Affirmative Action: Chinese, Indian-Origin Citizens in Malaysia Oppressed

Malay Demonstration

Ethnic Malay demonstration – AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA

Malaysia is another country where attempts to reserve places in education and jobs for certain ethnicities have led to strife and ongoing political problems. The Malays arrived on their peninsula thousands of years ago via Indonesia, and while originating in the same broad migration to Asia as the Chinese, are noticeably different in appearance and culture. British rule beginning in the 1870s brought new mines and rubber plantations which imported Chinese and Indian laborers, as well as a Chinese cosmopolitan business and commercial population in the cities. The Chinese population of today is still split between a wealthier city population and the poor, largely rural descendants of miners.

About half of today’s Malaysian population are ethnic Malays, while 30% are of Chinese descent and 8% are of Indian origin. Japanese occupation in WW2 was welcomed by some Malays, and with negotiated independence from Britain in 1957, the new Malaysian constitution reserved special status for Malays. Race riots between Chinese and Malays occurred frequently through the 1950s and 60s, and Singapore was expelled to become a separate country in 1965 since its largely Chinese population resented rule by the Malay-dominated Malaysia. Thus Malaysia eliminated from its polity the population of Chinese who dominated Singapore and were the source of much of the opposition to those Malay-preference policies.

A deeper dive into the history of the Chinese in Malaysia:

The situation of the 7 million ethnic Chinese in Malaysia is tentative at best, mainly due to the dichotomous and contradictory social roles played by two divergent elements within the Chinese community: the rural-poor and the urban-commercial sector. The urban-commercial sector of the ethnic-Chinese community, in conjunction with foreign (mainly British) interests, completely controlled the country’s economy. The ethnic-Malays countered Chinese economic clout by institutionalizing Malay dominance in the newly independent (1957) Malayan state.

Communal tensions had become pronounced following the Japanese occupation during World War II. The Malays at first sided with the Japanese against the British colonial administration but became increasingly disillusioned with Japanese dominance. The Chinese, on the other hand, were badly mistreated by the Japanese authorities (and their Malay collaborators) and many joined an armed resistance group, the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA). After the Japanese defeat, the MPAJA attempted to establish political control in the Malayan peninsula and engaged in a violent retaliation against suspected Malay collaborators. Ethnic violence flared throughout the peninsula….

Malay distrust of the Chinese (and Indian, see separate entry) “foreign element”, stimulated by the MCP insurgency and exacerbated by the ethnic tensions displayed during the aborted incorporation of the Chinese-dominated island of Singapore (1963-1965), erupted into serious communal rioting in the summer of 1969 following a successful Chinese and Indian electoral challenge to the Malays’ political hegemony. The legal imposition in 1970 of the New Economic Policy (NEP), designed to redress “bumiputra” (all groups indigenous to Malaysian territory) economic disadvantages, was the important result of the 1969 disturbances. The NEP, however, tended to assign remedial advantages only to ethnic-Malays. It thereby buttressed Malay political and military dominance with economic power, mainly to the disadvantage of the aboriginal peoples and Indian groups.[1]

Malay, Chinese, and Indian communities tended to remain separated by language and culture, educated in separate schools and socially isolated. Resentment between the groups has built up over generations, and the continuing preferences for bumiputra breed more resentment, while Malay politicians continue to scapegoat the Chinese. An anecdote from a review of Thomas Sowell’s book Affirmative Action Around the World:

In 2004 while on cruise (I was active duty in the Navy at the time), our ship arrived in Port Kelang, Malaysia, not too far from the capital of Kuala Lumpur. A bus took us sailors into the city and cabs were lined up calling for Americans to get into their taxis despite a group of al-Qaeda sympathizers threatening to attack Americans…. Me and few friends hop into the cab and the guy seemed so nice but suddenly he went into a racist rant about Chinese people. He also hinted that some cabs refused service to the Chinese. I was shocked. If people of Chinese heritage were born in Malaysia, was it lawful for this man or any other ethnic Malay to refuse service? … I realize that affirmative action in that country may have played a part in it. I don’t want this for our country.

