The purpose of this essay is to understand race in modern Malaysia, and about understanding racial relations between Malaysians. In this essay we will attempt to understand how the status quo came to being, by analysing the history of Malaysians. This is going to be done by firstly defining modern Malaysia, secondly by defining race in Malaysia, which will be done in two parts i) race before, ii) during the colonised Malaya and iii) race today. Lastly, we will take a stance that race is very important in contemporary Malaysia, from which a conclusion will be drawn about the level of importance of the concept of race in understanding Contemporary Malaysia.
Modern Malaysia or contemporary Malaysia is a term used to define Malaysia after independence in 1957. This is a Malaysia where there is affirmative action for the Bumiputra (Malays & indigenous people), it is a society where most of the politics is dominated by people of the Malay background, and this is a society with a rich and diverse culture. Economic activity is not tied to any race; however, some part of the society is still marginalised. The Indian community as a whole seems to be left behind the rest of the Malaysian society. This means that they do not get as many benefits as the other races and they have fewer politicians who are of their race. One of the leading factors in the Indian's current standing in Malaysian society is said to be their indifference to the call of Independence (Manickam 2009:23). Manickam attests that the reason why Indians are sidelined today is because of their indifference during the fight for independence. There is evidence of both inter-racial cooperation and competition in Malaysia. Together with this, is the historical conditions of a multi-racial society in Malaysia, the ancestry of economic inequality, the continuous inter-racial jealousy and suspicion, the caused the May '69 racial riots (Abdullah 1997:190).
Malaysians are currently accepting a concept of 1Malaysia; culture of excellence, determination, acceptance, education, integrity, meritocracy, humility and loyalty (Salleh 2009:1). In modern Malaysia, there is a progressive unity amongst the society, united by a common vision which is Wawasan 2020. Malaysia aspires to be a developed country by year 2020; Modern Malaysia aspires to be a unified Malaysian state made of one Malaysian Race (Bangsa Malaysia).It aspires to be a psychologically enlightened, protected and developed Malaysian society. Malaysia wants to foster and develop an ethical, mature democratic, liberal and tolerant society, by 2020. Malaysians want to be established as a scientific and progressive society, a completely caring society, an economically fair society, in which there is a just and unbiased allocation of the prosperity of the nation and a flourishing society with an economy that is fully competitive, dynamic, robust and resilient (Shariffadeen 2009:7).
Now, to understand contemporary Malaysian society, we understand the three predominant races in Malaysia, which are; the Bumiputra (Malays and indigenous ethnic groups), the Chinese, and the Indians. So, how did this "plural society" come into being? The line should be traced back to the British colonial era when wave after wave of immigrants from China and India flooded the Malay Peninsula, the original geographical component of the present day Malaysia. Centuries before the "onslaught" of British colonialism and the influx of the Chinese and the Indian immigrants, the Malays had laid their claim to the land by establishing a complete socio-political community with the founding of the Malacca Sultanate in 1402 (Abdullah 1997:192). But even before the 13th century, the Malay Peninsula had been subject to territorial claims by various Malay kingdoms and empires in the region like the Sumatra-based Srivijaya in the fifth and sixth century, the Patani-based Langkasuka in the sixth and seventh century and the Java-based Majapahit in the eleventh and twelfth century. Well before the establishment of these civilised ancient kingdoms, the Malays had a long history of occupancy in Malaysia. It is believed that their ancestors came to South East Asia in prehistoric times, probably migrating from Indo-China or Yunnan over 3,500 years ago (ibid 1997:193). Malays can also be traced back to Taiwan between 4000 and 3000 B.C all the way to the Philippines, Borneo, Indonesia etc .They came from many countries, but were separated by political boundaries (Barnard 2004:57).
Now, let's look at how the Indians came to Malaya. According to Manickam, the Indian influence in Malaysia started around the sixth century B.C, when Indian explorers arrived in Malaysia (Manickam 2009:18). After these explorers came more and more migrants of Indian origin came to Malaya. These migrants of Indian origin were mostly Ceylonese Tamils and Telugus. Manickam estimates the number of Ceylonese Tamils during 1931 to be about 12, 7000 (ibid 2009:19). He goes on to mention that these Ceylonese were appointed as clerks, teachers and government servants, while the rest of the Indians worked the rubber plantation sector as cultivators and developers. Because of the Ceylonese standing with the British, they had more benefits than the Indian plantation workers and they often excluded them from their community (ibid 2009:19). This premise builds up a ground for an argument that explains the disparities that exist within the Malaysian Indian communities and between them and other races in Malaysia. The British found Indian workers to be ideal workers. Ryter described Indians as more industrious and hard-working than the lazy Malay and more docile and tenable than the indomitable Chinese (Ryter 2005: 9). He also referred to the Indians as a peaceable and easily governed nation. The reason for this was that Indians had already suffered under British imperialism, and therefore they were prepared to face any hardships for better situations ahead.
