A Different Lens: Comparing Race Relations in Malaysia and the U.S.

Melting pot. This is probably how many people perceive Malaysia. To be truly Malaysian means embracing a cultural trifecta — Malay, Chinese, Indian —  that is more than a sum of its parts. Add in the undeniable European influence on the country. And you have a modern Malaysia that continues to wrestle with a violent racial history whose legacy is unequal rights and privileges that remain until today. Many remember the race riots of 1969 that broke out in the capital of Kuala Lumpur. But who understands the complex underpinnings of the racial hatred and cultural fragmentation that caused it?

What follows is an excerpt from an essay by Rachel Mason of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who visited Malaysia in 2015 as part of the Asia Leadership Trek. In the book Rethinking Asia 2: Entrepreneurship and Economic Development, she traces the origins of the often uneasy and tension-filled relations among the three races that call Malaysia home. Interestingly, the story begins at the turn of the century with the rule of a colonial power. Read on.


An Overview of Malaysia’s Racial History

In order to appreciate Nur’s perspectives on Malaysia’s current racial situation, one must understand the country’s tumultuous racial history. The late 1880s marked the beginning of the three racial groups’ coexistence. Malaysia, then part of the British Empire, was suffering from an insufficient labor force (Yacob, 2006). The British government recruited Chinese and Indian laborers to work in the Malaysian tin mines and rubber industries respectively; but the government deliberately segregated the immigrants from each other and from the native Malay, or bumiputera, population. The separation of races was “reinforced in the premeditated colonial policy of maintaining a division of labour along ethnic lines,” so “there were very few opportunities for members of the three racial groups” to interact (Yacob, 2006). When Malaysia gained independence from the British in 1957, nearly seventy years after the first Chinese and Indian laborers had arrived, the majority of Malaysia’s Indian and Chinese populations “still maintained their political allegiance to their respective home countries” (Yacob, 2006).

After Malaysia’s independence from Britain, the Malaysian government acknowledged the need for “political trust among the three social groups and the abolishment of the social paranoia that characterizes fragmented culture” in order to promote a peaceful society (Yacob, 2006). However, the “sudden…shift from the pre-war policies only caused political disorientation among the people who had adapted to the earlier imposed segregations” (Yacob, 2006). The Malaysian Chinese and Indian population were focused on reestablishing their life in the post-war economic reconstruction, while the Malay population greeted the government’s plan of swift unity with hostile rejection (Yacob, 2006). The sharp division of wealth between the urban-dwelling Chinese and the poor rural Malays added to the country’s mounting tension (Chua, 2012).

Months prior to the enactment of independence from Britain, the Reid Commission—an independent commission composed of both Malays and British administrators—was established, with the directive of drafting a new Malaysian Constitution. The result was the Report of the Federation of Malaya Constitutional Commission 1957, or The Reid Commission Report, which prioritized the “safeguarding” of Malay privileges. The Chief Minister at the time realized the consequences of bestowing privileges solely upon one racial population. He stated, “in an independent Malaya all nationals should be accorded equal rights, privileges and opportunities and there must not be discrimination on grounds of race and creed” (Reid Commission Report, 1957). Despite the Chief Minister’s warning, however, the Report outlined four exclusive Malay privileges, which had first been made explicit in the Federation Agreement of 1948. The four matters in which “the special position of the Malays is recognized and safeguarded,” as stated in the Report, are as follows:

1. In most of the States there are extensive Malay reservations of land, and the system of reserving land for Malays has been in operation for many years. In every State the Ruler-in-Council has the power to permit a non-Malay to acquire a piece of land in a Malay reservation but the power is not used very freely. There have been some extensions of reservations in recent years but we do not know to what extent the proportion of reserved land has been increasing.

2. There are now in operation quotas for admission to the public services. These quotas do not apply to all services, e.g., there is no quota for the police and, indeed, there is difficulty in getting a sufficient proportion of non-Malays to join the police. Until 1953 admission to the Malayan Civil Service was only open to British subjects of European descent and to Malays but since that date there has been provision for one-fifth of the entrants being selected from other communities. In other services in which a quota exists the rule generally is that not more than one-quarter of new entrants should be non-Malays.

3. There are also in operation quotas in respect of the issuing of permits or licenses for the operation of certain businesses. These are chiefly concerned with road haulage and passenger vehicles for hire. Some of these quotas are of recent introduction. The main reasons for them appear to be that in the past the Malays have lacked capital and have tended to remain on the land and not to take a large part in business, and that this is one method of encouraging the Malays to take a larger part in business enterprises.

4. In many classes of scholarships, bursaries and other forms of aid for educational purposes preference is given to Malays. The reason for this appears to be that in the past higher education of the Malays has tended to fall behind that of the Chinese, partly because the Chinese have been better able to pay for it and partly because it is more difficult to arrange higher education for Malays in the country than for Chinese in the towns.

