
Of course, by predicting that in the future there will not be ‘much ethno-religious tension left,’ the informant is alluding to a growing and unsettling trend that has emerged in Malaysia: non-Malay issues being phased-out of public life. Thus, for every ounce of silence that non-Malays continue to keep on political issues, they lose a pound of significance as minorities in a democratic society.
Although bumiputerism has certainly been no walk in the park, the Chinese and the Indians have lived with it up until this point. But then came the March 2008 elections. Why was there a sudden change of heart at these elections and why did some Malays feel threatened enough to wave the symbol of Malay dominance—the Malay kris sword— around at public demonstrations afterwards? Clearly, this sample of politicians has been fumbling for answers about the elections, as evident in the variation of their interpretations.
One possible answer for the strong showing at election by the opposition is the return of Anwar Ibrahim to politics. As one may remember, Anwar was the popular Malay political leader who was influential in the formation of the BA and was thrown in jail for defying Mahathir and his economic policies. Some years after he was imprisoned, Prime Minister Badawi pardoned him from the sentence, but Anwar was prohibited from returning immediately to politics. In his place, his wife Azizah Ismail led the BA in the growing call for a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ promoting collaboration between ethnicities, with many eagerly anticipating Anwar’s return in 2008. Recently, Anwar’s wife relinquished her powerful seat in Parliament to her husband, an event which now puts Anwar in a very remarkable position. Can he muster the political support that the BA needs to unseat the BN?
At this juncture, it may be impossible to predict which way the votes will swing at the next election. What is clear, however, is that the BN is no longer a tenable solution for resolving ethnic conflict. Anwar may be just the person that the Malaysian people need for change, since he has a proven record as a strong leader, who has the backing of many Malays and non-Malays. Significantly, though, Anwar has his own share of problems to face before he can make any changes. During the economic boom of the 1990s, for example, his critics claim that he was one of main government officials who exploited government-big business deals for political power.27 And there are still rumors today about his bribing practices compromising his ability to lead and his illegal sexual affairs. Nevertheless, Anwar and the BA advocate many of the changes that the Chinese community needs at this time, such as educational and corporate policies in Malaysia that try to incorporate other races. This, at least, offers hope for the non-Malays and a way forward. On the other hand, the BN has little to offer the Chinese anymore. Perhaps no other person could have more astutely grasped the dilemma of the Chinese Malaysians today as the Chinese medical professional, when he said in an interview that the current situation was “not ideal, but in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed monster will be king.”
1 2007 estimate (CIA World Factbook)
2 (Crouch 16)
3 (Hasan 142-147)
4 (Koon 11)
5 (Rae and Witzel 68)
6 (Crouch 168)
7 (Vasil 44)
8 (Fee 219)
9 (Crouch 33)
10 (Hasan 147)
12 (Ibid. 79)
13 Mahathir in (Wah and Teik 57)
14 (Mahathir 104)
15 (Gomez 93)
16 (Rae and Witzel 48)
17 (Koon 262)
18 (Gabriel 74)
19 (Gomez 163)
20 Siddique in (Fee 106)
21 (Gomez 3)
22 (Crouch 26)
23 For a more comprehensive analysis of macro v. micro-level interactions between the Chinese and the Malays
, see Tong Chee Kiong’s excerpt entitled “The Chinese in Contemporary Malaysia” in Race, Ethnicity and the State in Malaysia and Singapore
, edited by Lian Kwen Fee.
24 Comment on (“Whither Malaysia”)
25 (Fee 103)
26 Comment on (“Whither Malaysia”)
27 (Gomez 163)
Crouch, Harold. Government and Society in Malaysia.
Ithaca: Cornell University, 1996.
Fee, Lian Kwen, ed. Race, Ethnicity and the State in Malaysia and Singapore
. Boston: Brill, 2006.
Gabriel, Theodore. Hindu and Muslim Inter-Religious Relations in Malaysia.
Lampeter: Edwin Mellen, 2000.
Gomez, Edmund Terence, ed. The State of Malaysia: ethnicity, equity and reform
. New York: Routledge Curzon, 2004.
Hasan, Zoya, ed. Democracy in Muslim Societies: The Asian Experience.
New Delhi: Sage, 2007.
Koon, Heng Pek. Chinese Politics in Malaysia: A History of the Malaysian Chinese Association
. New York: Oxford, 1988.
“Malaysia”. CIA World Factbook
Mohamad, Mahathir bin. The Malay Dilemma. Singapore: Asia Pacific, 1970.
Mohamad, Mahathir bin. “Whither Malaysia”.
Rae, Ian and Morgen Witzel. The Overseas Chinese of South East Asia: History, Culture, Business. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Vasil, R.K. Ethnic politics in Malaysia. New Delhi: Radiant, 1980.
Wah, Francis Loh Kok and Khoo Boo Teik, ed. Democracy in Malaysia: discourses and practices. Richmond: Curzon, 2002.