The Bumiputera (or Bumiputra) is derived from the Sanskrit word 'Bhumiputra', which roughly translated means 'sons of the soil'. In both Malaysia and Brunei, the term is used to refer to a member of majority Malay ethnic group. It can also refer to members of certain indigenous groups as outlined below.
Other indigenous peoples (e.g. Iban, Dayak, Kelabit and Penan) are not defined as being Bumiputera by the Brunei constitution, nor are citizens who are of ethnic-Chinese, Indians or of Caucasian ancestry. Race is patrilineally defined in Brunei, so, for example, a half-Chinese man with an ethnic Dusun father is considered to be Bumiputera.
This is different from the definition in Malaysia where a larger number of races and ethnic groups are considered as Bumiputra. The Malaysian Constitution does not actually provide a definition of the term, which has led to some controversy concerning its relation to the indigenous groups in that country. See Bumiputera (Malaysia). Constitutional references to Bumiputeras can be found in Section 160 (2) of the Constitution of Brunei Darassalam.
Benefits and Privileges
Being accorded the status of Bumiputera in Brunei (as in Malaysia) carries with it certain benefits and opportunities which other ethnic groups in the country may not have access to. There are a number of affirmative action items targeting the Bumiputeras in Brunei. Under special legislation they have extended land rights and are given special privileges for employment opportunities in the Royal Brunei Armed Forces and Brunei Shell Petroleum.
A Special Place in Society
The justification for these special privileges and affirmative action schemes is that Bumiputeras face disadvantages due to the success of other groups in society, for example the Chinese. One case of such disadvantage can be seen in the demise of the construction industry in Brunei. The building sector is a major employer of Bumiputeras and forms the lifeblood of many Bumiputera families. As such, they are the group in society most affected by the global economic crisis. In the past, government policies in relation to economic recovery has been directly focussed on improving the position of Bumiputeras. During the Asian Economic Crisis of the late 1990s, Brunei's Economic Council developed an Action Plan in order to increase economic activity and thereby bring aout some form of relief. A major part of that plan was to actively encourage and subsidise investment in Bumiputera-owned businesses.
Bumiputera and Islam
The term Bumiputera often connotes those people of Malay-speaking ethnic groups who belong to the Islamic faith. Indeed, it has become advantageous for Bruneians to convert to Islam in order to truly qualify for Bumiputera status. There are some concerns that members of indigenous groups who technically fall under the Bumiputera category, but do not belong to the Islamic faith, may be under official pressure to convert in order to maintain their rights and privileges. In the 1970s, many indigenous people converted to Islam for this reason. The Bruneian government bans many religious activities not related to Islam, while at the same time benefitting those who participate in activities conducted by Muslim groups. This increases disadvantages to indigenous Bumiputeras who are not Muslims.
Comparing the concept of Bumiputera privileges in Malaysia and Brunei
Whereas the delineation between Bumiputeras and other groups in Malaysia has been the cause of much conflict and unrest of late, it does not appear to have had the same consequences in Bruneian society. This may be because affirmative action strategies are not so prevalent or obvious in Bruneian society. A lack of opposition to the Bumiputera concept in Brunei may also be because as an autocratic sultanate, the country does not experience a great deal of political diversity. This is in contrast to the situation in Malaysia, where protests against Bumiputera privileges in Malaysia are often backed by opposition parties in order to raise dissatisfaction with the government.
Notes and references
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- Saunders, Graham (1994).A History of Brunei, p.192. Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur.
- Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Brunei Darussalam : Dusun, Murut, Kedayan, Iban, Tutong, Penan, 2008, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/49749d48c.html [accessed 3 August 2009]
- Gunn, Geoffrey (1997). Language, Power, and Ideology in Brunei Darussalam , p.7. Ohio University Center for International Studies, Ohio.
- Gunn, Geoffrey (2008). 'Brunei Darussalam: Dynastic Fallout, Economic Crisis and Recovery' Nagasaki University's Academic Output Site http://hdl.handle.net/10069/20942, accessed 03 August 2009
- Gunn, Geoffrey (1997). Language, Power and Ideology in Brunei Darussalam, pp.6-7. Ohio University Center for International Studies, Ohio
- Economist Intelligence Unit (2008).Country Profile/Report, Malaysia, Brunei
- Bumiputera (Malaysia)