Although members of the Malaysian government denounced the unequal treatment of Malaysian residents in 1948 and again in 1969, many of these privileges are still being upheld as legally legitimate today, in Malaysia’s current society.

May 13, 1969, the day of the 1969 Race Riots in Kuala Lumpur, was one of the most monumental days in Malaysia’s history. Debates still arise over the exact causes, happenings, and number of deaths and injuries. The Malaysian government supports the theory that the riots occurred solely for political reasons: “the riots were sparked by opposition parties ‘infiltrated by communist insurgents’ following huge opposition gains in the election” (Kuppusamy, 2006). The truth seems to be more closely tied to racial tensions: in the general election on May 10th, 1969, the UMNO (United Malays National Organization) “retained an overall majority [but]…lost its two thirds majority, and its control of Selangor state was threatened” (Kuppusamy, 2006). The Malays’ political dominance was now threatened, as a result of the predominantly Chinese opposition party’s success in the election.

The resulting riots indicate the extent to which racial tension was spurring the conflict: 196 people were killed, according to the disputed Malaysian police figures (Kuppusamy, 2006); these figures state that 143 of those killed were Chinese, twenty-five were Malay, thirteen were Indian, and fifteen were individuals of undetermined ethnicity (Von Vorys, 2015). Contemporary Western diplomatic sources estimated the Chinese-Malaysian death toll to be six hundred (Time, 1969), while first-hand observers and correspondents argued that a four-figure death toll was more likely (Slimming, 1969). Malaysian official figures state that an additional “439 individuals were injured, 753 cases of arson were logged, and 211 vehicles were destroyed or severely damaged” (Funston, 1980).

As a result of the riots, the government declared a state of national emergency. The national parliament was replaced until 1971 by the National Operations Council (NOC), whose mission was to restore law and order in Malaysia. According to Mr. Karl Von Vorys, the October 9th, 1969 report released by the NOC “cited ‘racial politics’ as the primary cause of the riots, but was reluctant to assign blame to the Malays” (Von Vorys, 2015). The report states:

The Malays, who already felt excluded in the country’s economic life, now began to feel a threat in their place in the public services. No mention was ever made by non-Malay politicians of the almost closed-door attitude to the Malays by non-Malays in large sections of the private sector in this country.

In 1971, the Malaysian Government implemented the New Economic Policy (NEP), declaring that its mission was “To reduce and eradicate absolute poverty irrespective of race through raising income levels and increasing employment opportunities for all Malaysians; and To restructure society to correct economic imbalances so as to reduce and eventually eliminate the identification of race with economic function” (New Economic Policy, 2013). While the initial intent of the NEP was to promote social harmony and economic equality, the efforts to alleviate poverty mainly focused on eradicating the still-present income gap between the Malays and the Chinese population (Kuppusamy, 2006). Consequently, the existence of special privileges for the Malays persisted, and legal racial discrimination against the non-Malay population increased. “In a bid to maintain social order, [Prime Minster] Mahathir often blacked out foreign news coverage when racial tensions erupted in nearby Indonesia, where the Chinese are also a minority population” (Kuppusamy, 2006). Originally designed to end in 1991, The New Economic Policy of 1971 has gone uninterrupted by government intervention and continues to this day (Kuppusamy, 2006).

In an effort to gauge the racial and social climate of Malaysia, the first wide-scale survey of race relations in more than fifty years was conducted in the early 2000s. The data of nearly one thousand two hundred Malaysian residents indicates that the country’s three main racial populations live peaceful yet separate lives, as most of the residents seek comfort and security with those in their respective ethnicity (Kuppusamy, 2006). According to the survey, “Only 11 percent of the respondents said they had eaten often with friends from other races in the previous three months, and 34 percent said they had never had a meal with people of other races” (Kuppusamy, 2006). Lawyer and senior leader of the opposition party Mr. A. Sivanesan stated, “Half a century after independence we are further away from knowing each other than when we started—separate schools, separate friends, separate lives” (Kuppusamy, 2006). These results are in direct opposition to the Malaysian government’s attempt to promote their country as having a common “Malaysian” identity; in reality the government’s claim of unity is grossly inaccurate. In contrast, Mr. Sivanesan believes that “all Malaysian political parties that restrict membership on grounds of race, religion or sex” should be eradicated (Kuppusamy, 2006).

The colonial roots of racial segregation and inequality in Malaysia certainly laid the groundwork for today’s clear lines of division, but legal support and cultural norms now reinforce them on a daily basis. Remembering one form of inequality—the initial income-gap between the Malaysian Chinese and the Malays after independence—the Malaysian government has prolonged inequality of another kind, through institutionalizing the privileges of Malays over the country’s other racial populations.

By Rachel Mason