From “A Never-Ending Policy,” a story in The Economist of 4-27-2013:

The policies which favour ethnic Malays and other indigenes at the expense of Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Indian citizens are an oddity in the realm of state discrimination. It is not unusual that they favour a majority, the two-thirds of the population known as the bumiputra, or sons of the soil. But it is peculiar that their Chinese and Indian targets have never ruled Malaysia.

Their presence in the country, though, was encouraged under British colonial rule without the consent of native Malays. After independence this became a source of grievance, one exacerbated by the minorities’ wealth. In 1969 mobs burned Chinese shops, killing hundreds. The government responded with a “New Economic Policy” (NEP) aimed at improving the lot of the bumiputra with preferences in university admissions and for civil-service jobs. Billed in 1971 as a temporary measure, the NEP has become central to a system of corrupt patronage….

Provisions that require a certain proportion of the shares of any publicly quoted company to be in bumiputra hands, and that favour bumiputra-owned firms for various government contracts, undoubtedly enrich a few well-connected Malays. And the policies seem good for bumiputra civil servants: the civil service is now 85% Malay, if one excludes teachers. But they do little for the rest. “There has been little or no trickle-down effect, and I think more bumiputra know this today,” says Wong Chen of Pakatan Rakyat, the main opposition party. The increasing wealth of ethnic Malays in past decades echoes rising fortunes across South-East Asia, casting doubt on the idea that affirmative action has been a particular help.

Malaysia’s Chinese and Indian citizens chafe at being second-class citizens. Quotas in university admissions are particularly resented. Most universities in Malaysia reserve 70% or more of their places for bumiputras. Chinese and Indian students flock instead to private and foreign ones. Those who leave often stay away. A World Bank study in 2011 found that about 1m Malaysians had by that stage left the country, which has a total population of 29m. Most were ethnic Chinese, and many were highly educated. Some 60% of skilled emigrants cited “social injustice” as an important reason for leaving Malaysia. This exodus makes it a less attractive place to invest in.

Supporters of the NEP argue that, without such assistance, Malays will not catch up economically or academically. Critics worry that it dulls their incentives to excel. There is evidence of a skills gap. Nearly half the managers at Malaysian manufacturing firms surveyed by the World Bank said that the ability of local skilled workers to handle information technology was either “poor” or “very poor”. Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister who in his time extended the reach of the NEP, lamented in 2002 that bumiputras too often treat university places as “a matter of right”, neglecting their studies.

A survey in 2008 found that 71% of Malaysians agreed that “race-based affirmative action” was “obsolete” and should be replaced with a “merit-based policy”. The ruling coalition pays lip service to such ideas and has tinkered with the racial preferences—lowering, for example, the fraction of a company’s shares that has to be in bumiputra hands when a service company goes public. The opposition argues for “colour-blind” affirmative action—that is, policies that favour the poor in general, rather than the bumiputra specifically. But are enough of the sons of the soil ready to make the change?[2]

So the ethnic preferences are pushing highly-educated citizens to leave the country and are seen by most thoughtful observers to badly need reforming, yet nothing is changed.

Another feature of the Malaysian preferences also seen elsewhere is their continuation and expansion long after imbalances have been corrected. The Malay population has become an even larger majority in the years since the policies were implemented, and Malays now dominate the country’s government and most of the wealth and jobs. Asia-Pacific regional magazine The Diplomat goes into more depth in its story of 11-20-2015 by Han Bochen, “Malaysia’s Chinese Diaspora: The Other Side of the Story: Conventional narratives overlook the marginalization of ethnic Chinese in Malaysia — especially the Chinese poor.”:

While the Chinese do hold political power as part of the ruling coalition, it is their success in the economic realm that has been the main source of dissatisfaction for ethnic Malays. Right-wing groups often complain about a Chinese take-over of the country’s economy, and encourage ethnic Malays to unite under the idea of “ketuanan Melayu”, or Malay pre-eminence, against the Chinese domination of the economy. Ordinary Malays have adopted the rhetoric as their own, using social media as a tool to speak out against any indication that the Chinese are second-class or disadvantaged.

Looking purely at numbers, it does seem that the Chinese have it much better. Census data from 2014 show that the average monthly gross income for the Chinese is much higher than that of any other ethnic group in the country. Adding to this narrative are lists like the Forbes’ 50 Richest, which consistently reveal that the majority of Malaysia’s richest are of Chinese descent (in 2015, eight of the top 10 Malaysian nationals on the Forbes’ list were Chinese).

