Racism in Malaysia
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Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country, with a predominately Muslim population. Accusations of racism stem from racial preferences embodied within the social and economic policy of the Malaysian government, as well as broader tensions between various ethnic groups. The concept of Ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy is accepted in the political sphere by many Malays. Discrimination is widespread, publicly displayed and accepted, ranging from implied ethnic supremacy to religious intolerance. Charging non Malays more for services is very common.
While 179 countries have ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), Malaysia is not one of them. The Pakatan Harapan government that replaced Barisan Nasional in 2018 had indicated a readiness to ratify ICERD, but has yet to do so due to the convention's conflict with the Malaysian constitution and the race and religious norms in Malaysia established since its independence.
Malays make up the majority — according to the 2010 census figures, over 50% of the 28.3 million population (including non-citizens) are Malays. About 22.6% of the population are Chinese Malaysians (Malaysians of Chinese descent) and Indian Malaysians (Malaysians of Indian descent) comprise about 6.6% of the population. There are also a very small minority of aborigines whose ancestors or Orang Asli arrived in what is today Malaysia well over 7,000 years before the Malays arrived from what is today Indonesia roughly 3,000 years ago. These ancient people also split with some heading to Sulawesi and others progressing into Java, and Sumatra. The final migration was to the Malayan Peninsula roughly 3,000 years ago. A sub-group from Borneo moved to Champa in Vietnam roughly 4,500 years ago. The Champa group eventually moved to present day Kelantan in Malaysia. There are also traces of the Dong Song and HoaBinh migration from Vietnam and Cambodia. There was also the Southern Thai migration, from what we know as Patani (Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala, South Songkhla) today. All these groups share DNA and linguistic origins traceable to Taiwan, if not to southern China. Yet the Malay and Chinese (and also Indian) communities in Malaysia today appear at times at odds with each other given the polarisation caused by various policies under the Bumiputera policy.
Some had attempts to tie the racism in Malaysia to history of the country, have assumed that the friction between Chinese and Malay started since Japanese Occupation of Malaya(1941 - 1945) whereby misunderstanding of that Malays cooperated with the Japanese army. According to this theory, the Chinese population was marginalized behind by Japanese, whereby the Malays were allowed to partially take part in the governing of the country under the Japanese colonialisation then. And with this the seeds of dissatisfaction among Chinese people was started. The British, who had colonised what is now the Malaysian peninsular starting in 1876, had recognized the Malay states, as recorded by numerous literature by Frank Swettenham, Hugh Clifford and many more of their scholars. It is proposed that the British "divide and rule" practice, as evident in their other colonies such as India, is the contributor of the present racism. Under the British, the Chinese were more or less isolated in their tin mining areas. In addition, some Chinese were settled around the major towns while the Malays, had established their own villages. The legacy of the "Malay Supremacy" of Mahathir, who he is only half-Malay as his father came from Kerala, India, has created a chasm cutting through the fabric of Malaysian society. Such exploitation of race and religion for power has shattered the concept of a "Malaysian Malaysia", with talent being lost to foreign countries due to exclusive job opportunities for the Malays.
Presently, Malay is the national language of Malaysia. While it is unique that more than four languages are spoken widely in Malaysia today (English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil), the ethnic languages are mainly used by the ethnic groups respectively. The divide is quite prominent since the Malays mostly attend the Malaysian national schools but the Chinese and also the Indians, have created their own schools, placing importance on their respective languages.
New Economic Policy
Government policies of positive discrimination often favour the Malay majority and the Bumiputera status, particularly in areas such as housing, finance and education. Economic policies designed to favour Bumiputera, including affirmative action in public education, were implemented in the 1970s in order to defuse inter-ethnic tensions following the May 13 Incident in 1969. However, these policies have not been fully effective in eradicating poverty among rural Bumiputeras and have further caused a backlash especially from Chinese and Indian minorities. The policies are enshrined in the Malaysian constitution and questioning them is technically illegal.
