Jealous Politics

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak

Malaysia has always wrestled with the issue of who belongs and who does not. On September 14, following a disastrous general election and with an eye on his party’s upcoming General Assembly, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak announced a $10 billion program of business subsidies and training programs targeted at the indigenous bumiputera community. This initiative, called “Bumiputera Economic Empowerment,” encapsulates the central tension between the old politics of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and the agenda of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition, which won 50.9 percent of the vote in the May 5 election on a platform of racial equality. Is there a future for a politics of communal interest in Malaysia? The answer, at least for the BN coalition, is a resounding “yes.”

Malaysia’s population consists of four major ethnic groups: Malays (54.8 percent), Chinese (24.1 percent), Indians (7.2 percent), and other indigenous groups (12.9 percent). Together, the Malays and other indigenous groups comprise a category known as bumiputera, or “sons of the soil.” Under the “Bargain of 1957,” Peninsula Malaysia gained independence from Britain and its government granted equal citizenship to all, including the Chinese and Indians who had for generations been considered transient guests. To assuage Malay fears of domination by other groups, Article 153 of the Constitution guaranteed “special rights” for the bumiputera community.

Three political parties, each with a clearly-defined racial constituency — the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) — negotiated this bargain. They formed the Alliance coalition that laid the foundations for the politics of an independent Malaysia. The Alliance coalition and its successor BN have ruled Malaysia ever since.

But the Bargain of 1957 negotiated by the Alliance coalition did not last long. On May 13, 1969, just days after a bitterly contested election, ethnic clashes between the Malay and Chinese communities broke out in major urban areas. The government declared a State of Emergency and set about realizing the “special rights” outlined in the Constitution for the bumiputera community. The coalition eventually formulated a new social compact called the New Economic Policy (NEP), which committed the government to reducing poverty regardless of race and to improving the economic standing of the disproportionately poor bumiputera community, who then represented 56 percent of the population. Donald R. Snodgrass, a Fellow of the Harvard Institute for International Development, reports that during this era 50 percent of Malay households were under the poverty line, compared to only 25 percent of Indian households and 12 percent of Chinese ones.

In practice, the NEP was a program of affirmative action which saw billions of dollars’ worth of government funds being allocated to rural areas and bumiputera businesses, and ethnic quotas being established in tertiary education, employment, and government contracts. The government also set a target for bumiputera ownership of corporate equity: 30% by 1990. Although the NEP officially ended in 1990, racial bias has persisted in Malaysian government policies into the modern era, and is now a contentious issue. The opposition-run state governments in Penang and Selangor are taking steps to dismantle this bias in their states. These governments, however, face an uphill battle against an ingrained sense of entitlement among Bumiputera groups. Hobart Lim ’14, who hails from Penang state, observes that a challenge to the NEP is often seen by bumiputera groups as an attack on their constitutionally-entrenched special rights.

Sheer numbers could mean that racial bias persists in government policymaking. The bumiputera community makes up just over 60 percent of the population and maintains a higher rate of natural increase than the more urbanized Chinese and Indian minorities. Observers like Dr. Meredith Weiss GRD ’01, a longtime commentator on Malaysian politics and civil society at the University at Albany-SUNY, wonder if UMNO, the pro-Malay party, has made the decision to “go it alone.” UMNO was previously constrained by the need to accommodate its coalition partners. It projected the image of allowing them to share power “by its good graces,” but Weiss points out that if UMNO judges that it can consistently win elections simply on the basis of a strong Malay rights agenda, it may choose to abandon its coalition partners.

According to Malaysian news sources, the UMNO-linked Malay supremacist group Perkasa has called for GERAKAN, a smaller Chinese-dominated party in the BN, to dissolve and join the Malaysian Chinese Association if it cannot win support. UNMO might indeed be tempted to abandon its coalition partners, and any pretense of representing the interests of all Malaysians.


The governing BN coalition has performed poorly in the last two general elections. In 2008, it lost control of five out of thirteen state governments in Malaysia’s federal system and lost its supermajority in the federal parliament. In the last election on May 5, 2013, it lost the popular vote and stayed in power only from continued strength in East Malaysia and the systemic overrepresentation of rural areas. Two of its component parties, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) have been wiped out, with few seats left in Parliament and no cabinet representation from the MCA. This has left UMNO in a commanding position within BN, bolstered by support from indigenous parties in underdeveloped East Malaysia.

UMNO appears to go through cycles of pandering to its Malay base and accommodating the interests of its non-Malay partners. Chan Cheow-Thia GRD ’16, who studies literature of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, observes that Chinese-medium schools have received government concessions, such as baccalaureate-granting status. This has widely been seen as an election move, as Chinese-medium education is a perennial election issue. And at first glance, bumiputera economic empowerment,  coming as it does right after the election, seems to fit this picture of UMNO’s cyclical policymaking.