Under this banner, two intertwined narratives have been consistently marginalized: that of the mirage of Chinese dominance in Malaysian society, and that of the Chinese poor.

First of all, despite the lack of indication in the Malaysian constitution, there’s no debate over the fact that the prime minister must be of Malay origin, meaning that Chinese political power will always hit a brick wall. Furthermore, there is little support from the Chinese community for the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the voice for the ethnic-Chinese population in government. Political observers agree that, that while they are vocal in the opposition, the Chinese have a largely insignificant voice in Malaysian parliament.

Secondly, it is the Malays, not the Chinese, that actually control most of the economy. Since the enactment of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the 1970s — a set of affirmative action policies for ethnic Malays aimed to reduce inequality between them and their ethnic-Chinese counterparts — the Malays have monumentally improved their situation. They control most of the major banks, including the central bank, the government-linked companies (GLCs), as well as constitute the majority of the top professional and highest-paying occupations in the private sector.

What the impressive statistics touting Chinese success obscure is that while there is a sizable ethnic Chinese middle class, income inequality is also most rampant within the Chinese population. All the wealth is concentrated within a few, and there is a large number of Chinese who are either below the urban poverty line or slightly above the poverty line. Furthermore, while many of the NEP measures are still in force protecting the ethnic-Malays, there is relatively little government support for non-Malays in poverty. Correspondingly, there is a dire lack of academic study and census focus on the Chinese poor.

Meanwhile the government certainly isn’t helping matters with its rhetoric. The “Bangsa Malaysia” policy introduced in the 1990s, aimed to create an inclusive national identity for all Malaysian residents, has evolved into a nebulous concept. Over the years the government hasn’t ceased to refer to the ethnic Chinese as “pendatang,” which means “immigrant” in Malay. Such language confirms, and often exacerbates, the distinctions that exist between Malaysian nationals. In early February Rural and Regional Development Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob used racial language to encourage Malay consumers to boycott Chinese-owned businesses that have been raising their prices.[3]

For a look at the Indian-origin Malaysians who are also chafing under ethnic set-asides, The New York Times story of 2-10-2008 by Thomas Fuller, “Indian Discontent Fuels Malaysia’s Rising Tensions,” has some revealing anecdotes:

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian Indian Casket, a shop on the outskirts of this modern and cosmopolitan city, sells coffins in all sizes: standard coffins clutter the entrance, child-size boxes are stacked high on the shelves and extra-large models, those for the tallest of the deceased, are stored in the back.

But there is no variety in the ethnic background of the clientele.

“All the customers are Indian,” said Aru Maniam, a shop salesman.

In death as in life, Malaysians are divided by ethnicity. The country’s main ethnic groups — Malays, Chinese and Indians — have their own political parties, schools, newspapers and, in the case of Malays, a separate Islamic legal system.

For years this segregation was promoted as the best formula for social harmony in a country that advertises itself as “Truly Asia” because of its diversity, but where the memory of ethnic riots in 1969 is invoked as proof of the fragility of cross-cultural relations. Nearly 200 people died in that spasm of violence.

Now, ethnic tensions are again rising, driven in large part by dissatisfaction among the country’s Indians, who have mainly lost out in the long battle of all three ethnic groups over power, privilege and religion….

Some Indians in Malaysia are very rich, but a majority have not been able to move up from the lowest rungs of society. The children and grandchildren of rubber tappers, they remain poor, poorly educated and overrepresented in menial jobs….

Chinese Malaysians, who form the core of the merchant class, are angry about quotas that keep many of them out of local universities and about the government’s preference for hiring Malay companies, among other issues.

Malaysia’s ethnic tensions were born during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Chinese and Indian workers came to what was then called Malaya and helped drive the colonial economy of tin and rubber. But this influx created resentment among Malays, who lost control of the economy to British plantation owners and Chinese businesses. The Malay sultans later struck a deal with the British: Malays would retain political supremacy in Malaysia after independence in exchange for citizenship for the Chinese and Indians.

