MINORITIES, ETHNIC ISSUES, DISCRIMINATION AND GOVERNMENT POLICIES IN MALAYSIA

ETHNICITY IN MALAYSIA

Malaysia is a mix of Malay Muslims, Chinese Buddhists, Indian Hindus and indigenous tribes. These groups have tended to remain someone separate and apart from the others rather than assimilate as different groups have done in the United States. Malaysia has been described as an ethnic salad bowl rather than a melting pt.

According to the 2000 census, 50.2 percent of the population is Malay, 24.5 percent Chinese, 11 percent indigenous, 7.2 percent Indian, and 1.2 percent members of other ethnic groups. Non-Malaysian citizens make up the remaining 5.9 percent. These groups often can be divided by language, tribe, and other categories. Since independence, a common national identity has solidified, but ethnic divisions remain apparent in many aspects of daily life. Malays and indigenous groups often refer to themselves as bumiputra (“sons of the soil”), and ethnicity is associated with differences in politics, residence, socioeconomic position, and daily customs. The government has affirmative-action policies designed to promote social harmony, but critics claim such policies unfairly favor ethnic Malays over other groups.

Ian Buruma wrote in The New Yorker, “The country’s population is more than half Malay, defined by ethnicity and the Muslim faith, but large numbers of Chinese (now about a quarter of the population) and Indians (seven percent) arrived in the 19th century, when the British imported coolies from China and plantation workers from India. Tensions arising from this melange “” and, in particular, the fear held by Malays that they will always be bested by these minorities “” have gripped Malaysian politics since the country achieved independence from the British, in 1957. In recent years, the situation has been further complicated by a surge in Islamic fervour among many Malays. [Source: Ian Buruma, The New Yorker, May 19, 2009 <>]

The Malaysian constitution prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, descent, sex and place of birth.

Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)

Ethnic Harmony in Malaysia

Malaysia's diverse ethnic groups have traditionally gotten along in a way that some say countries in the Balkans and the Middle East should try to emulate.

The Malaysian government has worked hard to promote ethnic harmony: running television spots with representatives of every Malaysia ethnic group smiling and singing "All together, Mah-lay-see-ah, you can be a star!" During Muslim holidays, Chinese and Indian business post signs honoring the events and televisions commercial show non-Muslims wishing Muslims god fortune. During Chinese and Indian holidays, Muslim Malay extend the same respect and cordiality.

"More than ever in my life were are feeling Malaysian now," a turbaned Sihk driver told T.R. Reid in a National Geographic article in the 1990s. "When I was in school here, we felt we were Indians. Always we're were Indians, who happened to be living in a country with a lot of Malays and Chinese. But my children! Always the are saying, 'We are Malaysians.'"

Explaining the reason for Malaysia's racial tolerance, political scientist Patrick Mayerchak told National Geographic, "partly, it's that everybody was frightened by the riots” in 1969 that left as many as 200 dead. "It's also a function of the economy, because life got better for everyone. The New Economic Policy was another key piece."

Lack of Ethnic Harmony in Malaysia

In the mid 2000s prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, warned that race relations had become "brittle." "We must eliminate all negative feelings toward each other," he was quoted in the Star newspaper as saying.

Around that time Thomas Fuller wrote in York Times: “A nationally televised meeting of the Malay governing party in November 2006 shocked many Malaysians for its communalism, including comments by one delegate who said the party was willing to "risk lives and bathe in blood in defense of race and religion." He was subsequently reprimanded, but only after an outcry from Chinese and Indians. Early in November, the chief minister of the southern state of Johor, Ghani Othman, went as far as to question whether a Malaysian nation actually existed, describing it as a "rojak," or mish-mash of races, that was diluting the Malay identity. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, December 13, 2006]

In April 2008, after bitter election in which the ruling party lost a number of seats partly because of bitterness by Chinese and Indian voters, Malaysia's king urged lawmakers to protect racial peace when he opened the new Parliament. Associated Press reported: “Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin, Malaysia's constitutional monarch, noted that "the key to this country's success is political stability and racial unity." "With that I urge all parties to bear the responsibility of ensuring that all races are united and to combat any efforts to split the people," he said in a speech to the joint sitting of the lower and upper chambers of Parliament.

