I draw from personal experience to discuss racial divides in Malaysian politics and the effect it could have on the nation’s future
Imagine a country with limited historical baggage, vast untapped resources and a potential model to help bridge East/West divides. Malaysia brings these ideal circumstances to actuality, currently carrying a frontier-like-potential unlike any other country in the world. If the U.S. hopes to benefit from ties with this eventual high-income economy, attention must be paid to upcoming domestic changes within the Islamic state.
As the 2013 Malaysian General Election looms, current Prime Minister Najib Razak is showing signs of concern. On March 24th, he awarded 1,000 taxi driver permits to frustrated auto owners unable to continue paying high rent on their vehicles, using this gesture as an example of his party’s fulfillment of policy promises. When first elected in 2008 he ran on an economic platform assuring increased worker rights and, with plenty of help from state-controlled media, he’s been able to tactfully project his agenda.
The Barisan Nasional (a coalition of 3 major race and religion-based political parties) has maintained autonomy from the government since Malaysia’s independence in 1957. In 2008 it suffered a historic blow, losing the majority of parliamentary seats to Pakatan Rakyat (an evolving coalition of opposition parties), and recent polls suggest the upcoming elections may deliver a similar outcome.
Malaysia’s strategic importance grows as Obama shifts gears out of the Middle East, but the BN’s loss and future electoral prospects could compromise this critical U.S. ally in the region. The self-described rainbow nation has a rising GDP, wealth of natural resources and, most importantly, retains a unique bridge between Islam and modernity. If the BN loses the upcoming election, relations between the two nations will undoubtedly fluctuate, and potentially regress. It would be wise for the U.S. to pay close attention to a potential BRIC member, and position itself wisely post-election. Because Malaysian voting patterns are highly dependent on race relations at the local level (community separation, party allegiance, personal pride, etc.) dissecting Malaysia’s race-based society is essential to foreshadowing shifts in the country’s political makeup.
Inherent Race Consciousness
Malaysia’s three most populous race groups are the Malays, Chinese and Indians, the former indigenous to Malaya and the latter two brought as laborers by the British in the late 19th century. The Chinese were able to economically flourish due to their financial competency and British favoritism while the Malay’s and Indians dominated the lower class. This colonial legacy is visible today from crime rates to the classroom. Schools are racially categorized in Malaysia (reminiscent of 1960s America) as Malay, Chinese, Indian or Mix. Subjects like Math, English and Science are not taught by any certain race, but individual classes are usually racially separated. When you walk into a Malaysian classroom, the students are neatly divided up by race and gender; Malay boys on the right, then Malay girls, then Indian boys, then Indian girls, etc., hinting at what an early age race goggles are acquired. Youth are encouraged to befriend within their race and gender by their parents, schools and communities, arguably impacting decision-making as adults.
There are two central reasons for race consciousness: saving face and ethnic pride. The latter stems from cultural ties with the motherland; Malaysian’s usually don’t call themselves Malaysian, but rather Malay Chinese, Malay Indian or Malay. Following the traditions and cultural practices of the motherland helps distinguish them from other groups. Yet this typical goal for a Malaysian is culminating into a national identity crisis. Few agree on determinants of “Malaysian-ness” because race and ethnicity, for the most part, trump nationality.
Saving face is another phenomenon magnified in Malaysia due to the strong ethnic pride. Seen as polite and respectful, Malaysians are docile and reclusive. Being outspoken is interpreted as combative and aggressive due to highly sensitive individual ethnic pride. In an academic setting, it is extremely rare for a student to take a risk and answer a question in class because they do not want to be “shamed” in front of others. It is also common for students to duck their head and say “malu cikgu” (literally, “shame teacher” in Bahasa Maleyu) when asked a question. Even more rare, is the student’s ability to tell a teacher they are wrong; instead of admitting a mistake as a virtue, they see being vocal as confrontational because reputation is put on a high, teetering pedestal.
These seemingly micro issues translate into a salty national pickle. Malaysian youth are brought up segregated and unaccustomed to working with one another. As adults they find jobs where they can be surrounded by their own race, translating into racially divided professions with racially predicated wages. Votes are, therefore, made within the context of a particular group, not as a unified nation. If Malaysia has an Achilles heel, it’s segregation. To reach its goal of being a high-income economy by 2020, this crisis must be addressed.
Najib’s One Malaysia Campaign
Najib has taken on this colonial legacy with his hallmark One Malaysia initiative; a political strategy to unify Malaysia’s racially divided populace. The initiative has a few distinct interpretations, the first being an umbrella term for Najib’s cross-racial campaigns. He’s implemented a nation wide student discount program, increased construction of affordable housing projects and subsidized medical clinics, all branded with the One Malaysia logo to assure an echo of national unity. The second, bleaker, interpretation is that the movement is a scheme to assure the 57-year-old coalition’s success in the upcoming race. The opposition criticizes one specific campaign (“The Back To School Fund” that gives families of students attending public school 100 ringgit (33.3 USD) cash, annually), saying the BN is literally buying votes. There are obvious pitfalls and holes in some initiatives, but there is no arguing Najib has taken on a lofty challenge. National unity is the first step to growing economically, politically and socially, and the PM is proving his cleverness by killing a plethora of birds with the metaphorical stone that is, One Malaysia.
But like any other leader, Najib isn’t perfect. From opaque elections to control of the media, the administration has been criticized for numerous suspicious practices. Most recently Najib’s party has been criticized for attacking a strong critic of the administration, Ambiga Sreenevasan. Not only has her house has been the site of many protests, but she has also received numerous death threats, even in Parliament. Najib must further unite his own party and provide safe avenues of dissent so Ambiga, and other critics, feel like there are sufficient avenues for free speech.
Segregation in Malaysia will not disappear overnight or, perhaps ever. But Malaysian politics must evolve. It has a rare opportunity to exemplify political evolution within a decade (something America needed 200 years to accomplish). Though the SEA tiger’s economy is thriving and its diplomatic tendrils spreading, it is in peril of falling into a dark abyss. It will take a savvy leader to ensure that prosperity is spread throughout all its groups and that this opportunity to unify the country is swiftly acted upon.
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