Malaysia: Racial and ethnic divisions belie the myth of multiethnic harmony

Posted on | mei 10, 2011 | No Comments

For many years during the 1990s the slogan of the glitzy advertisement produced for the Malaysian Tourism authority was “Malaysia: Truly Asia”. In this ad, which mainly aired on international cable news channels such as CNN and BBC World, Malaysia’s multicultural and multiethnic diversity is showcased alongside the country’s natural beauty and tourist attractions.

Indeed this image of a prosperous, dynamic, peaceful Muslim country has been one that has been assiduously promoted by the government to the extent that politicians and policymakers both inside Malaysia and globally have showcased the country as an exemplar to other Islamic countries worldwide. Most famously in October 2006 the then British deputy Prime Minister John Prescott penned a 1000 word article for the Star newspaper in which he heaped lavish praise on Malaysia for its tolerance and tolerance for other cultures and religion. The latest chapter in this discourse on Malaysia came this week when Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak gave a speech in which he argued that Malaysia was a good model of moderate Islam and good governance for other Islamic countries to follow in the wake of the social and political upheavals that have struck the Middle East in recent weeks.

This narrative of Malaysia has been remarkably successful internationally and yet as anyone who has studied Malaysian politics and society since independence will attest it is in stark contrast to the realities of ethnicity, religion and politics in the country. Ever since the 1969 race riots, ethnicity has been both central to body politic of Malaysia and a subject that has largely been made taboo as a result of Constitutional provisions (Article 153) and restrictions on the freedom of speech that prohibit debate on the special rights of Malays and make seditious speech that would “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against” the government or engender “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races”.

Malaysia is an ethnic and religious kaleidoscope but it is one based upon Malay dominance and hegemony rather than a genuine multiculturalism. Malays constitute approximately 50-53 per cent of the population with other indigenous bumiputras (sons of the earth) another 11 per cent. Of the remaining population Chinese constitute a little less than 25 per cent and Indians (mostly Tamil) a little over 7 per cent. The dominant position of the Malays is constitutionally enshrined and since independence the government of Malaysia has consisted of a multi-party coalition (The National Front, Barisan Nasional) overwhelmingly dominated by the United Malays National Organization.

Traditional Style Malay architecture

Malay may be an ethnic group but the Malaysian constitution defines Malays by religion (Islam) and custom (adat). In practice this means that Malays are subject to parallel state and federal shariah law that takes precedent over constitutional provisions on the freedom of religion. Malays who have tried to change their religion have had their appeals to the Federal Court rejected while others have lost custody of their children. In addition amendments to Islamic Family Law in 1994 and 2005 have made it easier for men to enter into polygamous marriages, to divorce and to prevent the dispensation of property by a wife. Indeed in 2007 on the 50th anniversary of independence the chief justice, Ahmad Fairuz, told an Islamic conference in Kuala Lumpur that Common Law should be abolished and Shariah Law infused into the legal system instead.

The ubiquitous Tudung Veil

In addition while in the 1950s and 1960s much still remained of the cultural customs and habit of Malays an overt and government-sponsored program of Islamization adopted in the 1980s has largely rendered adat increasingly irrelevant. Instead Malay culture and society has grown increasingly closer to the culture of an Arabian Islam. This can be seen everywhere from the normalization of the tudung veil among women to the distinctly Arabic architecture of mosque construction over the last two decades.

Meanwhile the countries ethnic populations remain largely isolated from each other. Inter-marriage is rare, since it ostensibly requires the non-Muslim party to convert to Islam. In addition ethnic segregation is a de facto reality in the Malaysian primary education system. Malays mostly go to national schools, which are Malay or Muslim-dominated, while Chinese and Indians go to vernacular schools in which Chinese or Tamil are the medium of instruction. In addition Islam is an integral part of the curriculum in the national schools further limiting the degree to which mixing of races occurs. Finally as a result of the pro-Malay affirmation action policies introduced in the New Economic Policy of 1971 Malaysian universities reserve 55 percent of places for Malays, with a 35 percent quota for ethnic Chinese and 10 percent for ethnic Indians.

Furthermore rather than students from the Middle East flocking to Malaysia to learn from its ‘moderate Islamic model’ the Malaysian government, as part of its Islamization program (originally conceived to counter the growth of support for the Islamic Youth Movement, ABIM in the 1970s), has sent a few hundred thousand students to universities across the Middle East and in particular in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Many of the returning graduates from these institutions have become vocal advocates for greater and deeper Islamization of Malaysian politics and society and have been disproportionately employed in the public sector.

HINDRAF rally 2007

What this creates in Malaysia is a social and political system far from the smiling multi-ethnic faces of the Malaysia: Truly Asia advertizing campaign. Instead there are deep ethnic and religious tensions and grievances. In 2007 the Indian population founded the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) in order to protest at the socio-economic marginalization of the country’s Indian population and a spate of Hindu temple demolitions. This culminated in a rally of 30,000 Indians in Kuala Lumpur on November 25th and was the second largest demonstration in Malaysia since the reformasi movement of 1998. The arrest and detention of over 200 HINDRAF leaders and the use of tear-gas against protestors played a large part in an unprecedented swing of Indian voters to the opposition in the 2008 general election. Since then there have been attacks on Christian churches in protest at bibles using the word Allah for God (rather than the Malay word Tuan), pig heads left outside mosques, cow heads left outside Hindu temples and simmering unrest among the Indian community prompting another planned rally for February 27th. None of this is new, ethnic tensions and inter-communal strife featured prominently in the 1980s and 1990s, then mostly among the country’s Chinese population.

What this reveals is that 42 years after the race riots of 1969 the most salient cleavages in Malaysian politics remain ethnic and sectarian and that these are overlapping cleavages rather than cross-cutting cleavages. In other words the divisions within Malaysian society reinforce the polarization of the ethnic communities and this is reflected in the political system where ethnic parties are the norm rather than ideological or class-based political parties. For all Prime Minister’s Najib’s talk of a moderate Islamic model the process of constructing an inclusive and genuinely multiethnic and multicultural Malaysia that can ensure ethnic and racial harmony has barely, if at all begun.

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
E-MAIL: [at]


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