The Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur is a cosmopolitan mêlée. The skyline is dominated by the Patronas Twin Towers, its name given by the state oil company which drives much of the recent wealth of this country; while a stone’s throw away is a tropical rainforest right in the middle the urban sprawl. Here, it’s all about contrasts.
And while KL is a city that has much in common with New York City or London, this predominantly Muslim state boasts an entirely different multicultural model. If the simmering ethnic grumblings of this country touted for its ethnic harmony are a sign of things to come, it may be a multicultural model that has had its day.
Ethnic Malays – considered Muslim by the government here – represent some 65 percent of the population. The Indian and Chinese communities, themselves Hindu, Christian or Buddhist – represent the remaining 35 percent of the population. As a result of this ethnic mix in even the smallest communities you will find both temples and mosques doting the landscape.
The multiculturalism that developed since the country’s independence from British rule was a compromise designed to ease the tensions between the complicated ethnic and religious fabric that was the heritage of the colonial era.
Unlike other western models, here your religion and ethnic group are more a question of defining your place in the eyes of the state rather than individual choice. Finding a totally secular Malay is not an easy task. Here your very ethnicity and religion almost defines your place in society.
If you happen to be ethnic Malay, the New Economic Policy that has been in place since the early 1970s offers you benefits, entitlements, job opportunities or educational advantages over other minority ethnic groups. Many of Malaysia’s top positions at key institutions like the civil service, police or armed forces are held by Malays as a matter of course.
“Malaysia’s constitution promised tolerance and co-existence for religions other than Islam, and this was a good start,” says Steve Fenton, Professor of Sociology at the University of Bristol who has researched Malay multiculturalism, “Malays see themselves as having made this great concession to non-Malays in allowing them to stay, become citizens, practice their faiths and some use of their own languages. This is certainly a better position than to be found in some other multi-ethnic societies.”
“These policies have contributed to the formation of a Malay middle class, partly served by government ‘favoritism’. This pattern persists and is an understandable source of aggravation to other groups, none more so than Indians who have a large poor population.”
Those ethnic Malay – considered Muslim – or indigenous groups of the island of Borneo, are dubbed bumiputera, or ‘sons of the soil’ enjoy a privileged status in housing, employment and education after a series of laws were passed that were intended to level the playing field. These laws were said to give Malays a chance to catch up to the more wealthy and entrepreneurial Chinese and Indian classes. At independence, ethnic Malays were thought to be less ready to take advantage of a modern, urban economy.
The result has been the primacy of ethnic Malays, with Islam enshrined in the constitution – all while officially granting freedom of religious faith and citizenship to non-Malays. This was the compromise that allowed for discrimination in favor of Malay, in exchange for social cohesion.
To this day if you drive in the center of KL, across from the tall skyscrapers and urban sprawl you will find whole swaths of land with homes only available to ethnic Malay citizens, a concept that simply wouldn’t fly in North America, Britain or Australia. A large portion of the plush government jobs at the nearby government city of Patrajaja with its monumental buildings and false lake and bridges are also set aside for ethnic Malay in an unabashedly discriminatory policy that this country’s citizens are expected to accept.
“It was one of the basic foundations from when we got our independence from the British, and one of the issues at the center of many discussions among the various communities was what their role would be in the country of Malaysia,” says HJ Mohd Shafie Bin HJ Apdal, Minister of Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage of Malaysia.
“Surely they were concerned about their economic well-being but more important also in relation to their cultural preservation,” he adds.
One reason cited why ethnic inequalities came into being was because many of the immigrant workers who made their way here in the last century became very successful and powered the industrial motor of this country’s economy.
Not far from the capital, I visited one ethnic Chinese family who have made their mark in Malaysia, and continue to rule a dynasty of sorts that is now in it’s forth generation. The pewter manufacturer Royal Selangor employs over six hundred workers here. Workers in the sparkling clean factory are separated into blocks of one hundred, with each worker silently crafting individual designs from a base of fire-hot pewter as they have done since the late 19th century. The factory hums with the steady knocking of hammers sculpting the pewter, resulting in over one thousand separate products.
“When the races came to Malaysia from China or India, society was structured along these racial lines because that is how the British managed the economy,” says Chen Tien Yue, General Manager of Royal Selangor.
“The Chinese were working with the tin mines, the Malays were in administration and the Indians were in plantations. That’s just the way they carved up the economy. After the British left the Chinese continued to be entrepreneurial and involved in business.”
Yue is the forth generation to run this family business since Yong Koon founded Royal Selangor in 1885 in a wave of Chinese migrations instigated in order to exploit the natural resources.
“I don’t know if it is from those roots that you see the Chinese having built up generations of businesses, but certainly those family firms that have lasted three generations or more are much more likely to be Chinese simply because of how it has developed over the years,” he says.
Earlier this month James Chin, head of the Malay campus of the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University, wrote in the Canberra Times that critics argue say that a better form of affirmative action would be based on economic need, rather than ethnicity.
He says that the price of not doing so, according to the critics, would be an inability to achieve national unity. The younger generations, he says, are increasingly wondering why they are paying the price for a deal made by their forefathers. They argue that the deal was for affirmative action to help Malays until they were on a par with the more advanced Chinese and Indians. Not forever.
And relations between the Malay and the country’s ethnic Indian and Chinese communities – making up 35 percent of the population, have been fragile in recent months to say the least. This discontentment has even resulted in flare-ups.
Some of the protesters argue that the discriminatory practices set up at independence are no longer necessary, and they want equal treatment. Earlier this year thousands of ethnic Indians took their protest to the streets of Kuala Lumpur in the first ethnically motivated demonstration in decades to demand an end to the institutional discrimination – protests which uncharacteristically ended with the police using tear-gas and water-cannons. The organizers were promptly charged with sedition.
Another source of aggravation between racial groups has been highly publicized cases of attempts to convert out of the Muslim faith. In one case the religious courts did rule in favor of a woman’s right to leave the Islamic case after the collapse of her marriage to a Muslim man. Non-Muslims marrying a Muslim are expected to take up the religion. But when it comes to renouncing the faith, many are left fighting the prosecution of stringent religious courts.
“The pro-Malay policies continue to be questioned both by other ethnic groups and by elements in the Malaysian multi-ethnic elite,” says Fenton, “They have been questioned for some time and will carry on being questioned.”
“Malaysia may be forced towards increased ‘neo-liberalism’ seen as a way of competing or surviving in a global economy. The effects of this may be not so good for Malaysia’s poor and disadvantaged,” he adds.
While the government of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was swept into office this spring, it was with the worst margin in over five decades and in a context of mounting dissatisfaction. The government even lost its two-third majority. Earlier this year five of Malaysia’s thirteen states went to the opposition – and Badawi’s government has been tumbling from one crisis to another. Separate protests on rising fuel prices and corruption scandals have only fuelled the fires of discontent here. In Malaysia today, the winds of change are in the air.