Race in Malaysia is not a black and white matter. The very notion of “race” has its roots in the colonial past, not inthe cosmopolitan and creole histories of the Malay sultanates. Hence there is no adequate word for it in the Malay language. As any school textbook will tell you, race was used as a tool of colonial divide and rule. Racial groups, it is said, were pitted against each other by the British in order to keep their colonial subjects divided, a pattern replicated in other dominions of the Empire. Nevertheless, even following independence, Malaysia’s rulers established a cooperative coalition of parties based on the same racialized formula.
Race politics is nowentrenched in Malaysia’s public life. However, we can hardly speak of the country in the same breath as others that have practiced longstanding and deeply exploitative forms of racism. The United States and South Africa, for instance, at one time institutionalized White supremacy over Blacks, thereby creating enduring social divisions and hatred. While race has profoundly shaped political and social life in Malaysia, it has not eliminated transethnic cultural and social solidarities.
Racialization in Malaysia has nevertheless set in motion an undeniable process of alienation that deserves serious attention. This alienation is hard to identify and formulate because it has not been a clear-cut form of oppression of one group by another. In this regard, the state may be credited with keeping in check its own race politics by, among other things, attempting to redress economic and social disparities between the country’s ethnic groups through the New Economic Policy. The NEPset in motion a program of extensive social engineering that officially lasted for twenty years from its implementation in 1970. The government credits this policy with the political stability of the last three decades, a position thanis justifiable as Malaysia’s stability has comewith the fewest obvious costs to its people. In contrast, its neighbor Indonesia experienced decades of stable government under Suharto, but at the incalculable expense of millions of itscitizens.
The Malaysian government has tried to ensure an equitable income distribution between ethnic groups. To this end, special efforts have been made to advance the business potential of those groups considered economically marginalized. Malays, mostly of rural origin and forming the largest ethnic group, have been the primary recipients of such assistance. As a result, more members of this ethnic group are represented in business, a few becoming outstandingly successful. Nevertheless, a great number remain relatively poor, and in similar or worse condition are the numerous groups of indigenous people, plantation labor (typically of Indian descent) and urban poor (of different ethnic groups).
But economic balancing acts go onlyso far and obscure the deeper human costs of race politics. The expansion of both policy-making and thinking on the basis of economic parity has not been met by parallel attention to social affairs. This trend was accentuated during the period of economic liberalization in the 1990s that saw rising growth rates until the financial crisis of 1997. The concern has for so long been economic parity that the adverse consequences of race politics, namely the erosion of a shared experience and a sense of belonging, have gone unheeded.
To be sure, the Malaysian government has been sensitive to the potential for inter-ethnic conflict and has produced longterm political stability through coalition building. Government institutions dedicated to fostering inter-ethnic cooperation play an active role in society, and the state’s politics of race is therefore seen as an effort to guard the cultural integrity and rights of individual ethnic groups. Still, while “national unity” is prioritized—a government ministry is solely dedicated to the effort—it remains subservient to economic measures.
The problem with Malaysia’s ruling politics is precisely its economistic rationale. Policy-makers see shared social life as revolving largely on the division of the economic pie. The desire for equality, beyond economic parity, eludes them. There is thus little in terms of a committed policy of establishing a public space unconditionally open to all ethnic groups, though important gestures, such as Vision 2020, have been made in this direction.
It is time for Malaysia’s record to be evaluated freshly in light of the underlying and destructive consequences of racialization. Few would dispute that their fellow citizens are equal as human beings, yet some are treated differently than others, leading to many contradictions in the lives of Malaysians.
Aside from economic matters, many Malaysians value equality in social, cultural, and political life. Further, Malaysians today once again seek a means of belonging and actively participating in society as fellow citizens, not as the ethnic counterpoint to the other. The questioning of ethnic Malay privileges, be they economic, institutional (as in education), and so forth, by Malays themselves indicates a growing preference for decision-making based on equality in public life rather than ethnicity. The need expressed by ethnic Chinese for treatment as equals is driven by the desire to participate in society freely, without the imposition of racial encumbrances.
Equality is not only necessary to combat the alienation already in motion but to advance the sense of belonging that so many desire. Ironically, perhaps, belonging galvanizes more effectively the collective talents of Malaysians towards the economic and technological advancement so necessary today. The much-touted stability of the last several decades amounts to little if it is unable also to socialize the equal treatment of all human beings. Such treatment forms the basis of a human rights culture emerging from and pertinent to the local context.
Alongside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the history of the Southeast Asian region offers its own measures of equality. The social history of the Malay world in particular is marked by an inclusiveness towards cultural influences and people from all over the world.
Resting on this richly integrative cultural history, Malaysians today continue to have significant social relationships that may be described as transethnic. The mixing of cultural influences is notable in private and public life, namely in intimate and family relationships, in the arts, sports, non-governmental organizations, charitable and religious efforts, political life, and so forth, not to mention inboth small businesses and multi-national corporations. The power vested in “race” in the country’s party politics makes it seem more omnipotent than it is.
Turning race politics around is a challenging task but not an impossible one. It requires a committed struggle against racialization by groups and individuals from the factory, plantation, and office, to the home, school, and street.
Sumit Mandal is an historian at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. This is an edited version of an essay that originally ran in Kuala Lumpur’s The Sun, 17 June 2001.