In the following Harvard Political Review, (August 18, 2021) the author Jay Hong Chew, explains the impact of constitutional change that gave one race greater political voice in Malaysia’s political system plus the long-term impacts on race relations.
A common anxiety among my Malaysian relatives is the seemingly insurmountable odds of getting into a state college. Quotas at federally-funded schools restrict entry for ethnic minorities — chiefly within the Chinese and Indian communities — to a paltry 10% in a nation where 24.6% of citizens are ethnically Chinese and 7.3% are ethnically Indian. The vast majority of spaces are reserved for students who are ethnic Bumiputera, the formal category under which the Malay race falls.
In Malaysia, a person is only considered to be Malay if they are Muslim; speak Malay regularly; practise Malay customs; and live in or have blood ancestors from Brunei, Malaysia ,or Singapore. And that’s not culturally accepted or even legislated, that’s upheld by Article 160 in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia.
Such active discrimination against ethnic minorities has pervaded every aspect of Malaysian society. The modern system originated as an economic endeavor — the New Economic Policy — meant to reduce the income inequality that existed between poorer Malays and wealthier minority groups. Yet, despite the program’s intent, these benefits have yet to reach the Malay majority. Instead, only a small group of elites benefit from the system, which has entrenched an unfettered network of patronage that lines the pockets of the very few at the expense of the many, minority or otherwise.
Ultimately, a race-based approach towards policy planning obscures the class divisions that perpetuate systems of inequality. Malaysia’s racial policies have unfortunately failed to equitably redistribute wealth, and its tendency towards policy along racial lines must be reconsidered to address the real challenges of Malaysian society.
The Origins of the Racial Compact
Malaysia is a country formed along ethnic fault lines.
The clear delineation of ethnic boundaries, as part of a wider “divide-and-rule” strategy, served the British well in its other colonial outposts and was similarly implemented in its colony of Malaya, the precursor to modern-day Malaysia. The ethnic segregation of communities prevented the possibility of a multi-ethnic coalition revolt that could upend established social structures, but it also allowed enterprises owned by minorities to proliferate and swiftly dominate the commercial space, edging many Malay-owned ones out. This system directly contributed to the heightening of ethnic consciousness, the effects of which persisted through the establishment of an independent Malaysian state.
In 1957, with seven cries of “Merdeka,” which means freedom in Malay, Tunku Abdul Rahman, widely recognized as the founding father of the modern state, ushered in an independent Malaysia. With it, an informal racial compact was established: it ensured the primacy of the Malays in political discourse, filling up the political vacuum which the British had left, with the other ethnic minorities agreeing to play second fiddle in the name of national unity. The “special position of the Malays” enshrined in Article 153 of the Malaysian constitution is the most explicit pronouncement of this, but it comes short of declaring a structural hierarchy.
As a compromise, ethnic minorities were granted a separate political space and powers in federal consensus-building, while being left relatively undisturbed in the private sector. This compromise led to the current political order and a new racial compact, where parties are constructed on the basis of race, canvassing for support from their respective ethnic voter bases.
While strengthening the racial compact has maintained the image of peaceful coexistence among all ethnic groups, it merely has presented an illusion of national unity rather than allowing a larger integrated Malaysian identity to develop. The implicit segregation of society by race has continued to enhance ethnic differences, ultimately preventing any genuine interethnic understanding or integration to occur.
Racial tensions came to the fore in a series of deadly sectarian clashes on May 13, 1969, leaving hundreds dead and Parliament suspended for 2 years until 1971. Abdul Rahman was booted out in favor of a political establishment that embraced Ketuanan Melayu — literally “Malay supremacy” — fervently, setting policies on a trajectory towards Malay dominance and relegating ethnic minorities to a secondary role with little to no state support.
The New Economic Policy was one of the most impactful of these policies.
A Look into the New Economic Policy (NEP)
The NEP had two aims: one, to increase economic representation of the Malay community throughout all sectors, which had been skewed disproportionately towards the ethnic minorities, and by extension, alleviating poverty; two, ensuring the pre-eminence of Malay voices in the sociopolitical sphere. As a rare example of anti-discrimination policies benefitting an oppressed majority population, the NEP sought to redress the historical inequities stemming from colonial rule.
While good-intentioned, the intentions of the NEP became justifications for self-serving policies that Malay political elites passed to increase their own political and economic leverage. Rather than resolving interethnic inequality, the NEP widened the wealth gap within the Malay community. Economic gains were only made by those with the appropriate connections. Interethnic economic transactions termed as “Ali-Baba relations” — where a Malay receives lucrative government contracts reserved for Bumiputeras, and promptly sells off these rights to a non-Malay — undermined the stated goal of wealth redistribution. While there seems to be a nominal increase in Malay ownership, there is simply no incentive to participate in capital formation, which in turn has encouraged a greater dependence on these systems of patronage. It became clear that race-based policies such as the NEP did little to achieve its outlined goal of greater Malay economic representation.
Ultimately, a race-based approach to policy planning obscures the real issue here: class. Indeed, poverty knows no color; regardless of race, all at the bottom rung of the ladder have struggled, with or without the NEP. However, while the lens of race is a grave impediment to socioeconomic progress, reordering society to think otherwise is easier said than done.
The Way Ahead
For real progress to be made, two things must be achieved: one, the Malay community must be assured of the security of their rights and privileges to agree to concessions; two, a genuine national identity transcending race must be instilled. In an interview with the HPR, Professor James Chin from the University of Tasmania proposed a new compact: preserving the Malay community’s position as “first among equals,” but emphasizing the importance of secularism as a condition for constructive nation-building. The Islamic faith widely practiced by the Malay majority possesses a central role in the community’s political identity as well. Thus, while it will still retain a special status conferred by the state, a clear distinction must be drawn in its role in politics, and its increasing conflation with race in policy must be prevented.
In addition to cohesion through politics and policy, nationhood begins in reforming education. Currently, schools are extremely segregated, with different syllabi for different ethnic groups, reinforcing the racial biases that each community holds. Communities can, and should, start lobbying for more spaces for multiethnic cohesion and greater standardization in the educational system that fuels racialized mentality.
Likening it to a “food court,” Professor Chin asserts that the education system has very much been politicized by a myriad of competing interests, all replete with different educational objectives and metrics for assessment. A new compact would include greater centralization of the system, where racial boundaries are removed and an authentic multiracial coexistence can be fostered.
These solutions are not new. They have been actively pushed for on a federal level at multiple junctures of Malaysia’s tumultuous political history. Today, the inequalities of the racial compact are more glaring than ever, and in light of sluggish economic growth and increasing polarization of Malaysian society along ethnic faultlines, there is a desperate need for radical change once more.
If not, Malaysia risks falling off the edge of a cliff once again, just as it did in 1969.