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multiracial country with 65 percent Bumiputera15, 26 percent Chinese, 8 percent Indian and 1 percent other ethnic groups (Heufers, 2002). The largest group Bumiputera represent Malaysia’s indigenous ethnic group while the Chinese and Indian communities were built from immigration that was a by-product of the economic and political demands of British colonization.

The state is a constitutional monarchy with a federal parliamentary system of government, where the King (Yang Dipertuan Agong) is authorised to appoint the Prime

15 Bumiputera is also known as son of the soil. It is includes the Malays and other indigenous people in Malaysia particularly from Sabah and Sarawak, namely the Dusun/Kadazan (17.8%), Bajau (11.2%), Murut (2.9%), Iban (28.4%), Bidayuh (8.1%), Melanau (5.6%) and other Bumiputera. Malays alone comprise of 53.4% of the total Malaysian population. The term ‘Bumiputera’ that includes the Malays and indigenous people was first used in the Fourth Malaysia Plan (1981-1985). As explained in Maznah (2005), “In Malaysia’s 1957 Constitution only the concept “Malay” was synonymous with the indigene.

Only Article 160 (2) defines what constitutes a Malay while Malays’ special entitlements were spelled out in Articles 89 and 153. The origin of the term Bumiputera, on the other hand, was never constitutionally clarified but was usefully political in nature. In 1963, the two states of Sabah and Sarawak into the Federation of Malaysia. By 1965, Singapore, with a Chinese majority population was “expelled” from the federation. A common theory was that in bringing Sabah and Sarawak into federation and by excluding Singapore, the Malay governing elite were able to retain a Malay majority polity. It was a strategy said to be designed to protect the ruling elite from future challenges mounted by Chinese interests. The creation of the Bumiputera concept came out of this political deal. Initially the term Bumiputera was reserved only for the indigenous peoples of the two new states. There was a lot of debate on this and at first there was much decision as to who actually the Bumiputera, particularly if Malays could also be grouped under this category. These debates were raised during Singapore’s brief participation as a member-state of Malaysia.

Lee Kuan Yew’s campaign for a “Malaysian Malaysia”, in which the supremacy of any one community or race would be abrogated, eventually forced the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965. A parliamentary debate in November 1965 (a month after Singapore’s separation) raised the issue of the Bumiputera again. Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s reply to this question varied between stating that, “the term…has no legal meaning except in so far as to denote the natives of the mainland of Malaya and the natives of the Borneo States” to including “those Chinese and Indians who have been born here for several generations” to “the natives of Malaysia…who are less advanced and less able to compete with these other Malaysians.” He was finally pressured to accept only one definition of the Bumiputera, which excluded the Chinese and Indians across both West and East Malaysia. At the same time that these debates were going on, the term was fast being used. For example, the first Bumiputra [both spellings bumiputera and bumiputra are in common parlance] Economic Conference was held in 1965 and the Bank Bumiputera was used established in the same year. Nevertheless, during the early period, the term Bumiputera was used to refer solely to indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak. A distinction was made to distinguish Malays as natives of the Peninsular Malaysia from those of Borneo. The official indecisiveness about adopting this term was reflected in the fact that it was only in the Fourth Malaysia Plan (1981-1985) that the term Bumiputera was used extensively to refer to “Malays and other indigenous people” as a whole (Siddique and Suryadinarta, 1981; 674)” (p9-10). For further reading on this topic, please see Lee (2004) and Maznah (2005).


Minister and individual portfolios are chosen among the Members of Parliaments (Funston, 2001). Whilst the Malays16 are the major ethnic group in Malaysia, non-Malay’s can obtain citizenship through the jus soli (right of birth) principle, where an individual born in Malaysia is automatically given citizenship. Conditions for citizenship requires acknowledgement of the special position of the indigenous, Malay language (Bahasa Malaysia) as the national language (article 151) and Islam being the official religion of the country (article 11) as stated in the Independent Constitution of 1957 (Funston, 2001 and Sato, 2005).

Looking back at history, Malaysia has been colonized by several powers including the Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese and British before it became an independent nation. The Portuguese were the first colonial power who entered Malacca in 1511, followed by the Dutch, British, Japanese and once again the British. The British colonized Malaysia twice, i.e. in the 18th century and again after the Second World War. The colonization of Malaysia by the British started in mid-18th century after the British East India Company, which was based in India, started to give serious attention to Malaysia for its natural sources such as pepper, tin and gold. During its colonization, Britain had control over almost all the Malay lands including Borneo. However, Japanese missions during the Second World War ended British rule in Malaysia. The Japanese dominated Malaysia for 5 years from 1941 to 1945 before they were defeated in the war which saw the re-entrance of the British to Malaysia.

16 A Malay according to Malayan Constitutional Document is, “who professes the Muslim religion, habitually speaks the Malay language, [and] conforms to Malay custom (Malayan Constitutional Document, 1962:124)” (Mohd Rizal, 2010, p42).