The British were very anxious to have more Indian labourers, that they developed a recruitment process by establishing the Tamil immigration Fund in 1907 (ibid 2005:9). This fund was responsible for Indian migration and they were also in charge of their salaries. Often the Indians would be given just enough for basic necessities and for the fare of their trip back to India. Ryter also mentions that these Indian workers spent most of their money on an alcoholic beverage called toddy. They often did not have enough money for their trip back to India, and so they stayed in Malaysia. In 1931 it is said that the population of Indians and Chinese combined were 53.2% of the population in Malaya (ibid 2005: 11). The fact that immigrant populations were more than the Malay population led to the British's reinforcement of Malays holding a special status in the country. They set up agencies such as the Malay Reservation Enactment which reserved land for Malays only. Indians were continued to be seen as temporary resident of Malaya regardless of how long they had lived. This is one of the factors that kept Indians behind in Malaysian society. All the Indians seem to have gotten out of the Bargain was a Malaysian citizenship.
We have looked at where each race came from originally, and we conclude that the Malays established settlements in the Peninsular and surrounding islands many centuries before the migration of the Indians and the Chinese. We also conclude political difference within the Malays ethnicities and the Indian ethnicities. This brings to attention the idea that even within the same race Malaysians were divided; the Malays had the peasants and the royals, while the Indians were divided in to Ceylonese Tamils and Telugus.
Now we will look at how race was viewed during colonial Malaya. Hirschman describes European attitudes towards the Malays as being paternalistic (Hirschman 1986:42), meaning that the Europeans dealt with the Malays the way a father would deal with his children. The British also viewed Malays as noble peasants, whose life style should be protected under colonial rule (Pennycook 1998:58). Pennycook also mentions that the view of Malays as being "lazy" started during the colonial rule. The reason for this is that the Malays did not participate in the colonial economy (ibid 1998:58). However the Malay aristocracy did benefit from colonialism. These benefits that the sultans received are seen as a way of maintaining the fiction of Malay sovereignty (Hirschman 1986:355). Other reasons for Malay "laziness" are that Malays did not want to work hard because their economic gains would get confiscated by the local elites, and nature was bountiful so they did not have to work hard for the long term.
During the colonial rule the British derived their legitimacy from the Malay rulers, the British and the Malays had a special relationship which both parties had a primary interest in preserving. It's important to bear in mind that the alliance was between the British colonists and the royal aristocracy, and not between the British and the peasantry. Traditionally, Malays were loyal to the Sultan. The Malay peasants were "willing to obey (Raja or chief) blindly." (Swettenham in Birch 1924: 198). The British's alliances with the Rajas reinforced the formal hierarchy of political power, with the Rulers. (Snodgrass 1980:29). In co-opting with the British, the Sultans achieved security, which they had not enjoyed before British rule. Moreover, the British helped to preserve the position of the aristocracy as a class in relation to the Rakyat (Butcher 1979: 9). This proves how vulnerable the Malay peasants were to the British, and to the Sultans. The Malay peasants were mostly economically backward as a result of this "Divide and Rule" policy. When Malaysia gained independence, the Malays were left impoverished, leading to some form of jealousy towards other races who were mostly economically successful. This notion also adds to our of understanding why there were riots in 1969, and how that influenced the implementation of the National Economic Policy (NEP) and why the Malays and the indigenous groups were given Affirmative action.
Moreover, the British had very ambivalent attitudes towards the Chinese. Hirschman explains that in the early decades the British were highly dependent on Chinese entrepreneurial activity. They imposed taxes on opium and gambling, which were Chinese pastimes. The Chinese were admired for their industry and business insight (Hirschman 1986:346). They were seen as being able to work in any kind of condition and being capable of civilization of the highest kind. They had established themselves in Malacca and intermarried with the Malays, which led them to become babas or Straits Chinese. Ryter says that during the 1840-50's, the Chinese became involved in gold and tin mining which was controlled by the Sultans before (Ryter 2005: 4). Ryter also mentions that the Chinese taking over the mining industry from the sultans resulted in British intervention on the mainland.
