Friday, February 23, 2007


by C. S. Kuppuswamy

“We need to go beyond race-based politics. If you continue to harp and support this racial equation, you will never be able to overcome racial divisions” – Anwar Ibrahim, Former Deputy Prime Minister

“Malaysia’s first serious survey of race relations in more than 50 years indicates that behind the government- promoted façade of unity and peace, racism runs deep in one of Asia’s multi-ethnic melting pots” -Baradan Kuppusamy (AT on line 24 March 2006)


Malaysia is a multi racial country with a population of 26 million comprising Bumiputeras 66 % (consisting of Malays, Orang Asli, Sabahans and Sarawakians), Chinese 26 % and Indians 8 %. Despite the fact that since independence in 1957, the country is being ruled by a coalition of political parties of the three main races, racial politics has prevailed in this country till date. Periodic efforts by the leadership to forge a Malaysian identity has been thwarted by the Malays in UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) – the predominant party in the coalition. In the last UMNO Annual General Assembly meeting held in November 2006, some members by their fiery speeches whipped up the racial sentiments of Malays much to the chagrin of the other races. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had admitted in a recent meeting that race relations in Malaysia are “fragile” and described the worsening relationship between the Muslim Malays and the minority ethnic Chinese and Indian communities as a “disease” which must be tackled openly (Channelnewsasia report of 07 December 2006).

The Role of Islam

Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, a secular democracy with more than 60 % of the population being ethnic Malays while the rest are Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. According to the Constitution, Malays ought to be Muslims or else they are not legally Malays and they will lose their privileges under the constitution For Malays there is a sharia court which has legal jurisdiction over their religious (Islam) and family (Muslim) issues. This is not applicable to non-Muslims. By law the civil courts have no jurisdiction in respect of “any matter” within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts.

The Islamic Affairs Department of the Government is responsible for administering sharia in the country Passage of new laws by this department with fundamentalistic overtones have come under sharp criticism even by Muslim women and moderate Muslims.

There is freedom of religion for people of other faiths to practice. However there have been quite a few instances of churches and Hindu temples being demolished by the authorities as well as by some fundamental extremist groups with the connivance of the local authorities. The political leaders are trying to play down these instances as stray cases where these places of worship were on illegal constructions. There is also resistance to interfaith meetings and organisations. To quote Fong Po Kuan, an opposition MP “There is a creeping Islamisation in our society and this isn’t appropriate because we are a multi-religious, multi-racial country” (BBC News 16-05-2006).

The Islamisation started in the later years of Dr. Mahathir’s reign, when the ruling coalition wanted to substantiate their Islamic credentials which were being questioned by the fundamental opposition party PAS (The Islamic Party). Since Ahmad Badawi, a devout Muslim, took over as Prime Minister in October 2003, the fundamentalists have been emboldened as he is not as firm as his predecessor in dealing with such sensitive issues pertaining to race and religion He has come up with a new concept known as Islam Hadhari (Civilisational Islam) which has a more moderate approach that emphasizes development consistent with the tenets of Islam. However the majority of the Malays do not seem to be enchanted by this line of thinking.

1969 Racial Riots

The Chinese – Malay race riots in Kuala Lumpur began on 13 May 1969 and is often referred to as the May 13 incident though it lasted for some more days. This was the aftermath of a major defeat of the ruling UMNO at the hands of the Chinese Opposition Parties (Democratic Action Party and the Gerakan) in the general elections held on 10 May 1969. In the riots according to official figures, there were around 200 casualties and approximately 150 wounded. More than 700 cases of arson and destruction or damage to 200 odd vehicles were reported.

This resulted in the declaration of a nationwide state of emergency and imposition of curfew in the affected areas. Parliament was suspended until 1971. The press was gagged and a National Operations Council (NOC) was set up to go into the various theories and reasons attributed to the eruption of the riots. The NOC’s report on the riots stated “The Malays who already felt excluded in the country’s economic life, now began to feel a threat to their place in the public services” which implied that this was a cause of the violence (from Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia).

The New Economic Policy of 1970 came into being as a result of these riots, with a commitment by the new government to bring up the Malays by various affirmative action measures.

The riots led to the expulsion of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad from UMNO and inspired him to write the famous book “The Malay Dilemma”.

The New Economic Policy

This was the policy brought into force in 1970 for introducing measures for affirmative action as a consequence to the 1969 racial riots. To offset the imbalance between the minority Chinese (controlling the economy) and the majority Malays (farmers and fishermen), the policy was introduced with quotas and reservations for Malays in jobs, educational institutions, share holdings in companies, housing, acquisition of commercial property and many more privileges.

The policy which was for a period of 20 years till 1990 did achieve the aim of bringing up the Malays in the professional and business class. Even after 1990, the policy was extended under the new name “National Development Policy”

There is a general feeling with most of the Chinese and Indians and some of the Malays as well that the policy has outlived its utility and is negating the very aim. There is a clamour for abolition of the policy for reasons such as; Malays have developed a culture of dependency, non-Malays have become more enterprising and better educated because of the heavy odds and competition. However Malays especially in UMNO want the affirmative action to continue for some more years as the targets set in the policy have still not been met. In pursuing this policy, selective patronage by the leaders has resulted in persistent allegations of corruption and mistrust in the party and has created differences even within the Malays.

The Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI), a leading Malaysian think tank, released a report in October 2006 which indicated that the Malay ownership of private equity is as much as 45% as against the official figures of about 19%. The report questioned the need to continue the affirmative action programme. Under pressure from different sources ASLI withdrew the report for the reason that the author had erred in his research. However a debate on the continuance of the affirmative action policy had flared up in the political circles for which the Prime Minister had to assure the opposition that Government is transparent in its policies favouring the Malays (AP-17 October 2006).

Edmund Terrence Gomez in his article “The Perils of Pro-Malay Policies” (FEER –September 2005) analyses this issue in great detail. He writes that “for affirmative action adopted 35 years ago, the heavy price paid in terms of economic inefficiency and lost growth suggests Malaysia should continue progressing toward a more meritocratic society”.

“The Malay Dilemma”

The book with this title was written by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, in 1970 when he was expelled from UMNO. He was readmitted to UMNO in 1972 and rose to become the Prime Minister of Malaysia for a tenure of over two decades.

The book deals at length on the characteristics of the Malay race, the Malay language, and the necessity for affirmative action in order to relieve the Malays from the economic subjugation of the Chinese. The dilemma was whether the Malays should seek and accept such measures or not, though Dr. Mahathir advocated such affirmative action.

After nearly 30 years, Dr. Mahathir spoke on the same subject in July 2002 (at the Harvard Club of Malaysia) and came up with The New Malay Dilemma. In this speech he dealt on the progress of the Malays in these three decades in various fields. However he lamented that the Malay race has not culturally changed nor have they changed their attitudes. According to him the New Malay Dilemma is whether they should or should not do away the crutches that they have got used to, which in fact they have become proud of.

Taking this idea, there have been frequent debates on whether to do away with this affirmative action or not and if so, in what time frame or through which methodology.

The Survey

A telephonic survey was conducted in March 2006 by the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research. The survey was commissioned by the New Straits Times and supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. 1200 Malaysians of various hues participated in the survey. Some of the salient findings extracted from a media report are:
  • The majority of the races find comfort and security in their respective ethnicity.

  • In general, Malays are lazy, Chinese greedy and most Indians cannot be trusted.

  • Few of the respondents said they had eaten often with friends from other races in the last three months while more than 30 % said that they have never had a meal with people of other races.

  • More than 40 % of participants did not consider themselves Malaysians first.

  • More than 45 % of the participants consider that voting has always been on racial lines

  • More than 50% of the participants blamed politicians for racial problems

  • Around 70% said that they would help their own ethnic group first.

  • The majority of three main races had little knowledge of the culture and traditions of the other races.

  • There have been mixed responses for this survey. The findings have been disputed on the plea that it does not represent a true picture of the ground situation. The social organizations wanted all political parties that restrict membership on racial or religious grounds to be outlawed. “What the survey clearly shows is that the various races live peacefully but separately’ said Sivanesan, a leader of the Opposition Democratic Action Party.

    Efforts by the Government

    In the first half of the over two decade reign of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the country was seen as a progressive secular democracy with a strong economic growth and hence foreign investments were flowing in. He had firmly dealt with issues connected with the rising Islamisation and racial disparities. However the situation had progressively changed in his later years.

    Measures were taken to popularize English education both from the economic point of view as well as a means for bringing in racial unity.

    The concept of “vision schools” was brought in where students had to mingle with the other races in the sports, assembly halls and eating places while they had classes in their own respective languages.

    A National Service Programme was launched in 2004 where youths of different races were nominated to undergo a camp for about three months for a training programme, during which they would come to know the culture and traditions of the other races.

    These small measures neither had the desired impact nor had the support of the general public.


    The government deserves praise for the fact that no major racial riots have taken place since 1969.

    Because of the domination of the race-based political parties (both in the ruling front and the opposition) since independence, political activity continues to be on racial lines. The few multi-racial parties have not made any headway and hence coalition rule of the major race based parties has become the order of the day.

    The rise in fundamental or extremist overtones of Islam is creating a feeling of insecurity among the Chinese and the Indians. This trend in conjunction with racial polarization is affecting the flow of the FDI and in turn the economy of the nation.

    Efforts by the government to forge a Malaysian identity have been half-hearted, ill planned or implemented in haste. The support from the races for such efforts is also lacking.

    The continuance of the affirmative action policies without a time frame has also been a bone of contention for the Chinese and the Indians, besides encouraging corruption and patronage politics which has been creating rifts among the Malays as well.

    The country will be celebrating 50 years of independence in 2007. The Prime Minister and the rest of the leadership are aware of the fragile racial relations in the country. This awareness has to be translated into some definitive measures for harmonious coexistence of the races and for a more successful Malaysia.

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