British colonialism in Malaysia contributed to the development of a diverse ethnic population and various economic imbalances between these groups. The British encouraged the migration of the Chinese to work in the mining sector and the Indian immigrants to work in the plantation sector (Gomez & Jomo, 1999 and Rozita, Nazri &

Ahmad, 2011). This separation of ethnic groups encouraged economic divisions and also shaped the political system. For example the traditional formation of Malaysian political parties has been based on ethnicity. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) represents the Malays, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) represents the Chinese and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) represents the Indians.

After the country’s independence in 1957, initiatives were taken to train the upper class Malays to be future leaders.17 This included administrators, policy makers and armed forces. Non-Malays were also appointed into these positions although it was as a minority (Crouch, 1996). Simultaneously the political party known as the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was also formed by this elite group to ensure the success of the Malays. At that time, almost all of the UMNO leaders were from the elite group who had received English education and served the colonial government (Crouch, 1996).

Malaysia’s chronology of state formation started in 1946 when the British set up the Malayan Union that consisted of: Straits Settlement (Malacca, Penang, Dinding and

17 The British acknowledged the Malays as the legitimate owners of Malaysia For this purpose, the Malay’s were given special treatment by the British. For instance, after independence, Malays that had English education backgrounds were recruited by the British to be officers responsible in administrative works. For further reading on this topic, please see Crouch (1996).


Singapore), the Federated Malay State (Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Perak and Pahang) and the Non-federated Malay State (Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis) (Jayasuriya, 1983). Under Malayan Union, the British abolished the Sultans’ rights and authority, and gave equal rights to all citizens. In 1948 after being pressured by the Malays, in particular by UMNO, the British replaced the Malayan Union with the Federation of Malaya. The Federation gained independence from the British on 31st August 1957. Contemporary Malaysia was established in 1964 with the addition of British North Borneo (now Sabah) and Sarawak.

During that time, UMNO was the biggest Malay dominated political organization that fought for the Malays’ interests. As an agreement of independence, the British made UMNO merge with MCA and MIC to form the multiparty coalition known as the Alliance party (since 1974 it is known as Barisan Nasional / National Front) (Ritchie, 2005). The coalition represents three major ethnic groups of Malaysia and has won every election since 1955. Understanding the political situation on Malaysia is useful in order to comprehend the country’s economic growth and its technological development.

For a long time, the Barisan Nasional has been the dominant party that rules Malaysia.

Malaysia is a unique country. The uniqueness is not only because it diversity, but in the way the country has been ruled. The political structure of Malaysia has been characterised in a variety of ways by political scholars: As a pseudo-democracy, a syncretic-state or semi-authoritarian or quasi- democratic state. In all definitions there has been a concern with how to maintain stability as a multi-racial society. As stressed


by Zainal and Bhattasali (2008), Malaysian politics have evolved around these ethnic issues:

Ethnic considerations have and continue to dominate politics. Dealing with ethnicity issues has been central task for leadership, and the Malaysian case study presents an example of how a leadership has dealt with economic efficiency, growth, and nation building in an ethnically divided community (Zainal & Bhattasali, 2008, p23).

For Zakaria (1989) and Heufers (2002) Malaysia is a quasi-democratic country. A democratic country should have fair elections, equal opportunities for different political opinion and have a high level of political participation. Malaysia does not fully meet all these criteria. Whilst the country practices elections and individuals can freely voice their opinions, people can only voice their ideas through the representative of their party and given Malaysia’s single party dominance it can be difficult for diverse views to enter the formal political arena.

William Case (1993) classified politics in Malaysia as semi-democratic because society does not fully enjoy the freedom of democracy and the country is dominated by a single party. Nevertheless, Malaysians still practice some democracy as they are still able to criticize the government through various informal channels such as opposing political parties, state assemblies and international media (Case, 1993).

Crouch (1993) shares similar ideas to Case. He has labelled Malaysian politics as semi-authoritarian. It is a semi-authoritarian as it contains both democratic and authoritarian elements. Malaysia is said to be a democratic country in terms of the election system but


at the same time the elected government has authoritarian power to limit opposition activities (Crouch, 1993). Although the country has fair elections held regularly restrictions are put on political activities which make it difficult for opposition to win.

For Crouch, some of these challenges to democracy to Malaysia follow from various socio-economic constraints. These include ethnic divisions, tendencies toward social fragmentation and its economic dependency on foreign capital.

Jesudason (1996) described Malaysia as a ‘syncretic state’. A ‘syncretic’ state is one that does not solely depend on one type of rule. Jesudason explains the concept in his book, The Syncretic State and the Structuring of Oppositional Politics in Malaysia (1996):

The syncretic state operates at a multi level, mixing coercive elements with electoral and democratic procedures; it propagates religion in society as it pursues secular economic goals; it engages in ethnic mobilization while inculcating national feelings; and it pursues a combination of economic practices ranging from liberal capitalism, state economic intervention, to rentier arrangement (p131).

Jesudason argues that the state has played a significant role in structuring politics and social life of the country. For him, Malaysia is a syncretic state where the power holders have combined a range of economic systems and ideological and authoritarian elements in managing the country. Malaysia’s syncretism consists of the combination of self-governing and coercive actions largely inherited from British colonial rule period.

Wan Asna (1999) meanwhile has a different view. Adopting Lijphart’s consociationalism or inter elite bargaining concept, she claims that Malaysia is a country that has practiced a consociation democracy model of political and economic development. Based on


Lijphart’s research, there are four characteristics of consociationalism (Lijphart, 1977):

(1) An alliance of the political leaders of all significant segments of plural society; (2) The mutual veto; proportionality as the principle standard of political representation: (3) Civil service appointments and allocation of public funds; and (4) A high degree of autonomy for each segment to run its own affairs. This view also stresses the role of the elite being responsible to cooperate and commit to a stable democracy. For example, in this model part of the success of the Alliance Party can be explained by the political elite’s commitment to work together and control ethnic tensions. Something opposition parties have been unable to do.

According to Zainal and Bhattasali (2008), consociationalism practiced in Malaysia had depended on the political elites from three different ethnic parties co-operating to resolve the country’s issues as they arose. However, over time the idea of inter elite bargaining has been declining because of changes in the country’s demographic, political and socio-economic structures.

The system seems to have been terminated with the imposition of Emergency Rule following the May 13, 1969 racial clashes. Rukunegara, the national ideology, was launched and essentially it asserted that the fundamental agreements that had been struck earlier through inter-ethnic bargaining, the

‘Racial Bargain,’ could not be challenged. Amendments on the sensitive ethnic issues were made in the Constitution, including section on rights, citizenship, Malay special rights, status, and powers of the Malay rulers, status of Islam, and the status of Malay as the sole national language. The amendments also gave powers to the Yang DiPertuan Agung, the king, to reserve academic places in institutions of higher learning for Malays in areas where they were disproportionately few in number (Zainal & Bhattasali, 2008, p26-27).

Whether it is a syncretic or consociational democracy or semi-authoritarian state, one


common thing in between these terms is that the country is being controlled by one political party which has placed this party in the authoritative position to shape the country’s future development. One of the factors that have no doubt assisted the Alliance Party maintaining this position has been its role in being relatively successful in sustaining continued economic growth (Crouch, 1996).

Realizing the importance of the Malays vote as the major electoral support and in order to assure its authoritative position, a lot of attention has been given by the government to favour this group’s welfare. Development planning policies have also emphasized this issue. The introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) (1971-1991) by the government after the ethnic riot incident in May 13, 196918

18 There are many factors contribute to the 1969 ethnic riot. Employment discriminations and uneven education opportunity between the ethnics, particularly to the Bumiputera is among the reasons (Sivalingam, 2007). According to Brown, Siti Hawa and Wan Manan (2004), the political crisis is the factor that trigger race riots in Malaysia in 1969, “At the 1969 general election, the Alliance performed badly, winning less than fifty percent of the vote, although retaining its parliament majority. Most notable was the virtual collapse in its support among non-Malays, especially the urban Chinese; the MCA lost more than half its federal seats and the Alliance lost control of the two urban states of Penang and Selangor (Lee and Heng 2000; Ratnam and Milne 1970). ‘Victory celebration’ by the Chinese opposition parties and counter demonstrations by the government supporters soon descended into rioting, which cost almost two hundred lives and six thousand homes over a three day period. The government responded by declaring a State of Emergency, suspending parliament…” (p3). Please see Brown, Siti Hawa and Wan Manan (2004), and Sivalingam (2007) for further information on the topic.

is an important example. The rationale of the plan has been to enhance the Bumiputera particularly the Malays’ role in economic development. Under the NEP, numerous policies were formulated to satisfy the Malays, this included the increasing of Malays participation in middle class occupations, opportunities for Malay students in the education system and special access to licenses, loans and contracts to start a business (Crouch, 1993). During the NEP, the Malays begin to achieve a stronger position in the economy. Whilst placing Malay interests first, the NEP did not turn its back on non-Malay interests’ also encouraging


business leadership from other ethnic groups. Snodgrass (1995) in his paper entitled, Successful Economic Development in Multi-Ethnic Society: The Malaysia Case, has shown that during the 10 years of implementation of NEP, Malaysia was among the top ten fastest growing economies in the world. In fact, according to Snodgrass (1995), the NEP was an essential tool that balanced the country economic growth by contributing to the national unity through modernization of rural society.

All NEP goals were to be reached in the context of economic growth. No one was to suffer any loss of a job, income, or business, although obviously some loss of opportunity to improve one’s job or increase one’s income or business was implicit in the redistribution plan (Snodgrass, 1995, p7).

As a conclusion, the intervention by government to attempt to manage ethnic tensions is one of the factors that have contributed to Malaysia’s stability. The complexity of managing these ethnic questions is ongoing. Maznah in Ethnicity and Inequality in Malaysia: a Retrospect and a Rethinking (2005) makes the point concisely:

Each group has actually existed separately or within parallel systems in a cultural or economic sense. As long as each group feels that their group interests are not being threatened and deprivation gaps are prevented from being unduly widened, there is stability even if ethnic tension prevails (p5).