August 2, 2021 House of Trust

Racial Politics: Divide and Conquer or Equality for All in Malaysia?

Since this country’s inception in the year of 1957 and prior, the dominant races of Malay, Chinese and Indian had played a crucial role in forging the country we now know as Malaysia. From joining hands and unifying as the Alliance Party in 30th October 1957 and facilitating the transition from centuries-­old British rule to a separate independent nation and then, onwards towards development and modernization of the country. Now to its present day, the distinctive brand that Malaysia continues to advertise to the world is multiculturalism, equality and unity, as evident in their country’s motto, ‘Bersekutu Bertambah Mutu’, or in English, ‘Unity in Strength.’

However, it seems that this legacy of unity had been left in tatters after independence due to the constant bickering over the dispute of ‘true equality for all’, a never-­ending battle it seems, starting from the racial riot of 1969 to the anti-­ICERD protests of 2018. It is easy to observe the dynamics of this game, on one side are the not-­Malays, and the other side are the Malays. The not-­Malays call for equal status and treatment with the Malays, and the Malays on the other side argue that they have the birthright to their land;; continually pointing out that it is, ‘Tanah Melayu’ and so in retrospect, deserve the status of the superior race in Malaysia. Moreover, in the political spectrum, it was the racial parties of Malays (UMNO), Chinese (MCA), Indian (MIC) that helped form the Alliance Party and later, the National Front and ruled for 61 years, the longest ruling coalition party in the world.

Why are the non-­Malays causing such a ruckus, what is this true equality they keep saying they are not achieving? For starters, the Government implemented the New Economic Policy adopted in 1971, which was a racially motivated policy to uplift the Malay race from poverty and to institute employment and prosperity amongst their growing majority and overall promote the Bumiputera, (a term describing Malays and the indigenous people of Malaysia) to compete against the economically competent Chinese. In addition, they established Malay as the national language (Article 152 of the Constitution of Malaysia) as opposed to English, a language which was perceived as the key towards unity, following Singapore’s model. Lastly, and not the least, but the strongest point of all, Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia, stipulates the special position of Bumiputras, characterized by reserved quotas for Bumiputras in the areas of civil service, education and business.

All of this, when viewed from the perspective of being part of a race that is not a Malay but a Malaysian, the Government truly has not done much favor, except play the game of divide and conquer. In the Malay perspective however, they argue that this land belonged to them and that the reason for much needed bickering was the centuries-­ old perception that the Chinese and Indians are migrants, ‘guest-­workers’ coming to Malaysia to serve the British rulers and their interests in the country, and that it was due to the machinations of the British in relegating the races to their roles such as, farming to be done by the Malays, tin mine owners and merchants by the Chinese and laboring by the Indians. That is why harmony and unity, further exacerbated by language and religious differences was difficult. Fast-­forward towards post-­ Independence, with the backdrop of the Chinese taking the leading role in the economy, this prompted the New Economic Policy to be formulated in the first place, to assure that everyone is at the same page of the book.

But then again, all of that was years ago, and the NEP had long been abolished. Therefore, is the racial politics of the present time still to divide and conquer, or has the equality for all been established now that the country had achieved a remarkable transformation from a poverty-­stricken nation to a leading economy in Southeast Asia? That is debatable. On one side, even if the arguments from both sides presented above could be contended with the fact that all the past was history, now its time to ‘move on’, racial politics and differences still play a role. It is worth noting that till this day, there has never been a non-­Malay Prime Minister. Quotas for races are still in place when attempting to get scholarships for educational institutions as evident with the Malaysian Matriculation Programme. Riots and protests such as the Low Yat Riot of 2015 and anti-­ICERD of 2018 still prove that race plays a part in Malaysia till this day. Politicians are bound by a gag rule present in the Parliament of Malaysia that prevents discussion and debate of Article 153, furthermore, particular emphasis on said article are being fiercely protected by conservative Malays, most prominent of them being the United Malays National Organization and Pan-­Islamic Malaysian Party, as evident from the anti-­ICERD protest.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the idea of divide and conquer and its seriousness is not to the point of outright discrimination and racial prejudice. Politicians of all races make up the Malaysian Parliament. Multiculturalism, unity and harmony between all races are still being promoted. Religious festivals in respect to each race are still being celebrated. Though some Malays would continue to assert their birthright as Bumiputras, polls dated back from June to July 2008, report that 65% of Malaysians agree to an end to racially based affirmative action policies. Signifying that though full equality is not yet achieved, Malaysians, especially younger as time goes on, are still on the road in breaking down racial barriers.

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Ahmad Harris bin Mahadi

(Cabaran Penulisan Artikel – Kategori UIAM)

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