Malaysia: A view of race politics through the generations
Image: Samira Kanetkar

Malaysia has a complex history which has been shaped by the legacy of colonialism. The ethnic demarcation in society is a result of this colonial framework, upon which the modern state of Malaysia now operates.

A historical background

Following the independence from British rule in 1957, Malaysia was known as Malaya. After the merger in 1963 with Singapore, North Borneo (Sabah), Sarawak and Malaya it became the Federation of Malaysia. A coalition called the Alliance Party (now known as Barisan National), formed by these three parties, UMNO- (United Malays National Organisation), MCA- (Malaysian Chinese Association) and MIC- (Malaysian Indian Congress), parties which are very race based had governed the country for more than 60 years. 

The ‘Malaysian Spring’ occurred in 2018, when the majority of the people were ready to move away from raced-based policies and voted for Pakatan Harapan headed by the previous Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad became the oldest head of state in the world at the grand old age of 93. Unfortunately in 2020, Tun Dr Mahathir resigned as the seventh Prime Minister. Following his resignation, a coalition consisted of opposition members and Members of Parliament from the previous government had convinced the King to appoint Tan Sri Muhiyidin as the eighth Prime Minister. This change in government showed that the country is still deeply ingrained within race based politics.

Has it always been like this? During the Malacca Sultanate, Malacca was a bustling port where the Indians and Arabs from the West, and the Chinese from the East came and traded. Besides the trading of goods; cultures were exchanged too. As some of the traders settled, interracial marriage became more common within the region. In 1511, Malacca fell to the Portuguese Empire, and then to the Dutch in 1641 and finally to the British in 1824. After the signing of the Dutch-Anglo Treaty, which defined the boundaries between British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. With the British taking Malacca, Penang and Singapore it became the Strait settlements, and the Dutch taking Indonesia.

The divide and rule policy of the British was quickly implemented. In order to maintain control, they segregated the races and created Sultanates, resulting in the creation of nine Malay states that we have today. British Colonial rule lasted for 131 years. To say the least, 131 years of British colonization has left a long lasting impact in the country; its divide and rule policy has left a nation that was just as fragmented as its historical predecessor. 

The challenges presented to Malay hegemony

In the 1960’s, various political parties formed to oppose Article 153. The phrase “Malaysian Malaysia” was often associated with the movement. Lee Kuan Yew, the leader of the Singaporean-based People’s Action Party and first Prime Minister of Singapore, spoke out against the racial policy implemented due to ideological differences. This movement was not in favour with the ruling coalition of Barisan National and certain UMNO politicians- (United Malays National Organisation), they thought it threatened the special positions of Malays. As a result of that, Singapore was expelled from The Federation of Malaysia and became independent on 9th of August 1965. 

In a speech given by Yew, at the Malaysian Solidarity Convention on 6th June 1965, he expressed: 

“All we want is to get towards a Malaysian Malaysia. We can go slowly. Make haste slowly, and will win. And this will be a nation that will survive for hundreds of years as a separate identity in Southeast Asia, a multi racial community — a confluence of four of Asia’s major cultures and civilizations, superimposed with a streak of British civilization”.

A victory rally to celebrate the result of the 1969 Malaysian general election escalated into a racial riot between the Chinese and the Malays. It’s also known as the 13 May incident when the ruling coalition, Alliance party lost to the Chinese majority Democractic Action party and Parti Gerakan. The riot resulted in the resignation of Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister and was succeeded by Tun Razak. A national state of emergency was declared by the Agong and parliament was suspended for two years. The Rukun Negara – (National Principles), were declared in reaction to the riot. 

As a result of the riot, the New Economic Policy was created  and adopted in 1971, which was then succeeded by the National Development Policy in 1991. This was a strategy to eradicate poverty and to subsequently eliminate the identification of race by economic function and geographical location. The implementation of the policy was questionable as it only benefited the Malays, whereas the indigenous people were left on a back-burner. 

As a result of affirmative action due to the New Economic Policy, Malay dominated institutions were established; these Malay graduates would struggle in employment due to their lack of exposure to the existence of other races and religion within the country, ultimately leaving an effect on the country’s economic growth. Due to the social injustices pertaining to education, the civil service and businesses have led to non-Malays leaving the country, causing an inability to pursue rapid economic development during the 1960’s and 1990’s. 

The politicised connection between Islam and Malay identity

“The only connection between Malay as an ethnic group and Islam as a religion is the Federal Consititution”. Article 160 defines a Malay as someone that is born to a citizen, professes to be a Muslim, speaks the Malay language and adheres to Malay customs. While it also allows people with various ethnic backgrounds to be define as a Malaysian Muslim, this doesn’t apply to the existing Muslim communities within the country, such as Indian Muslims and Chinese Muslims. 

Interfaith relationships are generally tolerant, but if a non- Muslim were to marry a Muslim, they are required to covert to Islam. This law deters non-Muslims from engaging in a relationship with a Muslim. Freedom of Religion is protected under the constitution, yet it applies only to non-Muslims, as Muslims are not allowed to leave the religion. ‘To be born a Muslim, to die a Muslim’ – this is the only way for any Muslim to live in this country. 

In Malaysia whether you’re Malay, Chinese or Indian, the ethnic divide is very apparent from the day you are born. Your birth certificate clearly identifies your race and religion.

As a person of Chinese heritage, growing up in Malaysia, I knew this ethnic divide was wrong. I didn’t see the problem with being friends with a Malay, or an Indian, or someone who is mixed-raced. However, I have had family members quip up with snide remarks, questioning the oddity of it, and why I would do such a thing.

During primary school, I was very fortunate to have a very good relationship with my Malay classmates. As a child and a non-Muslim, I had questions about the ethnic divide, but I could only express these within the boundaries of my home. Questioning the divide is either inappropriate, or considered to undermine the interests of the Malays. When I’m outside the boundaries of my home, I am like every other ‘Chinese’ citizen; adhering within the boundaries of the ethnic divide, with no questions asked. The lack of discussion about the topic also fuels many misconceptions and stereotypes about one another. 

When I was studying abroad in Ireland, I learnt about Islam for the first time, as learning about it in Malaysia is considered a taboo. I understood why my Malay classmates prayed five times a day and why they fast from sunrise to sunset for a month. It all made sense and I had an entirely newfound understanding of my country. As I became older and more mature, the so-called ethnic divide didn’t really exist. I think more than anything else, it’s just a social construct within the country. In actuality, it appears to be more reminiscent of the colonial divide and rule policy that was espoused by the British. 

Southeast Asia has the biggest population of practising Muslims, and within these countries, Islam is practised by the majority. However, the definition of Freedom of Religion differs vastly. There are variegated versions of what Islam is considered to be, yet within these countries, various different religions have peacefully coexisted alongside Islam. 

How do we remedy the societal fragmentation that our citizens currently face? The way to solve these issues is the willingness to learn, and to educate yourself. Being open-minded, and having conversations with others about the subjects that are deemed ‘sensitive’ or ‘taboo’, is a constructive way forward. I believe this way, we can help eliminate the pre-existing misconceptions and stereotypes about each other, and move towards understanding each other.