But Weiss argues that the picture is more complicated. The parties were on an election footing for nearly half of the last parliamentary term, as Najib struggled to build support for his 1Malaysia national unity platform while under attack from newly-energized civil society actors such as the Bersih (‘Clean’) movement for electoral reform. Moreover, the last few budgets have been consistently generous to the BN electoral base, offering large cash handouts to predominantly Malay rural settlers, fishermen and the police. Rather than a ‘pendulum’ swinging between right and center, Weiss sees UMNO as making opportunistic calculations to maximize its vote share and remain in power.

On the other hand, the Pakatan Rakyat opposition (PR, People’s Alliance) – consisting of the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS, Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party), the social democratic Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, People’s Justice Party), and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) – has gained ground. Pakatan won the popular vote in 2013 and controls the key industrialized states of Penang and Selangor. While observers argue that Pakatan still lacks a coherent ideology, they have become more electorally effective by expanding common ground, especially on economic issues. Dr. Lee Hock Guan, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, notes that Pakatan state governments in Penang and Selangor have implemented open tenders for government contracts and procurement, demonstrating their shared concern for clean and open governance. They have campaigned consistently on a platform of justice and equality for all and moved towards need-based rather than race-based social assistance. As evidenced by Pakatan’s massive post-election protest rallies, the political momentum is on their side.

But old fault lines fester in the opposition coalition. In the 2004 election, both the DAP and PAS were hurt by association with the other. The DAP’s main electoral base of Chinese voters were put off by PAS steps towards Islamization, notably the implementation of aspects of Islamic criminal law in states they controlled. PAS on the other hand was put on the defensive by UMNO’s “Islam Hadhari” (civilizational Islam) ideology, according to a paper by Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid. Besides that, Dr. Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, notes that PKR and DAP appeal to the same urban, educated base. This was evident in the 2004 election, when the parties could not agree on which constituencies they would contest and ended up splitting the opposition vote. Ooi thinks that dislike of UMNO holds the coalition together. After all, PKR was formed by ex-UMNO Anwar loyalists following expulsion from the party in 1998, DAP has been in opposition since its formation in 1965, and older PAS leaders have bitter memories of UMNO from their brief alliance in the 1970s.

But BN’s troubles are far greater. Weiss argues that the “diametrically-opposed tropes articulated by UMNO and MCA” reveal as much political distance between the two parties as within Pakatan. For instance, MCA attempted to advocate race-blind policies, which were contradicted by UMNO candidates in the election campaign. Their only common ground, she observes, seems to be stability and continuity. And if, as Ooi predicts, UMNO’s Chinese and Indian partners are unlikely to regain electoral support, it does not seem likely that UMNO’s stance will be moderated by its coalition partners. Indeed, Perkasa, which has emerged to advocate for Malay interests, is closely linked to UMNO, and its leaders serve as UMNO Members of Parliament. Whether or not it actually functions as a faction in UMNO, there is little doubt it has strengthened the hand of conservatives and factored into the decision to introduce the bumiputera economic empowerment policy.

UMNO is known for its entrenched power bases and factional divides that hamper effective policy implementation. Weiss relates how in this year’s election Muhiyiddin Yassin, the current deputy prime minister, was feted by election banners in his constituency proclaiming him “the next prime minister.” It was widely expected that BN would do poorly in the election, forcing Najib to resign and propelling Muhiyiddin to the top. Lee likewise observes that Najib has remained unable to consolidate a power base due to the presence of other deeply entrenched personality-based factions, as well as his own heritage (being the son of Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s second prime minister). And because intra-UMNO politics is personality-driven, this in turn leads to expectations of patronage. NEP successor policies have played no small part in encouraging patronage because subsidies, loans and government tenders are often awarded in an opaque manner. To the extent BN lacks a programmatic agenda, its policies will continue to show the imprint of UMNO factional interests.

UMNO’s internal machinations are put on display annually during the widely-reported UMNO General Assembly, when elections for the party leadership are held. Following the last General Assembly on October 19, Mahathir Mohamad, the outspoken, long-serving former prime minister, gave an interview to Reuters in which he dismissed UMNO as being incapable of finding anyone better than Najib: “The party finds it[self] unable to reject him simply because there are really no other candidates.” Weiss also muses that Najib’s ability to avoid a leadership challenge, unlike his predecessor, suggests UMNO has endorsed him despite his inability to increase BN’s vote share because UMNO’s presence in Parliament and influence in BN has increased. This in turn is further support for the theory that UMNO is putting its interests ahead of those of its coalition partners, and helps explain the bumiputera economic endowment policy.

