Malaysians united across racial lines last May to vote in the multiethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition. The country was abuzz with hopes for “Malaysia baru” or new Malaysia. But a year on, the racial politics that has dominated the country since colonial rule persists in pitting Malaysians against one another.
In this polarizing landscape, recent comments by a top adviser to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made a refreshing change. Daim Zainuddin, a former finance minister under Mahathir’s earlier term as premier, called for Malaysia’s controversial affirmative action policies to be based on need rather than race.
“Although Bumiputeras (“sons of the soil,” a term Malaysia uses to describe its indigenous population, made up mostly of Malays) are indeed disproportionately represented among the poor, other races too are deeply affected by poverty and low standards of living,” said Daim. “Policy-wise, the B40 (bottom 40 percent, grouped by median household income), irrespective of race, must be given priority.”
Since 1971 Malaysia has enshrined special privileges for the country’s bumiputera majority, who receive preferential treatment in spheres such as education, employment, business and housing. The New Economic Policy (NEP), as it was called, followed deadly racial riots in 1969, and was presented as a way to redistribute wealth, in particular between the Malays and the ethnic Chinese, who today make up around 25 percent of the population.
It was only supposed to last for 20 years. But affirmative action policies for the majority have continued in varying forms, despite misgivings about their impact, as removing them has been seen as akin to inviting near-certain political disaster. Even before the NEP was introduced Malays were guaranteed privileges through a “special position” under Article 153 of the constitution.
Yet the new ethnically diverse coalition, which took office in 2018 after a reform campaign, has been talking about the importance of needs-based affirmative action. Daim’s call echoes what Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir’s named successor (though uncertainty swirls), said just last month, a position backed by the government which ordered a review of the policy last year.
It’s unclear what shape any reforms would take. What is clear is the effort each politician takes to reassure Malay voters that their special privileges will remain intact. These are near unquestionable in Malaysia and most debate about needs-based change is peppered with assurances for Malays rather than any mention of ending discrimination against minorities. Daim pointed out the “Bumiputera will still stand to benefit the most” from reforms as the majority among the B40 group. Anwar emphasized in July that constitutional special privileges for the Malays would be untouched.
But any changes would still be major ammunition for Malaysia’s opposition parties who have already been playing up the threat of eroding Malay rights.
A progressive government appointment of Malaysia’s first non-Muslim attorney-general, a top lawyer from the ethnic Indian minority, saw protests from Malay nationalists. In a major blow for equality last year the coalition back-pedaled on a pledge to ratify a UN convention against racial discrimination after a backlash led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the conservative Islamic party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS).
The foes-turned-partners each rallied their supporters to argue the move would strip Malay privileges and threaten Islam’s position as the official religion. Debates on race are frequently linked to religion in Malaysia, making them even more sensitive, as by one definition, the constitution, to be Malay is to be Muslim.
UMNO — the party which until last year led the coalition that ruled Malaysia for six decades — and PAS have also capitalized on ideas of Malay supremacy to win recent by-elections. They have successfully sold the narrative that “Malays are being marginalized and the government is being controlled by the Chinese,” said Professor James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania.
Chin has previously written about the Malay suspicion of the Chinese-based secular Democratic Action Party in the ruling coalition despite evidence that Malays form overwhelming majorities in parliament, the cabinet and key institutions. He thinks the chance of meaningful reform to affirmative action policies in this current climate is extremely low.
The UMNO-PAS alliance is a serious and growing threat to the government. A recent survey by the Merdeka Center, an opinion research firm, found that only 31 percent of Malays agreed the country was moving in the right direction, a lower percentage than the ethnic Indians and Chinese who were polled. Analysts point to the results from last year’s election to show how similar voting patterns with a new UMNO-PAS partnership could defeat Pakatan Harapan.
Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa, founder-director of the Islamic Renaissance Front, a think tank advocating reform in Islam, said in an email that UMNO and PAS were successfully playing on “Malay Muslim insecurities.” He thinks the government could win the debate on moving to a needs-based policy by addressing their economic anxieties through better jobs and education. Malays themselves have long complained that current policies have spawned a disproportionately rich bumiputera elite rather than uplifting the poorest among them. Farouk also said the coalition shouldn’t pander to orthodox Malay Muslim views, and instead should promote a more plural form of Islam unlike that endorsed by the previous government.
An affirmative action system based on income rather than racial categories could help meet the needs of Malaysia’s poorest citizens. It could also be a step towards creating a more inclusive Malaysian identity instead of one fraught with constructed racial divisions first exploited by British colonial rulers and now Malaysian politicians.
In his comments last week Daim had also said: “Do we gain anything by teaching the young that they have the right of entitlement over all others simply because of their race?… There needs to be understanding and empathy across the racial divide.”