Malaysia truly… polarized
Sanne van Oosten
“Malaysia truly Asia”, this country slogan might just be the most catchy one I’ve ever heard. Maybe it’s because of the frequency of the highly stylized CNN-commercials, or because it just rhymes so well, but whenever I hear the word “Malaysia” I feel like following up with “…truly Asia” right away. I wasn’t the only one to remember this slogan so well, since the launch of this slogan in 1999 the Malaysian tourism board has won dozens of creative marketing awards for this marketing campaign. Various tour operators and hotel chains explain that Malaysia has earned this slogan because it being a melting pot of Asian cultures. But can Malaysia really be called a melting pot? In this blog, I will explain why such a polarized country like Malaysia could never be called a melting pot.
Still, when looking at Malaysian cuisine it is directly apparent that it is a scrumptious mix of various different Asian gastronomical practices, but that is where the melting pot explanation ends. There is still a strong ethnic divide between the various Asian ethnic groups in Malaysia, an institutionalized divide that makes it possible for the Malaysian government to actively favor one ethnic group over the other. Malaysia should never be called a melting pot, but the term mosaic would be more appropriate.
Malaysia’s independence from Britain did not increase the economic affluence of the ethnic Malay people. It is estimated that in 1970 ethnic Malays, Bumiputra, in Malaysia only held 2,4% of economic activity in the country, while the rest was in Chinese and foreign hands. After severe ethnic riots in 1969 the ball started rolling for the far-reaching affirmative action policies named New Economic Policy (NEP). The goal was understandable; to boost the economic marginal position of the ethnic Malays. Even though I’m generally positive towards affirmative action, this is an example of how affirmative action can be taken too far.
New Economic Policy was instated in 1971 and abolished in 1990. However, since the same policies that were instated under the NEP still take place under a different name, the remnants of the NEP live on until this day. The initial goal was to wipe out poverty among all ethnic groups of Malaysia, especially the marginalized ethnic Malays. Since they were much poorer than any other group in Malaysia, this meant that Malays would be favored by the government as much as possible. Today, ethnic Malays hold most positions in the government due to this affirmative action program, whereas non-Malays mostly work in the non-governmental sector. Non-Malays are treated as second class citizens by their government, even though they are still economically more affluent than their ethnic Malay counterparts.
However, even though they are more affluent, they are not the key policy makers as these are mostly ethnic Malays. Therefore, it does not seem likely that this policy will be reversed too much from within the Malaysian government. Even though the current president has voiced criticism towards this affirmative action policy, no real effort has been made to actually abolish it.
One of the most gripping examples of this severe case of affirmative action can be found in the public university admissions system. In theory, this policy is being loosened but in practice severe affirmative action still takes place at public, read: affordable, universities. Even if you are the best student in your class, it is completely possible to be denied entrance to a Malaysian university… if you are non-Malay.
In 2010, the Malays were 60.3%, Chinese 22.9%, and the Indians 6.8% of the total population. However, 90% of the seats to public universities are reserved for Malays. So, 90% of the places in public universities are going to 60% of the people, giving the Malays a severe advantage and non-Malays a severe disadvantage. This means that non-Malays have to divert to expensive private universities. What does this mean for the lives of the non-Malay Malaysians? A Malaysian friend, a Chinese student who has good reason to complain about his tuition fees. “My father has to work every day of the year to pay for my tuition fees, he shouldn’t have to do that just because we are Chinese instead of Malay.”
Indeed, generally the non-Malays are more wealthy than the ethnic Malays, but this is in no way a black and white picture. There are plenty of examples of wealthy Malays and impoverished non-Malays. But instead of targeting the impoverished when trying to abolish poverty, Malays are targeted as if they are impoverished by definition. For example: another strategy of the NEP is the introduction of initial public offerings. 30% of the shares of Malaysian-based companies are set aside for Malay investors in order to boost their economical power.
Through this policy the so-called truly Asian melting pot of cultures is more divided than it could ever be. Even though the Chinese and Indian minorities are doing better socio-economically, there is a lot of contempt between Malays and non-Malays. Chinese, Indian and Malay inhabitants live in completely different universes within the same country. These ethnic groups rarely interact socially and even professionally, as many companies are of a distinct ethnic group. I’ve even heard of a university where the three ethnic groups sit in separate canteens when eating their lunch.
The NEP has not only failed to truly help impoverished and marginalized Malay people, but it created more and more polarization within society. This polarized society could never be called a melting pot. Although the term mosaic would be a more appropriate way to qualify Malaysia’s population, the contempt between the groups is everything but pretty.
Not only does Malaysia have the “Malaysia truly Asia” campaign to externally promote Malaysia, internally it has the 1Malaysia campaign. Companies get subsidy if they add the 1Malaysia logo on their products, supposedly to promote unity within Malaysia. This campaign is supposed to portray that Malaysia as one, undivided and cohesive society. This could not be farther from the truth. If the government really wants to strive for one undivided society, they might not put so much effort in the 1Malaysia campaign but should maybe eradicate their extreme form of affirmative action that is the most evasive cause of racial cleavages in Malaysia’s contemporary society.