The Ethnic Malay Malaysian Nationalism History Essay

This phenomena is an example of the social transformation happening right now in Malaysia due to the unequal treatment among the ethnic groups. Malaysia is a multi-cultural nation. The Malays, Chinese and Indians build up the population. However, since the independence of Malaysia, racist policies have been marginalizing the minorities. In this essay, I am going to talk about racist Malay Malaysian Nationalism by tracing the history of formation and development of this country.

Multi-cultural Malaysia

Malaysia, formerly known as “Malaya”, located on the Malay Peninsula and the island of Borneo in the Southeast Asia. It has been a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country since its independence in 1957 from the British Occupation. It has a population of 28.8 million consists of the three major ethnic groups: the Malays (61.4%), Chinese (23.7%), Indians (7.1%). (Mose 2010: 285-297).

The immigration of the Indians into the Malaya Peninsula is encouraged by the British colonial government in the 19th century. It reached its peak during the rapid expansion of the rubber plantation in 1910s. The Chinese started flushing in since the 19th century to escape from the unstable society in China and seek for better economic opportunities. They made up the main labor force of the tin mining industry until the early 20th century. Whereas, the Malays have started to move into the Malaya Peninsula earlier than during the 14th century from the islands which are known as Indonesian territories today. However, the Malays consider themselves as “Bumiputra” (sons of the soil) of Malay Peninsula and categorize themselves as the indigenous population. (Saw 2007).

The ethnic tensions have been the biggest internal problem of the nation. Several elements have led to the emergence and affirmation of the ethnic Malay Malaysian Nationalism.

The Ethnic Malay Malaysian Nationalism

How do Malaysians define themselves in terms of nationality and culture? Is that possible to emerge a Malaysian Nationalism purely clean of the racism?

In the book “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism”, Anderson Benedict (2006) defines nation as an imagined political community. Communities are imagined. “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. Hence, communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined. It is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”

That seems to be a flawless condition that will lead to the stability and peacefulness of a country. The Malaysian Nationalism should be distinguished, not by the skin colour, but the vision to the prosperity of the country shared by the members.

However, the civilization of this region since its occupation by colonial power has had a great impact on the way they “imagine” of the community. Ethnic groups have emerged diversified nationalism as a result of the marginalization by the former colonial governments.

Before British colonial occupation was established in the late nineteenth century on the Malayan Peninsula, Malays originated from Indonesia had controlled the underpopulated areas and defined territorial units which resided by Sultan (the rulers). During the early 1800s, the British colonial government opened the doors to the Chinese immigrants when the growing tin mining industry was greatly in need of labor. For a more handy decentralized administration, the British colonial government collaborated with the Malay rulers in each region. The regions were governed under the Malay rulers with the “advice” by the British agents in return of a certain legal “protection”. This “protection” was to ensure the superiority of Malay traditional culture over the increasing population of other ethnic groups as well as the survival of their agricultural economy under the rapid developing modern export economy in the non-Malay and European-populated urban areas. (Mauzy 2006)

The British intervention has been intrusive to the development of the ethnic relations. The status and privileges of Malay has been affirmed, thus a new nationalism has been arisen among the Malay community. According to Roff’s classic analysis, “organised Islamic fervour during the early 1900s, a secular,but still traditional resistance waged by privileged aristocrats beginning in the late 1920s, and a surge in Malay radicalism during the 1930s.” (Roff, 1974)

Japanese occupation has made exacerbated the existing ethnic tension by the extremely brutal treatment to the Chinese. Before Japanese landed on the Malay Peninsula, Malaysian Chinese has been resented by the renowned Nanking Massacre which killed approximately 250,000 to 300,000 Chinese in 1937 in China. (Rummel, 2002) During the invasion of Malay Peninsula, Japanese treated Malaysian Chinese exceptionally harshly to undermine the funding support to the resistance in China. Being in a tough situation, the Chinese had had the most members in the resistance groups. In contrast, Japanese occupation encouraged the Malay nationalism by reaffirming their identity of Bumiputra, the superiority of Malay of then region. (bin Zakaria 1989) Malays were also promoted in the bureaucracy and new paramilitary formation. (Case 2000)

With the defeat of Japan and the return of the British colonial government, Chinese had acquired a new stature as guerrilla heroes. Accordingly, it could be expected that the Malays, the bumiputra, would demand for an affirmation of its dominance on the region. The racism attached to the Malay Nationalism was clearer at this point.

Racism, which is directed against a population regarded as “a minority”, is defined as internal racism. According to Balibar (1988), “it is useful to characterize certain racist posture as auto-referential (those in which the bearers of the prejudice, exercising physical or symbolic violence, designate themselves as representatives of a superior race)”.

Nationalism and racism are conceptually separated to each other. However, there are sound evidences showing that these two ideologies are highly related. Strong elements of racism can be pointed out in, at least, some forms of nationalism. According to Etienne Balibar (1991), racism is always implied in the nationalist movements. When people in a nation share the same language, skin color, the sense of “nationalism” is often overlapped with “racism”.