John Burton wrote in the Financial Times, “There are signs of growing resentment among the country’s minorities to Malay political dominance and what they see as “creeping Islamisation”. “There used to be more mixing among the races but increased urbanisation has brought more competition for jobs and ethnic identities have become more important as a result,” says Jawhar Hassan, head of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur. [Source: John Burton, Financial Times, January 9, 2008]

“Several court cases involving the conversion of Muslims to other religions have exacerbated divisions. The civil courts have ruled that Islamic sharia courts, which oppose apostasy, are the sole authority on the issue since Muslims fall under their jurisdiction. The decision has raised doubts about Malaysia’s commitment to freedom of religion and led to the formation last year of the Hindu activist group that organised the recent Indian protest. [Ibid]

Sixty-two-year-old ethnic Indian S.K. Lingam, a taxi driver, told Reuters in 2007 that despite Malaysia's races had drifted apart in recent years. "Two decades ago, when I used to be in the merchant navy, we used to gather together on weekends for BBQs and parties. It didn't matter what religion we were ... Over the last few years, people don't seem to get together on weekends too much." [Source: Reuters August 31, 2007]

Impact of Taleban Lite of Racial Relations in Malaysia

Nick Meo wrote in The Times, “Some fear that assertive Islam threatens to upset the delicate balance between the 60 percent Malay Muslim majority and the nonMuslim ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, which have managed to coexist, sometimes uneasily, since the troubled birth of the country in 1957, at a time of civil war and ethnic tension. At the time many feared that the new nation was doomed to failure. It has instead built a strong economy and an imperfect democracy, dominated for 50 years by the United Malays National Organisation, which has survived without the coups or upheavals that have plagued her neighbours. [Source: Nick Meo, The Times, August 18, 2007 *+*]

Ronnie Liu, of the Democratic Action Party, said: “Socialising between Malays and the other ethnic groups is much rarer than it used to be. You go into coffee shops and restaurants now and they no longer cater to an ethnic mix of customers. It wasn’t like that before.” Some nonMuslim Chinese and Indians feel increasingly treated like second-class citizens. They complain, usually privately, that Islamic religious schools are much better funded than theirs and that a system of affirmative action favours Malays when it comes to university places. *+*

“Minority religions are particularly worried about a series of apostasy rulings. Chinese or Indians who want to marry a Malay must convert to Islam, causing great problems if they divorce or are widowed and want to return to the religion of their birth. In a notorious case this year a Malay woman called Lina Joy attempted to have Malaysia’s courts recognise her conversion to Christianity, but failed and was hounded and fled into hiding. Some hardliners have even called for the execution of apostates.”

Ethnicity and Politics in Malaysia

Malaysian politics have traditionally been divided along racial lines. After serious riot between Muslims and Chinese during the election in 1969 an effort was made to make sure that elections do not take a racial nature. Muslims (most of them Malays) make up 60 percent of Malaysia's population and form the bulk of voters for the United Malays National Organization. The party dominates the National Front coalition, which includes Chinese- and Indian-based parties in a power-sharing arrangement that has ensured racial peace in this multiethnic country.

Ethnic Malays and Muslims, who comprise some 60 percent of Malaysia’s 27 million people, control political power. Many ethnic Chinese and Indians, who form the two main minority communities, complain their grievances are ignored, especially regarding an affirmative action program that gives privileges to Malays in business, jobs and education.

Although Malays make up the majority of the population they can be divided along various lines such moderate Muslims versus more Islamic Muslims. The Chinese are a minority, but a sizable one at 25 percent of the population. They often play the role of swing voters.

According to Reuters: “Malaysia is dominated politically by ethnic Malays, who are Muslims and see themselves as the natural rulers and indigenous race. But they make up only a slender majority -- ethnic Chinese and Indians account for almost 40 percent of the population. The social melting pot, partly a legacy of colonial times when former ruler Britain imported Chinese and Indian labor to work mines and plantations, has left Malaysia with a major challenge to keep the peace between the races. With conservative Islam on the rise in Malaysia, non-Muslims have begun to complain that their constitutional right to freedom of worship and to secular government are being compromised.The Malay deputy premier recently called Malaysia an Islamic state, angering non-Muslims. Increasingly, leaders of the multi-racial government are urging Malaysians to heed the lessons of 1969, when racial tensions burst into deadly riots. [Source: Reuters August 31, 2007]

New Economic Policy: Malaysia’s Affirmative Action Plan

The New Economic Policy (NEP) is an affirmative action plan implemented in the 1970s in response to the ethic riots of 1969 to counter the economic dominance of the country's ethnic Chinese minority and improve economic position of naive Malays. The policy has helped indigenous Bumiputras (native Malays, literally "sons of the soil") improve their positions by giving them preferential treatment in education, business and government, and setting quotas that limited the number of Chinese and Indians in universities and public jobs. Malays were given preferences in housing, bank loans, business contracts and government licenses.

