Malaysia is probably the only country in the world with racial discrimination explicitly written into its constitution.There is a certain ethnic group in Malaysia called Bumiputra. Bumiputra is a term to describe the indigenous people of Southeast Asia, and used mostly in Malaysia. The term comes from the Sanskrit word bhumiputra, which literally stands for “son of the land” or “son of the soil” (bhumi= earth or land, putra=son).
I noticed that Bumiputra is a sensitive subject in Malaysia. Everybody knows about it but nobody will tell you straight away. Malaysians do not seem very proud of it. The idea of one chosen race, being rewarded for their provenance sounds wrong, but it is still commonly accepted. Why is that?
Bumiputras can get a number of privileges. Certain political parties chose to blow out the bumiputra concept, in order to get a biger support in the ellections, as Bumiputras are still majority of the Malaysian society. Based on the adjusted data 2010 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia and publish by Institute of Penang, percentage of estimated population by ethnic group from total population in 2013 would be Malay 40.9%, others Bumiputra 0.4%, Chinese 41.5%, Indian 9.9%, other 0.3%, non-Malaysian citizens 7.0%. Some Malaysians might agree that Bumiputra laws are racist, but they still use their privileges. Bumiputras can get admission to government educational institutions, qualification for public scholarships, positions in government, and ownership of businesses. Some practices are contained in law or regulation, while others are informal. Companies listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange (Bursa Saham Kuala Lumpur) must have 30% bumiputra ownership of equity to satisfy listing requirements, that also goes to foreign companies operating in Malaysia. A certain percentage of new housing in any development has to be sold to Bumiputra , housing developers are required to provide a minimum 7% discount to Bumiputra buyers. Remaining unsold houses after a given time period, are allowed to be sold to non-bumi and that is only, if the developer proves attempts have been made to fulfill the requirement. There are many government-run (and profit-guaranteed) mutual funds available for purchase by Bumiputra buyers only. Many government projects require companies to be Bumiputra owned. These are just some examples of Bumiputra’s benefits and as a result of these policies, many Bumiputra with good connections quickly became millionaires. If we look at the history, Bumiputra term was used for Malaysian people since long time ago.When Malaysia gained independance, Bumiputra issue got more attention. Malaysian government realised that under British protection, Malaysia’s Chinese traders and businessmen had prospered. The Bumiputras lived mainly in the rural areas and had little access to education and development and they were the lowest class of the socjety. On May 13th 1969, tensions between the Malays and the Chinese burst on to the streets. By the end of the day, 200 people were dead, and Malaysia was on its way to adopting a wide-ranging policy of positive discrimination. Launched in 1971, the New Economic Policy (NEP) reserved the lion’s share of government jobs and university places for Bumiputras. Publicly quoted companies had to ensure that at least 30% of their shares were held by this group, and to hand out a similar share of jobs to them. At the same time the government “Malayised” education: Malay schools had to teach in Malay, not English, though Chinese-language primary schools, paid for by the government, and Chinese secondary schools, mainly funded by the Chinese community, were allowed to continue as before. These policies, although introduced more than fourty years ago, still have a big impact on education nowadays. Education provisions have kept Malay and Chinese children apart, as they are educated in different establishments and different languages. Not many Chinese go to the national universities, partly because of the language issue, but mainly because there is a quota system. Although this has been relaxed in recent years, the Chinese student needs much better grades to be offered a place. The solution until recently has been for tens of thousands of young Chinese Malaysians to be sent to study abroad.
‘The NEP and its successor plans have also left their mark on business. Chinese companies have chosen to stay small and private, rather than growing to the point of having to comply with the NEP’s requirements. At the same time, the encouragement given to Malay businessmen has led to some spectacular and expensive misjudgments. Critics argue that the NEP promoted crony capitalism, with asset sales, cheap credit and large contracts being directed to a favoured few ethnic Malays.’ writes The Economist in April 3rd 2003 .
In practise, there are many ways to get around the law. Bumiputra requirements do not apply to foreign companies manufacturing for the export market. Also some might notice that Chinese situation in Malaysia is still better than in neighbouring Thailand, where they had been forced to take Thai names, or Indonesia where most manifestations of Chinese culture were supressed. However the race issue in Malaysia is far from perfect.
Malaysia’s political parties are all race-based and non- bumiputra ones are still a minority. The ruling party is Barisan Nasional, which seats are held by its two largest Bumiputera-based political parties—the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB). Malaysian Chinese Association and Malaysian Indian Congress have played major roles in Barisan Nasional once, but their representation in Parliament and state legislatures has become much more diminished. As long as the ruling party remains Barisan Nasional, nothing is going to change. The bumiputra laws will continue and will be used to gain voters.
On 1 February 2015, Swiss academic Dr Tariq Ramadan brings up the Bumiputra issue once again, addressing on how the non Muslims have been treated as second class citizen. He states: “I’m sorry but some of your fellow citizens in this country who are not Muslims are facing this discrimination, they are facing injustices,”
The Bumiputra law seeems to be forgotten around the world, but certainly not here in Malaysia. Malaysian Prime Minister still emphasizes the importance of maintaining racist Bumiputra laws, being a part of Malaysia constitution for years now.
Kamal, an adjunct professor of Economics and Development Studies at Universiti Malaya, talks to the Malaysian Insider on 2 January 2015.
“If you are trying to reduce inequality and reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, the beneficiaries will be largely Bumiputeras anyway. “So why go through the pain of being accused of being racist, when you can achieve the same goals without being racist?”
“Ethnicity is no longer the basis for inequality. It has now become (defined) by income and the disparity between the rich and the poor, the gap between the CEO and the ordinary worker. So the whole thinking must change”
‘Kamal’s statement may not go down well with right-wing Malay groups, many of whom believe that the government should continue providing preferential treatment to the Bumiputeras, citing Article 153 the Federal Constitution. In their calls for pro-Bumiputera policies to be enhanced, the right-wing groups have often maintained that Malays are under threat in their own country and must be protected by the government.’- Insider writes. “‘Malays under threat’ is a negative statement,” said Kamal. “You can’t feel threatened in a place where you are the largest community, and have all the institutions and even the constitution to protect your interest.”
Younger generation do not consider Bumiputra to be a privileged race. Malaysian friend of mine explains ‘We are all Malaysians. All the Indians and Chinese they are a part of our rich culture and they are Malaysians.The same way as we are.’