During the early independence, Malays was discontented with the uneven distribution of income among the ethnic groups as a result of the division of occupations. (the domination of Malays in agriculture, whereas the Chinese in commerce activities) Chinese accumulated considerable wealth due to the rapid expansion of the commerce activities. The income gap between the Chinese and the Malays was significant. In 1970, the Chinese has a mean income of RM467.50 while Malay has a mean income of only RM313.20. (Ikemoto 1985: 347-367)

In 1969, Chinese dominated political party made a significant gain in opposition to the Malay controlled party in the general election.  On May 13, right after the result of the election was released, when members of the winning party marched through some largely Malay areas, the riot broke out. The Malays and the Chinese killed each other. May 13 incident was the most dismaying racial riot happened in the history of Malaysia. It has become the turning point of the racial relation where the implementation of the racist policies started. (Gray 2007)

Calling for addressing the root of the conflict, the New Economic Policy started in the 1971 under Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, who is from UMNO, the main Malay political party. In fact, the policies and regulations of NEP were, in some senses, reaffirming the Malay superiority over other races. It has affected not only Malaysian economy but also education and the social structure. (Koon 1997: 262-292) NEP is indeed the product of the new Malay Malaysian Nationalism.

The ambitious but controversial New Economic Policy (NEP) was launched in 1971 with two main objectives: to eradicate the poverty and to correct the economic imbalances among the ethnic groups. This set of policies has completely traumatized the Chinese and Indian communities. Since its implementation, criticism was overthrown. It has been accused of affirming the Malay Supremacy by reducing the status of the non-Malay citizens. The NEP ended in 1991 but most of the tangible economic privileges it reserved for the Malays are still ongoing until now.

The education policy in the New Economic Policy has had the greatest impact on the social structure of the country. “One phase to social and economic transformation of the Malays is only through education, not equity participation. You take care of education and they will have enough to participate in the capital market,” former Finance Minister of Malaysia, Tun Daim Zainuddin justified the priority granted for the Malays in his speech on the “Issues Facing the Malays”. (Caballero-Anthony 2006) The policy was aimed at creating more opportunities for higher education through admission policy for the Malays and indigenous residents. However, while they are guaranteed high-quality education the educational opportunity for non-Malay citizens are brutally and radically reduced. For the past 30 years, Malaysia has been the only Asian country that officially discriminates against a certain group of citizens in matters of education.

In 1962, the enrolment to the University of Malaya by ethnicity was  60% Chinese, 20% Malay and 20% Indians and Others. The ethnic quota system of 55:45 in favor of the Malays and indigenous residents was established as part of NEP in 1971. In the same year, the participation rate of Malay students was already equal to that of Chinese students at about 44%. (Mukherjee 2000) In fact, most of the other public university admitted more Malay students than the specified quota of 55%. The criteria for the entrance of local public university is also the main obstacle to the non-Malay students. Matriculation program and Malaysian High Certificate of Education (STPM) are the two ways of entering the public university after the high school education. Whereas, matriculation program reserves around 90% of the places for the Malays and indigenous residents. (Lee 2005) In addition, by examining the grading system, it is relatively an easier way for student to be admitted to the local public university. As a result, Malay students are advantaged and non-Malay students are discouraged. Many non-malay students instead choose to study abroad. This has led to a significant outflow of human capital, especially elites, because students often settle down for the rest of their life after their studies.

Another racist part of the New Economic Policy is the housing quota system. To encourage more Malays and indigenous residents to own property, housing policy requires the Malaysian housing developers to set aside at least 30% of their development housing for Malays as well as provide a discount of 5-15%. After 30 years of the implementation of the policy, lots reserved are often released to the open market upon the approval by the State government. (Real Estate and Housing Developer’s Association Malaysia 2012) It has resulted in increasing of property ownership by the Malays but also the economic inefficiency.

New Economic Policy favors Malays’ economic opportunities by the quota system of ownership. What has had the greatest impact on the Chinese business community is the target of NEP of increasing Malay’s share of economic ownership from 2.4% (in 1969) to 30% to achieve a 30:40:30 welfare ratio of Bumiputra, other Malaysian, and foreign ownership within a 20-year time frame. (Leong 1992) Such an intensive redistribution of wealth has been hastened by the legislature restriction. In contrast, no official assistance was offered to non-Bumiputra to achieve the goal of acquiring 40% of the national wealth. It has hugely reduced the incentive for the Chinese in their business activities.


Yet, most of the criticisms are based on the issue that the non-Malays under the poverty line are not benefitted by the NEP called for eradicating poverty.

Robert Kuok Hock Nien, Malaysian Chinese, once the richest person in the South East Asia, started focusing his investment overseas by reducing its portion in Malaysia after a series of new business restrictions favoring the Malays been implemented.

** There are Chinese under poverty line but the government did not address them.

*** People are qualified for the benefit according to their race, instead of their economic position.


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