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I’m in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, spending a few days there en route to an academic conference in Singapore.
I was born here, of a mixed-race family, in the days when it was a British colony (the country gained its independence in 1957). In those days, the country was something of a backwater, almost entirely reliant on rubber and tin to drive its economy.
The Brits didn’t want it any other way– why should a colony make cars when these were already being manufactured in Birmingham, or ships when these were already being built in Glasgow and Belfast?
(In 1985 Malaysia built its first car, the Proton Saga, in a joint venture with Mitsubishi. The car was based on the Mitsubishi Lancer, and the technology involved was entirely derivative. Today the Proton company is owned by the Chinese.)
Something else the Brits did not want was a system of administration which transcended divisions based on race and ethnicity. As they did in India and elsewhere, “perfidious Albion” entrenched these demarcations.
Malaya, as it then was, had long been a multi-ethnic geopolitical entity. Situated advantageously in the middle of most sea routes between India and China, and points further west and east, it was a magnet for traders (a number of these became settlers)—early on, there were Indians, Chinese, Arabs, and later as colonial expansion occurred, the Portuguese, Dutch, and English arrived to take advantage of their superior military capability. Only Spain and France seemed to miss out, largely because their focus was elsewhere (Central and South America in the case of Spain, Africa in the case of France).
The British exploitation of Malaya’s natural resources was also ethnically based. Indentured labour to work on the rubber plantations and the railways was brought in from south India, just as the labour to work the tin mines was brought in from China, adding to the Chinese business diaspora that was already in place. The mainly rural Malays were expected to grow their crops (mainly rice) and fish the seas and rivers. A Malay aristocracy, consisting mainly of princelings, was nurtured by the British, who took every opportunity to play the princelings off against each other, the way they did the nawabs and maharajahs of India.
As was to be expected, the British did not encourage home-grown political activity. In time, they created assemblies allowing representation of the local populace, but these were “consultative” rather than truly legislative. Everything was done to keep local political arrangements in a state of debilitating immaturity.
The consultative assemblies were also divided along ethnic lines: positions were allocated to Malays, Chinese, and Indians according to ethnicity, with Europeans retaining most of positions, ensuring in this way that the colonial rulers could never really be opposed by the non-Europeans.
This entrenchment of an ethnically-based political order continued after Malaya gained its independence from the British in 1957. Since that time the country has been governed by the Barisan Nasional (National Front), which consists of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). UMNO remains the senior partner in this alliance, with the Chinese and Indian parties having to make-do with a few cabinet positions, invariably involving the less-important portfolios.
Political leadership in Malaysia is very much in the hands of family networks. Of the 6 prime ministers since independence, the son (Najib Razak) of the second prime minister (Abdul Razak) is the sixth and current prime minister, and the brother-in-law (Hussein Onn) of the second prime minister became the country’s third prime minister. The heir-designate (yes, that’s how things are done in Malaysia) of the current prime minister is the son of the third prime minister, and also the cousin of the current prime minister. This fine fellow, Hishammuddin Hussein (an alumnus of Cheltenham College in the UK, his cousin Najib is an alum of Malvern College), is defence minister, minister with special functions, and transport minister. Anyone not familiar with his name, may however remember him from the media briefings after the Malaysian Airways MH370 disaster.
As transport minister Hishammuddin had to provide updates on the MH370 salvage operation. The ineptness of Malaysia’s handling of this operation drew world-wide attention– Hishammuddin stumbled through briefings, with aides having to whisper in his ear repeatedly in order to correct what he had just said. He was not alone– other Malaysian officials were bunglers as well, and contradicted each other in front of the world’s media. It was a huge relief when Australia took over the salvage operation and conducted its own media briefings.
However, it has been Najib’s financial affairs which have been the primary focus of international media coverage in recent years.
According to The Wall Street Journal, “Global investigators believe more than $1 billion entered Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal bank accounts, much of it from state investment fund 1MDB”.
The New York Times says Najib “gave himself extraordinary authority over the fund as both finance minister and, until recently, advisory board chairman. The United States attorney general, Loretta Lynch, said Malaysian officials had laundered more than $3 billion from the fund through American financial institutions”.
Najib acknowledges he received $1 billion but claims that most of it was a gift from a member of the Saudi royal family, and that no wrong-doing was involved.
Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Malaysia 55th out of 176 countries, behind such countries as Qatar, the UAE, Botswana, and Lithuania.
Najib has a reputation for being a slow-moving patrician, but his response to these disclosures was swift and decisive. He sacked his deputy prime minister (who would have taken his place) as well as the attorney-general investigating his finances (replacing him with someone who promptly dropped the investigation ). Najib decreed that there were to be no investigations of his finances.
Malaysia lacks an independent judiciary and a free press (The Reporters Without Borders 2017 World Press Freedom Index ranked Malaysia 144th out of 180 countries—behind, e.g., Cambodia, Burma, Algeria, and Venezuela). Najib therefore found it easy to block investigations and suppress public discussion of his scandals.
Another area of widespread discontent among Malaysians who are not Malay is the government policy of positive discrimination favouring the Malay majority in areas such as housing, finance, government, and education.
Malays make up the majority— nearly 53% of the 30 million population. Of the rest, almost 21% of the population are Malaysians of Chinese descent, and Malaysians of Indian descent form about 7% of the population. The rest consist of Indonesians, Thais, Europeans, and Australians. There is also a tiny minority of aborigines whose ancestors arrived in what became today’s Malaysia over 7,000 years, before the Malays arrived from what is today Indonesia roughly 3,000 years ago.
An aggrieved non-Malay taxi driver told me in English that the Malays, who “act high and mighty”, are really Indonesians, that is, migrants (albeit earlier-arriving) just like the Chinese and Indians. His two daughters who did very well at school received no university scholarships, which were given to Malays who did less well in the state examinations.
Citizens of Malay origin are given preferential treatment in numerous ways: quotas ensure that 70% of places in state universities are reserved for them, they receive 5-15% discounts for new houses, and all key government positions are reserved for Malays. In addition, publicly listed companies must set aside 30% of their equity for Malays. Malay-owned firms are favoured for government contracts. High earning trust funds exist exclusively for Malays, and Malays applying for new shares have specific allocations set aside for them. All ethnicities are required to pass a compulsory Malay language examination paper.
The upshot of such discriminatory arrangements is not the alleviation of rural Malay poverty, but the creation of an urban Malay rentier class, availing themselves of the many opportunities for cronyism and corruption. Meanwhile, non-Malays tend to regard themselves as second-class citizens.
Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina. He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.