Malaysia's Ethnic Divides

By Kaushal Agarwal

London, United Kingdom

Anti-Racism rallies in Kuala Lumpur (Photo Credit: Agencia EFE)

Malaysia, a nation on the nexus of the most important maritime trade route in South East Asia, is home to a complex multiracial population. Over the past hundreds of years, its culture has been shaped around its habitants—predominantly defined by the Malays (67.4%), the Chinese (24.6%) and the Indians (7.3%)—each contributing to the food, dress, language and overall identity of the nation. However, the nation suffers from an ongoing epidemic, dating from its independence, of widespread racial inequality sourcing from the cores of its politics, laws and religion. Broadly, it has resulted in discrimination, Malay elitism, and mass corruption.


The ethnic divisions date back to the creation of the ethnonationalist United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), formed by Malay elites during the struggle for Independence. Its aim? To defend special privileges for the Malays. When the nation was granted independence in 1957, the UMNO joined with political parties from the Chinese and Indian communities to form the National Front (BN), an UMNO-led coalition that would grip Malaysian political power from 1957 to 2018. Although it showed promise for diverse ethnic cooperation in the political theater, the party was crucial in bringing forth the pro-Malay policies which have shaped the special rights granted to the Malays, increasing ethnic inequality over the last 70 years.


Malay political elites have propagated the view that they are the protectors of the Muslim majority community and hence have the right to control state resources as they see fit, as well as use them for their personal endeavors. However, some Malaysian elites believe that a more participatory system of civil society should be fought for. This divide resulted in the 1969 racial riots, when BN lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time. Eighteen months of emergency rule followed, resulting in the exponential rise of Malay nationalism and its interconnection with the hierarchical, undemocratic model of politics Malaysia saw in the twentieth century.


During this period, the special rights of the Malays became embedded into social contracts, and the state powers became dominated by the Malay elites. Examples of these special rights included cheaper housing for Malays, priority for government jobs and business licenses, and, most importantly, the privilege of having top government positions reserved for only Malays. The government proceeded to narrow democratic space and civil liberties to protect their powers, creating an environment where Malay political power was no more earned at the ballot box, but instead made an entitlement.


The electorate, however, continued to remain loyal to the BN for the party delivered robust economic growth. It would require a downturn of this growth to truly spark some form of reformation. The 1997-1999 Asian financial crisis seemed to be that very event.


The crisis dealt a blow to the BN government and initiated profound changes within Malaysia’s opposition. Within the UMNO, an elite competition began between politicians. The ‘reformasi’ (reform) movement was the child of this instability. It called for anti-corruption measures, more ethnic inclusion, greater political freedom and generally better governance.


However, as the opposition gained in the centre, BN turned to polarizing tactics to compensate and recover, racial politics being a key corner of this. The UMNO further disengaged from its political roots of mass-membership and became an elitist vehicle with a more radicalized ethos.


Malaysia continues to struggle with ethnic politics. Its leaders continue to divide themselves, as the centre becomes harder and harder to grasp. Malaysia is also one of twenty nations, along with the likes of North Korea and Myanmar, to have not signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), a covenant which commits nations to abolishing racial discrimination.


Religious and racial minorities are at the front line of those affected by the dominance of race and religion over politics. The result is Malaysians living in separate ethnic silos, which worsens racial relationships and brings increased insecurity as the UMNO continues to amplify its polarizing rhetoric.


Malaysia does lack the ethnic violence we see in other Asian countries. However, with its history of race riots, polarizing politics, the continuing disaster COVID-19 poses to the nation, and the ever-present reports of radicalized rage, the ethnic divide we see remains a nervous fracture in the pillars of the country.