#12 power
Jacqueline Ann Surin

Power and Inequality in Malaysia

When Malaysia’s sixth prime minister, Najib Razak, came to office in 2009, he offered Malaysians the promise of a strong, united Malaysia in his “1Malaysia” campaign. The concept promoted greater national unity and economic equality among all ethnic groups. It was to be the multi-ethnic nation’s guiding principle in order to move towards developed nation status. An ambitious concept, but what actually happened?

The 1Malaysia agenda was intended to convey a notion of unity, strength and stable interethnic relations born out of equal rights and opportunities for all. An agenda, though, is only as good as the actual implementation of the agenda’s core goal. And in Malaysia, 56 years after independence, there is a huge gap between the promise of unity and everyday experience. That gap continues to widen primarily because of the pervasive and permissive principle of Malay supremacy that has been espoused and propagated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

The UMNO’s power

The UMNO is the leading party in the ruling coalition of the Barisan Nasional (BN) or National Front. It is a Malay-based political party that has been in power since Malaya’s independence in 1957. In 1963, a new political entity called Malaysia emerged which included Malaya, the Borneo States of Sabah and Sarawak, and Singapore which would leave the federation two years later. In the BN coalition, power is concentrated in the UMNO, to which all six of Malaysia’s premiers have belonged. That power is wielded by the UMNO-led administration in political, economic, cultural and religious life to ensure that the majority Malays will always have a greater say compared to all other ethnic and religious groups.

As a result of its geographic location in the middle of South-East Asia’s major trade routes and its colonial history, Malaysia’s population of nearly 29 million has a strong multi-ethnical make up. In 2010,ethnic Malays comprise only 50% of the population, Chinese 22.5%, other (Bumiputera) natives (which refers to indigenous people) nearly 12%, Indians nearly 7%, and others about 1%.

In the wake of Malaysian independence, the leaders of the three largest BN component parties – the UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) – had a joint vision of equal citizenship and power-sharing between the three largest ethnic groups, a vision which was also reflected in Malaysia’s constitution which attempted to be as inclusive of all citizens as possible.

Malay supremacy

Over the years however, the rallying cry of “ketuanan Melayu” or “Malay supremacy” has created a disparity of power between two different groups of citizens. . It is an oft-quoted justification used publicly by UMNO leaders and politicians to ensure power remains concentrated in their hands at the expense of non-Malay citizens and other oppositional political parties willing to represent the interests of non-Malay citizens.

Non-Malays can be told to get out of the country.

As a result of this paradigm, two other narratives have emerged over the past decade or more. One is that Malays are supreme. In a show of Malay supremacy, the chief of the UMNO’s youth wing raised the keris (the Malay dagger) at the party’s 2006 and 2007 general assemblies. That led to one UMNO delegate asking the Youth Chief, Hishammuddin Hussein, who was then Education Minister and who was eventually promoted to Home Minister, when he was going to use the keris, presumably on non-Malays. The other narrative that has become popular among individuals and groups who insist on Malay rights is that non-Malay citizens are migrants. And as “migrants” or “squatters”, non-Malays can be told to get out of the country. In 2008, an UMNO division leader from the north, Ahmad Ismail, was treated like a hero in his party for having called Chinese Malaysians migrant squatters who were untrustworthy. In at least two well publicized incidents from 2010 and this year, school heads also resorted to telling non-Malay students to return to China or India. Indeed, the National Civics Bureau under the Prime Minister’s Department regularly features indoctrination that includes the notion of “Malay supremacy” and the notion that non-Malays are migrants for participants that comprise youths and undergraduates, government scholars and civil servants.

Whipped up fears

Additionally, the fear of Malay political extinction is often whipped up. Claims are made that if Malays are not careful and if they don’t continue to rely on the UMNO to represent and protect their interests, Chinese Malaysians will snatch power from them. This is a scenario too often propagated by UMNO leaders and organizations close to the UMNO. For example, the presentation of 1Malaysia promptly led the nationalist Malay group Perkasa to seek further clarification of the policy, as they feared the 1Malaysia agenda would undermine Malay rights in favour of minorities in Malaysia.

But what made the 1Malaysia campaign necessary in the first place? While the 2008 elections was a wake-up call for the ruling coalition, the recent general elections were even more devastating to the BN. On 5 May 2013, the BN suffered its worst losses ever, though it retained its hold on government. For the first time in history, it lost the popular vote. It only managed to hold on to power because of a flawed electoral process that has been in the making for years.

It was not a question of race but a question of overall inequality.

The other BN component parties from the peninsula, namely the MCA which represents the Chinese, the MIC which represents the Indians, and Gerakan which represents a more multi-ethnical constituency, were nearly wiped out. As a result, despite BN’s poor performance in the recent general election, UMNO has emerged as the strongest party in the ruling coalition. As Malaysian economist Terence Gomez declared, this time it was not a question of race but a question of overall inequality in the country, where not only politically disadvantaged Chinese and marginalized Indians, but also young highly skilled professionals turned against the ruling elites. However the ethnic divide is still strong in Malaysia.

Two kinds of citizens

Ethnic Malay citizens, referred to as Bumiputera, enjoy many benefits. “Bumiputera” is a Malay term that means “prince of the soil”. Technically, it is the Malays and the indigenous people from Sabah and Sarawak who fall under this category. Being a Bumiputera provides special privileges although it is the Malay Bumiputera in Peninsular Malaysia who most obviously benefit from the special economic, political and social privileges that the state accords this group. The indigenous groups remain for the most part, the poorest and most disadvantaged citizens of Malaysian society even if they were the original peoples of the land.

The benefits of being Bumiputera included for example, higher quotas for entry into public universities. Housing developers have also been compelled to set aside quotas for Bumiputera buyers only, at a discounted rate. And because these privileges have been in place since 1971 with the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was meant to have expired in 1990, many among the ruling Malay elite now consider these privileges to be rights. The beneficial policy in favour of the Malays has its roots in the 60s when successful Chinese Malaysians started to leave the Malays behind economically. Today the Malays on the peninsula are the ones who benefit most from this Malay-centric set-up of privileges. Yet that hasn’t stopped the UMNO from repeatedly declaring that it needs to be in power to “safeguard Malay rights”.

The party line continues, claiming that if the UMNO were not in power, Malays would lose their “rights” in their own country. These “rights” include the safeguarding of Malay reserve land and special reservations for positions in public service, scholarships, places in university or colleges, and trade and business permits. While these are the only areas in which constitutional privileges are accorded to the Malay, other sectors have been arbitrarily included and accepted as Malay “rights”. Hence, a developer must give Malay a Bumiputera discount for a property even if the property is worth millions and only an upper-class Malay with the means could afford it. And while certain privileges for Malays were spelled out in the constitution, the constitution’s drafters were clear that those privileges could not be used to disadvantage other citizens. Indeed, nowhere in the constitution are the words “Malay rights” present. The phrase in Article 153, which is often misquoted and misused to justify Malay rights over non-Malays, is “the special position of the Malays”. The purpose of that clause was to give Malays a leg-up in the economy and public service at the time of independence.

However, the article stresses that the monarch, while safeguarding the special position of Malays and natives, must also protect the “legitimate interests of other communities”.

Indigenous and tribal people remain the poorest and most disadvantaged and marginalized citizens in Malaysian society

While the indigenous tribal people, many of whom still follow animistic and other traditional beliefs in contrast to the Muslim-faith of the majority Malays, are explicitly included in the Bumiputera definition, these groups generally remain the poorest, most disadvantaged and marginalized citizens in Malaysian society. All too often they are subjected to land grabs as well as civil and human rights violations as a result of logging and the building of hydroelectric dams. One peculiarity of the constitutional definition of race in Malaysia is that one must be Muslim in order to be Malay. And because it is a crime in Malaysia punishable by sharia law for a Muslim to leave Islam, Malay identity is very tightly intertwined with Islam.

Muslim sensitivity

It should therefore not be surprising that Malay supremacy is now being touted in the same breath as Muslim supremacy. In the most recent case, the UMNO-led government tried to pass the Administration of the Religion of Islam (Federal Territories) Bill 2013 in Parliament which allowed for the unilateral (by one parent) conversion of a child to Islam. It was only because of public outrage at the inequality being perpetuated on non-Muslims that the government had to withdraw the bill. Unfortunately, that was a non-victory. The provision that allows for the unilateral conversion of a minor to Islam is covered by other state enactments. It was actually already regulated by the law the bill was supposed to replace. In Malaysia, the administration of Islam falls under the states’ purview except in the federal territories where the federal government has jurisdiction.

In cultural life, Muslim “sensitivities” are paramount. Hence the movie “Babe”, which features a pig, was initially banned in Malaysia in 2005. Non-Muslim schoolchildren who eat during the fasting month or who bring pork to school have been rebuked by some school heads; in more recent incidents non-Muslim school children had been made to eat in shower rooms instead of the canteen during Ramadan. And in what must be extremely perplexing to Muslims in other parts of the world, the Malaysian government has banned the use of “Allah” among non-Muslims who also use the word in their worship. While the High Court has already overturned the ban, the government is appealing the decision purportedly because Muslims will get “confused” if other faith adherents use the same word.

Earlier this year, a non-Muslim couple managed to arouse the wrath of some Muslims who felt insulted by their Facebook posting. Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee posted a provocative photo of themselves eating a pork dish with the message, “Enjoy breaking fast, with Bak Kut Teh...fragrant, delicious, and appetizing”. The couple, known by the moniker Alvivi, were charged under three laws and in what was seen as unfair and an overreaction, denied bail. They were eventually granted bail. However, their treatment by the law enforcement agency and the judicial system was in stark contrast to other cases where a Malay Muslim is the perpetrator of an offensive action.

In January this year, Ibrahim Ali, the leader of a right-wing pressure group known as Perkasa, called for Muslims to seize and burn Malay-language bibles which used the word “Allah”. No action was taken against him. Subsequently, an independent lawmaker, Zulkifli Noordin, made pejorative remarks about Indian Malaysians. He was fielded as a BN candidate in the recent general election and received Prime Minister Najib’s endorsement. No legal action was taken against Zulkifli either, who eventually lost at the polls.

If a person is Malay Muslim and threatens or insults the other races or faith groups in Malaysia, he or she is likely get away with it.

These incidents demonstrate to Malaysians that the state does not apply the law equally to all citizens. Indeed, if a person is Malay Muslim and threatens or insults the other races or faith groups in Malaysia, he or she is likely get away with it. Against this backdrop of events and trends in Malaysia, one thing is clear: not all citizens are equal in Malaysia. Power and privilege are concentrated in the hands of the majority Malay Muslims. Indeed, Malaysia is a country where affirmative action policies are in place for the powerful majority, and other groups are neglected and marginalized.

The disillusionment with 1Malaysia

Herein lays the disillusionment with the 1Malaysia brand. Najib’s Government Transformation Program, which was launched in April 2009 after he became prime minister, states that: “The goal of 1Malaysia is to make Malaysia more vibrant, more productive and more competitive — and ultimately a greater nation: a nation where, it is hoped, every Malaysian perceives himself or herself as Malaysian first, and by race, religion, geographical region or socio-economic background second and where the principles of 1Malaysia are embedded into the economic, political and social fabric of society.”

It is, after all, far more advantageous to be Malay in Malaysia than to be non-Malay. The system in place favours Malays over non-Malays and the UMNO-led government shows no signs of wanting to change a race-based paradigm that benefits them exclusively. It’s worth noting that the post-independence days of Malays being left out of power are long over. The army, police, civil service, media, and nearly all major national and public institutions, including large business interests, are in Malay hands. Additionally the prime minister of Malaysia has always been Malay and will likely be Malay for generations to come. At the same time, non-Malays have never challenged or questioned Malay political dominance even if the Chinese have been more economically resilient and successful than the Malays.

Not only did the UNMO begin to neglect if not entirely abandon the inclusive 1Malaysia agenda; the statements and actions of Malay politicians are at times in complete opposition to it. All of this was played out yet again, and quite remarkably, after the BN won only 49% of the popular vote during the last general election. As the result became apparent on polling night, Prime Minister Najib declared that it was Chinese Malaysians who had turned against the BN. His description of a “Chinese tsunami” led to calls for the Chinese to be punished for their betrayal. When the UMNO-owned media called for a boycott of Chinese businesses in Malaysia, the scary part was not just the positive response from several groups like the Muslim Consumer Association Malaysia, but also the silence of Malaysia’s Prime Minister.

Unfortunately, with so much disparity of power between the majority Malays and the minority non-Malays, it’s hard to believe that the government of the past 56 years is committed to wanting all Malaysians to feel that they are equal citizens above all else. Indeed, even Najib’s deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, has not been able to say that he is “Malaysian first”. “I am a Malay first,” he famously said a year after 1Malaysia was launched. Even Najib himself has yet to publicly declare that he is “Malaysian first, Malay second.” It is, after all, far more advantageous to be Malay in Malaysia than to be non-Malay. The system in place favours Malays over non-Malays and the UMNO-led government shows no signs of wanting to change an ethnic-based paradigm that benefits them exclusively.

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