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Malaysian ethnic authoritarianism

October 31, 2008

malaysia-protest

Malaysia’s constitution and legal system give full preference to members of the Malay majority. Article 153 of the current Malaysian constitution reads:

  1. It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article.
  2. Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, but subject to the provisions of Article 40 and of this Article, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall exercise his functions under this Constitution and federal law in such manner as may be necessary to safeguard the special provision of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and to ensure the reservation for Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak of such proportion as he may deem reasonable of positions in the public service (other than the public service of a State) and of scholarships, exhibitions and other similar educational or training privileges or special facilities given or accorded by the Federal Government and, when any permit or licence for the operation of any trade or business is required by federal law, then, subject to the provisions of that law and this Article, of such permits and licences.
  3. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong may, in order to ensure in accordance with Clause (2) the reservation to Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak of positions in the public service and of scholarships, exhibitions and other educational or training privileges or special facilities, give such general directions as may be required for that purpose to any Commission to which Part X applies or to any authority charged with responsibility for the grant of such scholarships, exhibitions or other educational or training privileges or special facilities; and the Commission or authority shall duly comply with the directions.

This means that the Malay majority (about 55% of the population) has distinctive legal status and preferential economic status — to the disadvantage of the Chinese, Indian, Christian, and “other” populations. And the non-Malay sub-populations are characterized as “immigrant” groups with home countries elsewhere — even though they may have been resident in Malaysian territory for three generations or more. The Federal legislature is strongly dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the lead Malay party and dominant voice within the governing Barisan Nasional coalition.

There appears to be rising minority group discontent with the Malay-first nature of the constitution and the government. Street demonstrations by Indian Malaysians in 2007 brought this discontent into clear public view, and the demonstrations were suppressed with the use of force — tear gas, truncheons, and water hoses.

What seems most disheartening about Malaysia’s history since independence and its current political scene, is the fact that there is no public commitment to the principles of equal citizenship and equal rights for all Malaysians. The American Civil Rights movement had at least a broad moral consensus to which it could appeal — the foundational idea of the inherent equality of rights for all citizens — and then could consistently take effective political and collective actions aimed at broadening the effective scope of these rights for African-Americans. The Malay majority and its party, the UMNO, are determined to preserve the privileged status of the Malay population; so it is difficult to see how gradual processes of adjustment and rights-claiming within civil society can lead to a society based on civic equality.

Here is a link to an independent Malaysian news source that many Malaysians have confidence in.

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