The policy is backed by a special clause in the Constitution guaranteeing preferential treatment for Malays. It imposes a 30-percent bumiputra equity quota for publicly listed companies and gives bumiputras discounts on such things as houses and cars. Money is provided by banks and investment firms to Malays and indigenous people to start businesses. Businesses are required to have a bumiputra partner, who would hold at least a 30 percent equity stake.

The policy was adopted when Abdul Razak, the father of current Prime Minister Najib, was Prime Minister. Shamim Adam of Bloomberg wrote: “ The 1969 riots started in part because the Malays felt the Chinese controlled the economy. To raise the share of national wealth held by Malays and indigenous groups to at least 30 percent, Najib's father crafted a policy that gave them cheaper housing as well as priority for college enrollment, government contracts, and shares of publicly traded companies. For the most part, the pro-Malay policy has kept the peace. "Malaysia has done very well, and affirmative action was a strong contributor to the stability that allowed for such development," says Masahide Hoshi, a director at Phalanx Capital Management HK in Hong Kong. "However, these same policies could impede Malaysia in the long term.[Source: Shamim Adam, Bloomberg, September 09, 2010]

The policy worked quite well for the Malays. Over they years Malays have taken over many business run in the past by Chinese and Malays prospered without destroying Chinese business. By the 1990s, Malays controlled the nation's major businesses and achieved more prosperity while it seemed relatively few Chinese and Indians resented the quotas. One minister of Chinese descent told National Geographic, "I've been quite critical of some specific cases when Chinese people got blatantly unfair treatment. But the situation we had at the end of the sixties, where the distribution of wealth was so skewed—it couldn't last. It made for an inherently unstable society. Because of NEP, there is less racial resentment now, and more a feeling of Us—you know, Us Malaysians."

The Malay privileges stem from a "national social contract," drawn up by various races at the time of independence in 1957, which put the majority community on a higher footing in exchange for sharing political power with minorities and giving them citizenship. According to Associated Press: “Today the policy is considered by most Malays as their birthright. No notable politician of any race has ever suggested scrapping it for fear of alienating Malays. [Source: Associated Press, August 6, 2005]

Criticism of the New Economic Policy

Many people feel the New Economic Policy has outlived its usefulness. The Malays have made great advances and are no longer a marginalized people like they were when the policy was adopted in 1970. According to Associated Press : “The policy is widely acknowledged to be only a moderate success, benefiting largely a few Malay elite and taking away from others the incentive to excel. Although Malays form 60 percent of the country's 26 million population, they control only 19 percent of the corporate equity and most of the country's wealth is in the hands of the Chinese. Indians are about 7 percent and are at the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

Thomas Fuller wrote in York Times: “The government's apparently indefinite extension of an affirmative action program for the Malays, a policy that has been in place since 1971, has stirred impatience among the country's Chinese and Indians. Terence Gomez, a Malaysian academic who has written widely about Malaysian politics and the ethnic Chinese, and who is now a research coordinator at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva, says the notion that one race should have supremacy is an anachronism in a country where ethnic identities are becoming less important in everyday life. "The idea of being Malay or being Chinese or Indian is not something that is part of their daily thinking or discourse," Gomez said. The political elite, he said, "seems to be caught in a time warp."[Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, December 13, 2006 \\\]

“The government says the affirmative action program is still needed to narrow the overall income gap between the Chinese and Malays, the original justification for the policy. But determining which race has the highest ownership levels in the country is also now a point of contention, involving disputes over how assets should be calculated.” \\\

John Burton wrote in the Financial Times, “There has been a debate whether the policy should remain in place since it is seen as obstacle to Malaysia's international competitiveness. A study by a local think tank suggested that Malays had exceeded the government's goal of owning 30 percent of domestic businesses, which called into question the continuation of the affirmative action policy. The government this week revealed its own statistics on Malay corporate ownership, saying the Malays owned 37 percent of listed companies but only 24 percent of all registered companies. [Source: By John Burton, Financial Times, November 9, 2006]

