Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has said in an interview that his main task before he steps down in March will be to defuse racial and religious tensions between the three main ethnic groups within Malaysian society. After the Malaysian people elected a new parliament this March, the balance of power has changed considerably.
Malaysia, a multi-ethnic entity
For decades now Malays have enjoyed economic and social benefits granted by constitution over ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians.
After the Malaysian people elected a new parliament in March earlier this year, the balance of power changed considerably. The ruling coalition Barisan Nasional lost their two-thirds majority.
Now coalition members of the United Malays National Association and the Malaysian Chinese Association are fighting over a new conception of the so called policy of “Malay supremacy”.
Malaysia has an ethnically mixed population. About 60 percent are Muslim Malays who call themselves “Bumiputra” or "sons of the soil". About a quarter of them are ethnic Chinese and 7 percent are of Indian descent. Both groups were mostly brought to Malaysia as labourers by the British colonial administration.
After gaining independence from Britain, the ethnic Chinese community prospered economically while Muslim Malays tended to stay in the rural parts of the country. In May 1969 the two ethnic groups clashed in bloody riots that lasted for days.
It was this key point that prompted the Malaysian government to further enforce the policy of “Malay supremacy” in the 1970s to improve the socio-economic status of Malay Muslims.
"Malay supremacy" as a fundamental right
Planned as a short term support in the first place, it has been continued ever since. Holger Warnk from the University of Frankfurt explains that "Malay supremacy" is anchored in the constitution and that in several articles “Malay supremacy” is defined as a fundamental part of the Malaysian state.
"This policy encourages Malays to go into business. They wanted to create in sociologist terms a Malay capitalist class," said Warnk.
The Malaysian government established business companies only for Malays. There has also been a stronger Malayalisation policy in terms of cultural politics and education.
But after almost 40 years of “Malay supremacy” and Malaysian economic success, more and more voices are being raised against the continued discrimination of ethnic Chinese and Indians in Malaysia. This issue has not only been brought up by Chinese and Indian opposition leaders, but also by Chinese and Indian members of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
Even former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad said once he was afraid that the Bumiputra community could get too dependent on governmental help. Others wonder if the concept of “Malay supremacy” is still appropriate in the 21st century when modern nations are built on equality.
But so far, the forces for an abolishment of “Malay supremacy” appear to be too weak to bring about a change in policy. Especially prosperous Malays do not want a change of the current power sharing arrangement.
Challenge for Malaysian society
Especially Malays of the middle and the upper classes have profited highly from the "Malay supremacy" policy.
"There are several companies, which have developed into big companies. They have Malay people sitting in high positions, who enjoyed a strong advantage from this policy. These people fear that the 'Malay supremacy' will disappear,” Warnk says.
On the one hand, the policy of “Malay supremacy” has led to the economic integration of Malays. On the other hand, it has also caused social segregation of certain sections of Malaysia’s population.
With the discussion of “Malay supremacy” within the governmental coalition and in society at large, Malaysia is facing a social challenge which cannot be solved by any single ethnic group but by a concerted and collaborated effort.