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Politics in Malaysia revolves around the conflicts between three major ethnic groups: Malays, Chinese and Indians. Despite this, the country has been remarkably stable since independence from the UK in 1957. The only major racial incident was in 1969 when ethnic riots let to temporary suspension of Parliament and emergency rule. The reason given for the riots was economic disparity between the Malays and Chinese, where the Malay community feared being overwhelmed by Chinese economic power leading to a loss of political power.
To right this “historical wrong”, the New Economic Policy (NEP), an affirmative action programme, was put in place in 1971. It is still ongoing (under a different name) and is regarded as the world’s longest-running social engineering programme. The NEP aimed to increase Malay share of all economic and social spheres via a quota system. The quota was based solely on racial criteria. More unusually, the NEP was for the majority ethnic group, not the minority. The quota was applied to all institutions in the country – from university intake to government procurement and listing requirements on the stock exchange.
The merging of a Malay identity with Islam
The unique thing about ethnicity is the Malay identity was merged with Islam constitutionally. Thus legally, an ethnic Malay is constitutionally a Muslim as well and you cannot legally separate the two.
Article 3(1) of the Malaysian Federal Constitution further states that “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions can be practised safely and peacefully in all parts of the Federation”, leading many to subscribe that Islam is the official religion of Malaysia. Over time, this identity has metamorphosed into the ideology of Ketuanan Melayu Islam (Malay Islamic Supremacy). This is the root cause of racism towards the Chinese (and all non-Malay) community. All Malay/Muslim political parties began to adopt a “Muslim (us) vs non-Muslim (them)” political worldview.
Two main factors were responsible. First, the two main Malay parties, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), tried to be “more Islamic” than the other to capture the conservative Malay vote.
Second, there was bureaucratisation of Islam. The government created the all-powerful Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM). JAKIM introduced radical teaching of Islamic theology in all schools, a compulsory subjects for all Muslim students. That teaching espouses a theology derived from the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia. The curriculum promotes an exclusivist view of Islam, Islamic supremacist attitudes and rejection of the non-Muslim.
Since the Chinese constitute the largest non-Muslim segment, much of JAKIM’s anti-Muslim worldview were targeted at the Chinese, especially Chinese Christians. JAKIM’s efforts to demonise the non-Muslims in Malaysia as a threat to Islam and Islamic supremacy was aided by the rapid growth of Tahfiz and private Islamic schools from the 1990s. Many of these school teach an even more exclusivist view of Islam and Muslim and sees non-Muslim as dhimmi — a protected minority with restricted rights and who should pay a special tax in exchange for protection. In practice, this meant that the non-Malays would be second-class citizens in an Islamic state.
Many Chinese (and non-Malays) in Malaysia hope that racism towards them will ease over the long run as the demography of Malaysia changes. At independence, the Chinese constituted slightly more than one third of the population but in 2020 they were down to just 23.2 percent.
The thinking is once the Chinese becomes a small minority; the Malay political class can no longer use the Chinese as the bogeyman. This thinking is erroneous.
First, the animosity towards the Chinese is based on a large part on religion – Islam. Second, the Chinese will continue to dominate the private sector, creating resentment. The bottom line is that for the Malaysian Chinese to be treated as equal citizenship they have to convert to Islam and adopt Malay culture and identity.
From affirmative action to racism
The Malaysia case demonstrates how an ideology can set the stage for creating the political institutional setting for racist policies under the guise of affirmative action policies. This is compounded by history – the Chinese were brought into the country during colonial times and were never meant to be permanent residents. Another driver has been the Constitution which defined who is an ethnic Malay and Islam attached to being Malay. The adoption of the NEP after the 1969 racial riots signalled the setting up of nationalised racism across the entire political-social system. Over time this became Ketuanan Melayu Islam as Islam became a political tool to rally the Malays.
The rise of political Islam is part of the wider trend in Muslim countries where Islam is taking on a more political character and plays an increasing role in setting the political agenda. In Malaysia this political Islam comes with an ethnic identity. This conservative, exclusivist worldview of Islam based on Malay identity is supported by the state as a means to rally support amongst Malay Muslims and to dominate the non-Muslims. This construction, by default, promotes racism towards all non-Malays. The Chinese, being the dominant group among the non-Malay population bear the brunt of this racism. This situation is made worse by the NEP affirmative action policy, by giving tangible economic benefits to someone who is defined as Malay. Thus, the Malay identity becomes even more exclusionary as one group, Malay, want to protect their economic benefits. This is done by holding on to political power at the expense of the non-Malays. The “system” thus generates anti-Chinese racism to reinforced identity politics.
This system is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future even as the country modernises. The current ideology has served the Malay elites well for the past five decades. Malaysia’s experience with racism towards its minorities is not unique but it is notable that an ethnic domination has increasingly taken on a religious character. This may be part of a wider pattern across the world and clearly requires examination but that is, beyond the scope of this article.