“Economists warn that the NEP represents a barrier to improving Malaysia’s economic efficiency when the country is facing increased competition for foreign investment from regional rivals such as Vietnam. Mr Abdullah has sought to ease some affirmative action provisions in response to those concerns. But when he announced last year that the government would waive such rules for a new economic zone near Singapore, he was criticised by hardliners in his own United Malays National Organisation, Malaysia’s dominant party.” [Source: John Burton, Financial Times, January 9, 2008]

See Anwar, Elections Under Elections

Schools and Ethnic Separation in Malaysia

Malay, Chinese and Indian students attend schools where the primary medium of instruction is the language of their ethnic group. This means that for the most part there are separate schools for Malays, Chinese and Indians.

As of the early 2000s, there were 5,407 Malay primary schools with 2.2 million students, 1,284 Chinese primary schools with 623,000 students, and 526 Tamil primary schools with 90,000 students. English and Malay are compulsory subjects in all primary schools but the primary language of instruction varies. Mother-tongue education is protected under the 1996 Education Act.

Each school is free to accept children of any ethnic group. About 95 percent of Chinese children attend Chinese schools (1,291 SRJKs and 60 independent schools). This means only 9 percent of Chinese students attend national schools. Most go to private schools oriented for the Chinese community. Around 60,000 non-Chinese attend Chinese schools

The Malaysian government announced plans to open “vision schools” to encourage racial mixing. Students will be educated separately in their own languages but share facilities such as canteens, assembly halls and sports fields. Many Chinese and Indians have objected to the plan because they fear it threaten their Chinese and Indian language schools. They believe the system will ultimately make the Malay language the primary medium of instruction.

While Chinese schools have a shortage of about 4,000 teacher there is an excess of 20,000 teachers for Malay schools. Textbooks don’t say much about the racial riots in 1969.

Racial Mixing and a Lack of It at Malaysian Universities

At most Malaysian universities, Malays hang out with Malays, Chinese hang out with Chinese and Indians hang out with Indians. For the most part groups are mixed in the classroom but not outside it. For food, Malays flock to the counter offering spicy rice and curry, Chinese congregate at noodles stalls and Indians eat mutton stew. Sports too have traditionally been segregated, with Malays preferring soccer and Chinese playing badminton or relaxing at a swimming pool, a place usually off limits to Muslim women.

In an efforts to change that pattern, the University of Science in Penang has encouraged student to share rooms with a roommates not of their ethnic group. Sometimes the Chinese complain about being woken up by their Malay roommates at 5:00am when they wake up for morning prayers.

School textbooks teach tolerance. They were introduced to avoid violence like the riots in 1969. In July 2004, the government announced that university students would be required to pass a course on understanding other ethnic groups before they would be allowed to graduate.

For some time a quota system has been in place to make sure that certain groups—particularly Malays—are give a certain number of university positions even though other groups—particularly Chinese—may have higher entrance scores and be better qualified. There has been some discussion of getting rid of the system because of its inherent unfairness.

Is the New Economic Policy A Kind of Apartheid?

John Burton wrote in the Financial Times, The policy succeeded in eradicating poverty among Malays but has been blamed for leading to an informal apartheid. The adoption of the Malay language rather than English as the language of instruction in state schools in the 1970s led Chinese and Indian families to enrol their children in private schools to preserve their native language. The overwhelming majority of students in state primary schools now are Malays. The belief among ethnic Chinese and Indians that they are being denied opportunities has led many to emigrate, while others who do not have enough funds to start a new life abroad express frustration with the system. “I was born and raised in Malaysia and I consider myself as much a bumiputra as a Malay. But I’m treated like a second-class citizen,” says Anand, an ethnic Indian taxi driver. [Source: John Burton, Financial Times, January 9, 2008]

Ian Buruma wrote in The New Yorker, By the late 1990s the consequences of the NEP “had become too blatant to ignore: a bloated (in all senses of the word) Malay elite was raking in more and more of the country’s wealth; educated young Chinese and Indians were leaving the country in droves; and poor Malays were being kept in a state of fear by the propaganda in public schools and in the state controlled press. Without their special status, the Malays were told, they would be at the mercy of those rapacious, dominating Chinese “immigrants.” [Source: Ian Buruma, The New Yorker, May 19, 2009 <>]