Underpinning the anger of the latest generation of Chinese and Indians is an affirmative action program in place for 37 years that favors Malays and other indigenous ethnic groups, collectively known as bumiputra, literally “sons of the soil.” The program was devised to increase the share of bumiputra ownership of the economy, which in the 1970s was in the single digits.

Today, bumiputra make up 60 percent of the population but have 87 percent of government jobs. They receive discounts of 5 to 10 percent on new homes and are allotted 30 percent of stock shares in initial public offerings. Newspapers are filled with notices of government construction contracts exclusively reserved for companies controlled by bumiputra.

“It’s completely unacceptable that you cannot get awarded a contract just because of the color of your skin,” said Lim Guan Eng, an ethnic Chinese Malaysian who is secretary general of the Democratic Action Party, the leading opposition party in Parliament. “That grates tremendously. We are treated as though we are third- or fourth-class citizens.”[4]

In the United States, the preference system got started as a remedy for the evils of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and has never been as extreme as the Malaysian preference scheme, which was motivated by a colonial history. But similar resentment is building among those who are pushed out by the preferences for politically-favored groups. The US is fortunate in having less extreme ethnic and religious differences to deal with, as well as an ideal of equal treatment under the law, but the political rewards of setting groups against each other and stoking resentment are similar.

[1] “Chinese in Malaysia,” originally an article from U. Maryland’s College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, copied to:
[2] “A Never-Ending Policy,” The Economist, 4-27-2013 (author unnamed)
[3] The Diplomat, Han Bochen, 11-10-2015. “Malaysia’s Chinese Diaspora: The Other Side of the Story: Conventional narratives overlook the marginalization of ethnic Chinese in Malaysia — especially the Chinese poor.”
[4] The New York Times, 2-10-2008, Thomas Fuller, “Indian Discontent Fuels Malaysia’s Rising Tensions”:

Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples OrganizationsDeath by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations

[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations,  available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]

The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.

Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”

Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.


More reading on other topics:

Jane Jacobs’ Monstrous Hybrids: Guardians vs Commerce
The Great Progressive Stagnation vs. Dynamism
Death by HR: How Affirmative Action is Crippling America
Death by HR: The End of Merit in Civil Service
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Public Employee Unions
Death by HR: History and Practice of Affirmative Action and the EEOC
Civil Service: Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive Dream
Bootleggers and Baptists
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Justice Dept. Extortion
Corrupt Feedback Loops, Goldman Sachs: More Justice Dept. Extortion
Death by HR: The Birth and Evolution of the HR Department
Death by HR: The Simple Model of Project Labor
Levellers and Redistributionists: The Feudal Underpinnings of Socialism
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
Trump World: Looking Backward
Minimum Wage: The Parable of the Ladder
Selective Outrage
Culture Wars: Co-Existence Through Limited Government
Social Justice Warriors, Jihadists, and Neo-Nazis: Constructed Identities
Tuitions Inflated, Product Degraded, Student Debts Unsustainable
The Morality of Glamour

On Affirmative Action and Social Policy:

Affirmative Action: Chinese, Indian-Origin Citizens in Malaysia Oppressed
Affirmative Action: Caste Reservation in India
Diversity Hires: Pressure on High Tech<a
Title IX Totalitarianism is Gender-Neutral
Public Schools in Poor Districts: For Control Not Education
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
The Social Decay of Black Neighborhoods (And Yours!)
Child Welfare Ideas: Every Child Gets a Government Guardian!
“Income Inequality” Propaganda is Just Disguised Materialism

The greatest hits from (Science Fiction topics):

Fear is the Mindkiller
Mirror Neurons and Irene Gallo
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
Selective Outrage
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire
The Death of “Wired”: Hugo Awards Edition
Hugos, Sad Puppies 3, and Direct Knowledge
Selective Outrage and Angry Tribes
Men of Honor vs Victim Culture
SFF, Hugos, Curating the Best
“Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?”
Science Fiction Fandom and SJW warfare

More reading on the military:

US Military: From No Standing Armies to Permanent Global Power
US Military: The Desegration Experience
The VA Scandals: Death by Bureaucracy

If you have a good story or anecdote from your organization, please email it to I can use a few good tales (anonymized, of course) to illustrate the problems.

Leave a Reply