Both major ethnic groups, Malays and Chinese, have their own spheres of control and power. UMNO, the ruling party since Malaysia's independence from Britain - until May 2018 depended on the majority Malay population for votes by using laws that give Malays priority over other races in areas such as employment, education, finance, and housing. Such policies has been cited in Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia. UMNO also promotes ketuanan Melayu, which is the idea that the ethnic Malays or Bumiputeras should get special privileges in Malaysia.
Pro-bumiputera Malays claim that The Federation of Malaya Agreement signed on 21 January 1948 at King House by the Malay rulers, and by Sir Edward Gent as the representative of the British government, to let Malays be the leaders among three races. However, this claim is inaccurate. The truth is that upon independence from the British, equality was supposed to be given to the three races who made up the population of Malaysia.
Those were the original terms of The Federation of Malaya Agreement, which Dato' Onn Jaafar - then heading UMNO - had looked to abide by. However, since 1951 UMNO meandered a different course, enshrining the rights of Malays over all other races in law. Today, the Malays dominate in politics at both national and state levels, the civil service, military and security forces. The Chinese have traditionally dominated in the economy and live in large numbers in urban areas of Malaysia.
The Malay-controlled government ensures that all Bumiputras of Malay origin are given preferential treatment when it comes to the number of student places in Government universities, and many Chinese and Indians have chosen to study in private universities. The Malays are also given discounts for new houses and preferential treatment in public housing, cheaper burial plots in most urban areas for the deceased Muslims, that all key government positions to be held by Malays including most sporting associations, a minimum of a 30% Malay Bumiputera equity to be held in Listed Companies, full funding for mosques and Islamic places of worship, special high earning interest trust funds for Bumiputera Malays, special share allocation for new share applications for Bumiputera Malays, making the Malay language a compulsory examination paper to pass with high emphasis given to it.
Malaysian governments have given special provisions and rights to the Malays through documented legal texts, it has also allowed certain practises by the Chinese community to be practiced according to their religious beliefs. This is evident to the visitor where Chinese shrines can be seen in parking lots of even shopping malls and every Chinese New Year, despite the country's ban on fireworks, the ethnic Chinese are allowed to burn them.
The lack of meritocracy in the Malaysian education system is a concern, the problem is it creates more disparity between various groups in Malaysia. Even school text books have been criticised as racist especially from Chinese and Indian type school who adopted learning methods from their main land country.
The battle to uphold the Malay Language as the national language raged on in 1968, Prof. al-Attas, as a member of the GERAKAN, engaged in a debate with Lim Kit Siang and the Opposition from the Democratic Action Party (DAP)6 on the subject matter of Indonesian literature being made as part of the corpus of Malay Language literature, and on the idea of a Malaysian Malaysia. Responding towards Lim Kit Siang’s claim that making the Malay Language the national language is racist and chauvinistic, Prof al-Attas, argued that Malays cannot be accused as racist because a Chinese who becomes a Muslim and speaks the Malay Language can be considered a Malay. A Malay, however, can never be a Chinese. By this definition, however, a Malay that renounces Islam is no longer a Malay.
In 2010, a Malaysian court sentenced a Malay to just a week in jail and only fined 11 others for a brandishing a cow’s head during a protest against the construction of a Hindu temple. Critics said the light sentences would further strain race relations between the majority Malay Muslims, who make up the majority, and minority Hindu Indians, Chinese as well as Christians of various races who complain of discrimination. The 12 were from a group who had marched in August 2009 with the bloodied head of a cow, to protest a plan to build a Hindu temple in their mainly Muslim neighbourhood. Hindus, who consider the cow to be a sacred animal, were offended and angered. Such bad practices by the courts also further fuelled the racial polarisation.
- 2001 Kampung Medan riots
- Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia
- Hindu Rights Action Force
- Ketuanan Melayu
- Racial politics in Malaysia
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James Chin, The Malaysian Chinese Dilemma: The Never Ending Policy (NEP), Chinese Southern Studies (2008)