Ian Buruma wrote in The New Yorker, By the late 1990s the consequences of the NEP “had become too blatant to ignore: a bloated (in all senses of the word) Malay elite was raking in more and more of the country’s wealth; educated young Chinese and Indians were leaving the country in droves; and poor Malays were being kept in a state of fear by the propaganda in public schools and in the state controlled press. Without their special status, the Malays were told, they would be at the mercy of those rapacious, dominating Chinese “immigrants.” [Source: Ian Buruma, The New Yorker, May 19, 2009 <>]

“To challenge UMNO’s ethnic policies is still to court serious trouble. I met Professor Lim Teck Ghee, a former World Bank social scientist, at a restaurant in Brickfields, a largely Indian section near the central station of Kuala Lumpur. A soft-spoken man, peering sadly through his glasses, Lim was the director of a leading economic think tank until he published, in 2006, a careful analysis showing that Malays, far from being dominated by the Chinese, actually owned more than 45 percent of corporate equity in publicly-listed companies. He was quickly vilified for being “anti-national,” and he resigned his post. <>

“Lim was one of several people I spoke to in Malaysia who used the word “apartheid” in describing his country. “The ethnic situation has become much worse,” he said, especially since Malay nationalism took a strong Islamic turn in the late 1980s, when UMNO was challenged by PAS. The Islamists got a boost from the Iranian Revolution, and actually took power in Kelantan in 1990. To pre-empt the Islamists, UMNO, ostensibly a secular party, wedded its ethnic nationalism (which was decidedly not a feature of PAS) to religion: Muslims were no longer supposed to drink alcohol; women were encouraged to wear head scarves (tudung); easygoing Malay Islam took on the harsher tone of Wahhabi purism. <>

“Lim’s children have already left the country; a daughter is in Seattle, a son in Sydney. He sighed. “Even young Malays are leaving,” he went on. “They can’t stomach the hypocrisy, the dishonesty.” Then he said something that I would hear, over and over, from many others: “The sad thing is that Malaysia could have been so good “” we could have been a model of multi-ethnic harmony.” A sense of disappointment was palpable in most conversations I had with Chinese and Indian Malaysians, not least among those who once supported the privileging of Malays, in order to redress colonial imbalances and raise the prospects of the rural Bumiputera, the “sons of the soil.” It was also clear that such disillusionment can easily turn to hostility.” <>

Malaysia Verus Indonesia on Race Policy

Thomas Fuller wrote in York Times: “Indonesia and Malaysia have much in common: language; a border that slices across Borneo; overlapping ethnic groups. But the two countries are moving in opposite directions on the fundamental question of what it means to be a "native." With a new citizenship law passed this year, Indonesia has redefined "indigenous" to include its ethnic Chinese population — a radical shift from centuries of policies, both during colonial times and after independence in the 1940s, that distinguished between natives and Indonesia's Chinese, Indians and Arabs. Malaysia, meanwhile, is sticking to its longstanding policy that Malay Muslims, the largest ethnic group in the country, are "bumiputras," or sons of the soil, who have special rights above and beyond those of the country's Chinese and Indian minorities. Maintaining this controversial policy has led to what one commentator calls a retribalization of Malaysian politics, with rising assertiveness on the part of the country's Malay Muslims. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, December 13, 2006]

“Both Indonesia and Malaysia have suffered race riots in recent decades. Indonesia's were much bloodier and more far-flung. Yet today, ethnic tensions are more likely to make headlines in Malaysia than Indonesia. Malaysia's Chinese community was angered by the demolition of a Taoist temple in Penang. Both Muslims and non-Muslims are upset about a series of disputes over whether Shariah or secular law should take precedence....Paradoxically, some in Malaysia, which has long been wealthier and more politically stable, are looking admiringly at developments in Indonesia. Azly Rahman, a Malay commentator on the widely read Web site Malaysiakini, said poor Indians and Chinese are neglected under the current system. "A new bumiputra should be created," he said. "Being a Malaysian means forgetting about the status of our fathers. We need affirmative action for all races."

Efforts to Reform the New Economic Policy

Any significant retreat from the NEP is unlikely as long as the National Front remains in power. “In spite of the complaints about the NEP, the fact is that the policy has ensured this country’s stability and its abandonment would destroy it,” says Jawhar Hassan, head of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur. “The NEP was originally meant to eradicate poverty among all races, not just the Malays,” says Mr Navaratnam. “But it has since evolved into a policy promoting the interests of Malays. If it can regain its original intention, the NEP can still play an useful role.” [Source: John Burton, Financial Times, January 9, 2008]

Some have suggested basing affirmative action policy on class rather than race.Ian Buruma wrote in The New Yorker, “An advantage of replacing the rhetoric of race with that of class is that all opposition parties can agree on the ideal of equality.

Malaysia Tries to Curb Its Pro-Malay Policies

After taking off in 2009 Prime Minister Najib moved to streamline the government, made it easier for foreigners to invest, backed cutting-edge industries, and promoted a productive, educated workforce. Shamim Adam of Bloomberg wrote: “His most controversial initiative is to start dismantling the policies that favor the ethnic Malay majority that put him in office. Najib and his advisers say changing the pro-Malay rules will level the economic playing field, encourage investment from both inside Malaysia and abroad, and promote ethnic harmony. Najib, 57, has already eased affirmative-action rules governing overseas investors, initial public offerings, and property purchases. Mark Mobius, the emerging-markets authority at Templeton Asset Management, is impressed: "Malaysia is going through a transformation with the political changes that we've seen," he says. [Source: Shamim Adam, Bloomberg, September 09, 2010 +=+]

“Najib's reforms are opposed by some politicians who helped him gain power, including ex-Premier Mahathir Mohamad. At a March rally, former Deputy Law Minister Ibrahim Ali brandished a traditional kris dagger as the crowd chanted "Long live the Malays." A spokesman for Ali's group says the dagger display was not meant to incite violence. Najib's Malay opponents say they are protecting the constitution and that his father's goals have not yet been reached. "Malays have not gained for themselves the 30 percent target in corporate ownership even," Mahathir blogged on Aug. 9. +=+

“Analysts wonder if Najib has the political capital to carry through. "Najib appears to be saying all the right things, but the actions of many within UMNO [the main Malay political group] are not necessarily in the spirit of what [he] is saying," says Stephen Hagger, head of Malaysian equities for Credit Suisse Group (CS). It will be up to the politicians and civil service to implement Najib's plan, Hagger adds. "This is where our confidence falters." Some locals are voting with their feet. Leslie C., an ethnic Chinese, moved to Singapore in June. "I don't think any politician will be different," says Leslie, 36, who doesn't want his full name reported. "I want a better future for the kids, an opportunity for them to start on even own a company .”

Protests by Indians Raise Questions About Malaysia’s Ethnic Policies

John Burton wrote in the Financial Times, “When at least 10,000 ethnic Indians gathered in late 2007 in Kuala Lumpur to demonstrate against alleged racial discrimination, it triggered political tremors in multi-ethnic Malaysia. Not only did the protest defy a state edict against unauthorised outdoor assemblies, it also broke a taboo against publicly questioning the country’s long-standing policy of preferential treatment for majority Muslim Malays. [Source: John Burton, Financial Times, January 9, 2008]

Malaysia’s government was clearly rattled. Abdullah Badawi, the prime minister, invoked the colonial-era internal security act for the first time since coming to power in 2003, detaining without trial five leaders of the Indian protest. This week it was also revealed that officials had been considering curbing the entry of temporary workers from India. The protest revealed underlying racial tensions in what has been seen as one of the world’s most successful multi-ethnic states and one of its more open economies. Malaysia is among south-east Asia’s richest countries, regarded as a model for other Muslim countries in embracing globalisation.

Many observers were surprised that the protest was mounted by ethnic Indians, Malaysia’s smallest and most quiescent racial minority, who have been the strongest supporters of the National Front coalition government since it came to power in 1957. But dissent has grown among Indians recently with the destruction of Hindu temples that officials said were built illegally and court cases that ruled that Muslim-born Indians could not convert to the Hindu faith.

“The protest reflects the new openness that Abdullah sought to achieve by encouraging the expression of grievances. But he may have decided to use the ISA to calm down the power brokers within UMNO, who don’t like to see their authority challenged,” says Ramon Navaratnam, head of the Malaysian branch of Transparency International. A close aide to the prime minister painted a more alarming picture, saying that the recent Indian protest could create a backlash among Malays and lead to racial violence. “Abdullah appears to be genuinely worried about the situation,” says a foreign diplomat in Kuala Lumpur.

Najib Warns Racial Rifts Could Destroy Malaysia

In October 2010, Prime Minister Najib Razak sought to curb rifts between the Malay majority and ethnic minorities, saying the country could end up in tatters like Bosnia or Rwanda if races quarrel over economic rights. Sean Yoong of Associated Press wrote: “In a speech broadcast nationwide, Najib Razak tried to please his main Malay constituency with assurances that an affirmative action program would continue to assist them. But he also acknowledged contributions made by the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, mindful that their votes would be precious in the next elections. "Today, Malaysians are confronted with ceaseless assaults on the main foundations of race relations," Najib said in a speech at the annual national convention of his United Malays National Organization party, the core of the ruling National Front coalition. [Source: Sean Yoong, Associated Press, October 21, 2010]

Najib said Malays made a "huge sacrifice" by agreeing to share the country with minorities, most of whom are descended from immigrants who sought work here during British colonial rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Malaysians should stop arguing about Malay and minority rights, Najib said, adding that history showed how grudges between communities triggered the Holocaust, the Palestinian conflict in the Middle East and killings in Bosnia and Rwanda. "So imagine what the result will be if generations of Malaysians take a stand to question the national social contract that has been drawn up by their predecessors," Najib told more than 2,000 top party officials.

“He nevertheless urged Malays not to be "obsessed" about their rights, saying they should wisely use opportunities given to them and also bolster their capability to compete globally.

Malaysia Bars Catholic Paper from Using Tribal Language

In November 2009, Associated Press reported: “The government in Muslim-majority Malaysia has barred a Roman Catholic newspaper from publishing a supplement in a language spoken by indigenous people on Borneo island, an official. The decision will prevent the Herald, the Catholic Church’s main mouthpiece in Malaysia, from adding a regular page in the Kadazandusun language, which is used by more than 500,000 people in Malaysia’s Sabah state in Borneo. The Herald can continue publishing in the four languages used by most Malaysians — English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. But the Home Ministry rejected its request to include Kadazandusun, a ministry official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make public statements. He declined to explain the reason for the decision. [Source: Associated Press, November 13, 2009 /=\]

“The Kadazandusun people are mostly Christians, but they only comprise a small number of the Herald’s readers. The Herald publishes about 12,000 copies weekly for the country’s estimated 900,000 Catholics. Rev. Lawrence Andrew, the Herald’s editor, declined to comment on the matter, saying he would meet ministry officials soon to discuss his concerns about whether the newspaper’s annual publishing permit — which is required for all publications in Malaysia — would be renewed for next year. The ministry official said a new permit would be approved soon. /=\

“The Herald has faced persistent trouble with authorities in recent years over a separate dispute involving the newspaper’s use of the word “Allah” as a translation for God in Malay. The government says the word “Allah” is exclusive to Islam, while Church officials insist usage of the word in other religions predates Islam. The newspaper’s problems underscore complaints of religious discrimination by Malaysia’s minority Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. Other conflicts include court cases involving religious conversions, in which the legal system generally rules in favor of Muslims, who make up about two-thirds of Malaysia’s 28 million people. /=\

Malaysian Court Backs Land Rights of Indigenous Peoples

In May 2009, Associated Press reported: “Malaysia’s highest court has affirmed a ruling granting land rights to indigenous peoples that could help them resist oil and logging companies razing their ancestral forests. A panel of three Federal Court judges unanimously ruled that tribes have customary ownership of land they have lived on for generations and state governments cannot take it from them without compensation, prominent land rights lawyer See Chee How said. “It is a landmark decision,” See said. “It’s the first time the Federal Court has affirmed [such] a decision.” See said he hoped this would bode well for more than 100 other land rights cases still pending in court. [Source: AP, May 11, 2009]

Land rights are a key concern for the country’s indigenous peoples, many of whom have been pushed off land without compensation by state governments to make way for development. State governments claim the tribes have no legal rights to their ancestral land, which is owned by the state. But the tribes, who mostly live in poor settlements in the jungles on Borneo island, argue that the land is theirs because they have lived on it for generations.

In 2007 the Federal Court ruled that a family of the Kedayan group in Sarawak state on Borneo had rights over land they used and that they should be compensated. The government had taken over the land in the 1990s to grant it for oil exploration. The state government sought a final review of the decision in the case, but on Tuesday another Federal Court panel upheld the ruling in favor of the family.

Activists say tribes’ livelihood is being threatened by companies that clear land for logging and oil palm projects and laws that do not recognize or protect their indigenous customs and right to land ownership. Last year in an unprecedented move, the federal government said it would grant ownership of farming land to about 20,000 indigenous families to improve their lives.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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