The British justified their intervention and expansion as a way to protect and advance the sovereign Malay rulers and their people (ibid 2005: 5). Ryter also mentions that the British later developed a laissez faire attitude towards the Chinese in tin mining. This was because the British were benefiting from the export taxes that they placed on tin. The taxes were as high as 12% and were the primary source of revenue for the British colony (ibid: 5). The mining industry brought in more Chinese immigrants looking to make money. For them to mine tin they needed cheap labour so they recruited more Chinese workers from southern China. These workers are referred to as Chinese Coolies. Their working conditions were poor and they were often victims of exploitation. The British tried to better their conditions by establishing a Chinese Protectorate in 1877, but they still felt that they were not responsible for the exploitations that the collies were receiving from fellow Chinese (ibid 2005: 8).
Now, we will look at race in Malaysia today. The Malaysian society is generally made up of ethnic groups that came from China, India, Sri-Lanka, Indonesia and Other South - East Asia kingdoms. Each ethnic group in Malaysia was able to retain its own beliefs, customs and traditions. The ethnic groups live together peacefully except for a slight friction in terms of religion and politics. Malaysia as a country also tries to celebrate the different cultures that incorporate it. Abdullah and Pedersen assert that
"Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world that accords national public holidays to the various religious festivals of its people- Hari Raya for Muslims, Lunar New Year for Chinese, Deepavali for Hindus and Christmas for Christians" (Abdullah and Pedersen 2003: 18).
One may argue however on the disparities among different races. Malaysian leaders have over the time been able to fuse the tensions between the Malays and other races by offering affirmative action. As we mentioned earlier, the divide and rule policy by the British impacted the way Malaysian races perceive each other and linked economic activities with race. The tensions were fused by giving more economic power to the Malays through the NEP. However, these policies were viewed by the Indians as unjust because they focused a lot on promoting one race and marginalised the other, which led to a disadvantaged Indian community in Malaysia. Status quo in Malaysia is a representation of exactly this. There is now a big gap in politics. Let's look at how this gap was created. It began with the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1942, which is considered one of the leading causes of Malaysia gaining independence in 1957. According to Kaplan and Baldauf, the Japanese invasion was not totally unwelcomed by the Malays (Kaplan & Baldauf 2003: 110). The reasons for this is firstly, because they were anxious to be rid of the British and secondly, because the Japanese allowed them to be involved in higher levels of administration.
The years between 1945 and 1957 were filled with political turmoil and this is what sparked political awareness among the Chinese, Indians, and the Malays. They each set up their own racial political parties. The Malays set up UMNO (United Malays National Organization), which represented the interests of Malay aristocrats. The Chinese set up MCA (Malayan Chinese Association), which represented Chinese Tokays and the Indians set up MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress), which represented higher class Indians (Ryter 2005: 13). All these groups formed an Alliance in 1954. This Alliance was the body that negotiated terms for Malaysian independence in 1957 (Gomez 2004:55). This was the first coalition political party and in 1973 it was replaced by Barisan Nasional that still exists today. The terms of this negotiation involved Malays getting special status and political privileges, in exchange for the acknowledgement of Chinese and Indian citizenship (Ryter 2005: 16).
Now, the Indians and the Chinese had traded their citizenship for recognising the Malays as the special race, with privileges and this idea seemed to be a win-win situation for everyone. Impressionistically, or through casual observations and comparisons, one would conclude that at the end of the NEP's 20-year time frame the Bumiputra (especially the Malays) of Malaysia since the 1990s have certainly been much better off, socially and economically than they were in the late 1960s.(Abdullah 1997:216). This can explain the resentment that is felt by poor Indians and Chinese who are still marginalised and feel that the Affirmative Action policy is not justified, especially since it is in place after it has been deemed successful for almost 20 years. The 1Malaysia policy is attempting to bridge this gap and to finally unite the nation; it intends to cater for the needs of all sector of the plural society and to ensure equal distribution of wealth between racial groups, between states and federal. (Salleh 2009:1).
In conclusion, based on the history of Malaysia both pre-colonial and post-colonial, we see how race helps us fully understand contemporary Malaysia. We understand this by looking at why some policies are in place. The British "Divide and Rule" left repercussions in the then Malaya that needed to be readjusted, the Chinese were seen as the successful businessmen, the Malays were seen as the poor race who blindly followed the Sultans, and were impoverished. The Indians were seen as a race that was poor and unwilling to fight for the independence of Malaya. All these conditions and views led to the formulation of policies like the NEP and its success has led to a focus on the 1Malaysia concept, which attempts to forge good relations in a plural society. The question however, still remains; can 1 Malaysia concept and Vision 2020's objectives be achieved with the Affirmative Action policy in place? Only time will tell.