This intra-UMNO and intra-BN factionalism contrasts sharply with opposition unity. In a dialogue with Malaysian professionals in New York on September 22, 2013, Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Pakatan coalition, repeatedly referenced four principles in his political philosophy: freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, distributive justice (“as developed by philosophers like Amartya Sen and John Rawls”), and gender equality. While these principles were founded on his understanding of the goals of Islamic faith or maqasid, he noted that this would not preclude a defense of the same principles on secular grounds. Indeed, Weiss notes that the opposition is becoming more practiced at this rhetoric, espousing social democratic principles from both secular and Islamist perspectives. If Pakatan stays the course, it would be the only real multiracial coalition on offer next election, and the next election would be anyone’s game.


The influence of political Islam in both coalitions complicates the picture. Article 160 of the Constitution defines a Malay as one who adheres to Islam, speaks Malay, and follows Malay customs, with implications for communal politics. Ooi notes that PAS formed because UMNO was perceived to be not religious enough. Until recently, it advocated the establishment of an Islamic state, and its electoral brand continues to be important for Pakatan in the rural heartlands of Peninsula Malaysia. PAS has certainly suffered a decline in these areas, losing Terengganu state in 2004 and failing to retake it since. Dr. Lee argues PAS’s ambiguous position on race and religion reflect differences between “conservative-ulama” (religious scholar) and “liberal professional” factions in PAS, as well as doubts among the religious leadership in PAS about remaining in Pakatan.

Nevertheless, PAS appears to be ever more bound into a coalition by their distrust of UMNO, the realistic chance of taking power, and growing ties to DAP and PKR. PAS has recently shown commitment to its secular partners, launching a PAS Supporters’ Club for non-Muslims and fielding non-Muslim candidates this election.

Ong Kar Jin ’17, a Malaysian undergraduate who has been active in Pakatan-aligned civil society organizations, points to one recent episode. Following the 2013 election, PKR’s deputy president Azmin Ali lobbied to be appointed as Selangor’s chief minister on the basis that it was “his turn” (widely viewed as a throwback to UMNO’s personalistic brand of politics). DAP and PAS jointly supported the incumbent, Khalid Ibrahim, forcing Azmin to back down. In addition, Kar Jin observes that PAS disagreed with the recent High Court ruling prohibiting non-Muslims from using the word ‘Allah,’ which is a more moderate stance than that taken by the Perkasa-dominated UMNO. All these suggest that PAS, for now, remains committed to Pakatan.

Across the aisle, UMNO’s recent programs indicate that it may decide to focus solely on the bumiputera vote. But it has become less tenable for UMNO to use the rhetoric of Malay unity and fear of Chinese political power to mobilize supporters, as the united opposition is now also Malay-led. Ooi argues that as it becomes harder to use ‘Malayness’ to unite the Malay community, perceived adherence to Islamic orthodoxy will be used for political purposes instead. This strategy has paid off, particularly in Malaysia’s rural heartlands. Unfortunately for them, it would alienate their East Malaysian vote bloc: a majority of the East Malaysian bumiputera community is Christian. Ooi points out that it would also reveal the bumiputera agenda to be a Malay agenda in disguise. If UMNO does indeed decide to compete with PAS on their Islamic credentials, it risks completely losing touch with its coalition partners.


If the BN retains power, intra-UMNO and intra-BN factional considerations will force it to retain and renew affirmative action policies. But the picture for Pakatan is somewhat more complicated. Although Pakatan is ostensibly against racial preferences, it will be difficult to build political momentum behind a dismantling of the affirmative action policies that are so tightly bound up with Article 153, which protects bumiputera special rights. And commentators agree that in practice the complex ecosystem of handouts to rural Malays and patronage structures benefiting the local elite will be hard to dismantle due to vested interests in the current system. Any move towards needs-based social assistance will take time and likely remain incomplete.

Pakatan can’t escape the communal outlines of past politics. When Kar Jin speaks of the need for political reform he betrays a sense of urgency, born partly of a sense of Malaysia’s lost years of national and economic development, but also of demographic facts. With minority populations falling from emigration and low birth rates, the window for lasting reform might be closing — if the ethnic communities continue voting as blocs as they have done in the past. But the shift to a post-communal politics is, paradoxically, still a reaction to communalism, and heavily reliant on the communities setting aside their particularistic interests.

How will post-communal politics take shape? Malaysia’s young, urban, educated population desires change. Hobart — who in conversation occasionally refers to Pakatan as “we” — reports that most young people simply think Pakatan should be given a chance and can be voted out during the next election if they prove unsatisfactory. They are also concerned about the BN’s economic mismanagement. Both Hobart and Kar Jin worry that handouts have stimulated domestic consumption and household debt, and stretched Malaysia’s fiscal capacity while building up a bubble economy. And they are deeply concerned by the brain drain evident in the large Malaysian diaspora.

Their concerns transcend affirmative action and issues of race. Pakatan’s rejection of the BN’s communal politics captures this new generation’s rejection of the old, inefficient way of doing things, and their desire for Malaysia’s promise to finally be realized.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *