Malaysia’s Ethnic Tensions Rise as Its Economy Declines

Wataru Yoshida, Nikkei Asian Review, February 2, 2014

Robust economic growth has long played a key role in smoothing over tensions between Malaysia’s different ethnic groups. But with that growth sputtering, resentment over the government’s preferential treatment of ethnic Malays may soon boil over.

The rift between Chinese Malaysians, who account for less than 30% of the country’s population, and the ethnic Malay majority of 60% deepened sharply after the general election last May, which saw the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak declare victory. The slowing economy has deepened the underlying mistrust between these two groups, and the premier, looking to solidify his support base among Malay voters, appears to be turning a blind eye to the escalating tensions.

Together but separate

In the capital Kuala Lumpur stands a poignant sign of Malaysia’s division. Two food courts, located barely 20 meters away from each other in the same shopping area, cater to different ethnic groups. In one, there are only food stalls run by Malays for their Malay customers. In another, all the shops are operated by ethnic Chinese serving food for Chinese-Malaysian diners.

Most Malay people are Muslims and cannot eat Chinese food, much of which uses pork, for religious reasons. And though Chinese-Malaysians do not have such religious dietary restrictions, many of them shun Malay-run shops because of rising resentment over the country’s race-preferential economic policy of Bumiputra, which gives preferential treatment to Malaysia’s ethnic majority.

Bumiputra is a Malay term that means “son of the land,” and the policy has clear Malay-run food courts, for example, are administered by local municipalities and their monthly rents are held at 30 ringgit (about $8.96). By contrast, ethnic-Chinese food courts are privately run and their rents stand at around 800 ringgit, roughly 25 times higher. City-administered spaces openly favor Malay restaurant owners, and Chinese-Malaysians have grown increasingly frustrated about such an unfair treatment.

The government introduced the Bumiputra policy in 1971 to raise the overall income levels of ethnic Malays, whose incomes were lower than those of ethnic Chinese. The policy also provides a legal basis for giving preference to ethnic Malays in education and employment, among other fields. The income gap has narrowed between the two ethnic groups over the years, but Chinese Malaysians have suffered numerous consequences: They are granted only limited slots for university entrance and are rarely promoted to executive posts at government offices and state-affiliated companies.

Even so, ethnic Chinese people have refrained from protesting explicitly against the government mainly due to the country’s steady economic growth. Malaysia started courting foreign investments in the 1980s, and the government widely shared the fruits of economic growth to keep dissatisfaction in check. On the surface, the two groups have managed to live side by side.

But rising wages have meant foreign investment has started tapering off in recent years. With the once-uniting force of economic growth losing steam, the ethnic Chinese population has begun making its grievances heard.

Political turning point

The general election last spring proved to be a turning point for Malaysian politics. The ruling coalition, Nasional Front (BN), managed to win a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament, but it gained just 47% of the popular vote compared with the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition’s 51%. Political observers cite ethnic Chinese voters’ switch to the opposition camp from the ruling bloc as the main reason for the results.

For years, Prime Minister Najib had been pushing to review the Bumiputra policy. But with the election indicating that he is unlikely to secure support from ethnic Chinese voters, he has shifted back to a more pro-ethnic Malay stance. Last autumn, he announced a decision to provide low-priced housing only for ethnic Malays.

Local Malay-language newspapers have run opinion pieces criticizing Chinese Malaysians who joined the opposition camp as “ungrateful.” As the state has strict control of the media, it is widely assumed that the government condones such verbal attacks.

Its own worst enemy

The country’s return to a policy of preferential treatment for ethnic Malays is undermining its economy on two fronts. First, the move is fueling an outflow of Chinese Malaysians to overseas. One Chinese student declined a government scholarship and is now studying at a university in neighboring Singapore because, she says, her opportunities are limited in her home country. The World Bank warned in a recent report that Malaysia is losing highly skilled citizens to overseas institutions and many may not return.

Secondly, ethnic Malay citizens are becoming more inward-looking. Many of them work for companies affiliated with the government and enjoy generous protection, such as subsidies. Malaysia has joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations, but is clashing with the U.S., the leading member, over the reform of Malaysia’s state-run companies. Malay companies, which form an important support base for the government, are vehemently opposed to the U.S. demands.

Malaysia aims to join the ranks of industrialized nations by 2020 and is rushing to nurture industries that can produce highly value-added goods and services. But the country will find it very difficult to stem the brain drain and stop further delays in opening up its market as long as it keeps the Bumiputra policy in place.

The country’s former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, in forging ahead with the policy, once described the economic weakness of the ethnic Malay majority as the “Malay dilemma.”

However, the country is now facing an even more troubling dilemma, one with no easy fix in sight.

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  • NeanderthalDNA

    “Secondly, ethnic Malay citizens are becoming more inward-looking. ”

    Hey…where did I read about something to this effect? Hmm…


    • Brian

      Do they Bowl Alone over there too?

  • WhiteGuyInJapan

    Malaysia established a form of affirmative action that protected the majority from the minority. Food for thought.

    • 1stworlder

      Its the same thing blacks have in south Africa, because they can’t succeed even with it.

    • Bantu_Education

      In S.Africa the black majority is much more than 60%.

  • Spartacus

    “…many of them shun Malay-run shops because of rising resentment over the
    country’s race-preferential economic policy of Bumiputra, which gives
    preferential treatment to Malaysia’s ethnic majority.”


    And yet, they have no problem when this happens in White lands, to their advantage…

  • Einsatzgrenadier

    Diversity is Malaysia’s greatest strength.

    • PouponMarks

      No it isn’t. We are only talking about 2 ethnic groups. Imagine importing Africans, Albanians, Gypsies, and bushmen from Borneo. Lee Kwan Yew remarked that Singapore was a “meritocracy”. That’s why it is successful. The rest is balderdash.

      • Franklin_Ryckaert

        Singapore itself is “diverse” but the ethnic proportions are more favourable : Chinese 74,2%, Malay 13,3%, Indian 9,2%, other 3,3%. In this case the Chinese with their high IQ and realism can easily dominate and of course Lee Kwan Yew’s meritocracy also helps a lot. Meritocracy without affirmative action in Malaysia would bypass the Malays and cause ethnic strife.

        • PouponMarks

          I have observed Singapore from being there for extended periods of time, having friends there, and reading Lee. The Chinese will always maintain a majority and primary control, going so far as to recruit Mainland Chinese, when the native birthrate falls below replacement. The Chinese are practical. Singapore to me is a model society, because it works, and is governed by competent people and the best of society. The opposite is true in the West.

          What you write is true; I would add that all Malays are Muslims in Singapore, and nothing further needs to be added.

  • BonV.Vant

    Like a comet, racial and interethnic tensions and violence are cyclical. They keep coming back. Looks like the 13 May 1969 comet is going to make another flyby.

  • BonV.Vant

    They are both “merchant minorities”. They do not necessarily “work harder’. They are traders, not construction workers,

  • dd121

    If our darkskins take control of our country I wouldn’t be surprised if they prohibit any white from working at NASA. Just how far into space do you think they’d get?

    • LHathaway

      Some lefty is going to read your statement, offer this as proof of discrimination (against people of color) is rampant everywhere and take this up as a challenge. They’ll prove people of color are just as good as whites by having them run NASA. Going by past observation, whites completely eliminated would prove to them people of color are just as good as their predecessors.

      • 1stworlder

        NASA is already unable to go into space thanks to Obama. Instead of finding life in the universe they have a harder task of finding a moderate muslim

      • dd121

        Did you ever notice those control rooms when they used to launch astronauts into space? They were all whites except for maybe a couple of Asians. I don’t think it was “discrimination” or accidental.

        • Bantu_Education

          The movie “Apollo 13” surprisingly showed an all-white mission control but invented a black “general” who had a totally superfluous walk-on part.

    • Screamin_Ruffed_Grouse

      I dunno, but I’d wish them the best of luck. I believe it is high time black people went into space.

      • benvad

        And stayed there.

        • Brian

          Maybe if we tell them the sun is made of KFC…

    • Bantu_Education

      In Azania (S.Africa) the black gubbermunt has prohibited whites from training as pilots for SAA, the once very good national airline. The great majority of SAA passengers are whites, either tourists or visiting exiles. It seems that if they can’t kill whites when they’re in the country they are determined to do so on the plane journey either coming or going.

      • dd121

        That’s a story that’s been suppressed by the media. I hadn’t heard that and I follow various news sources pretty closely. Maybe Ken Burns can do a documentary on that. (sarc)

    • Laura Dilworth

      I think that Obama nixed NASA

      • dd121

        That story was blacked out too. Like other stories that would have put Obama in a bad light. NASA and the space program is one of the greatest symbols of USA prestige. Gone. Thank you Kenyan dictator.

        • Laura Dilworth

          a waste of money compared to social justice

  • bigone4u

    If the Chinese are held back by Malay policies and a slow economy, they have an option: Go back to China, where growth is strong and they’d be among their own. Somehow, these invaders never consider such a simple idea.

    • LovelyNordicHeidi

      The Chinese do not feel guilty about colonising other peoples. They’d colonise the whole world if they could. That’s food for thought when our “White privilege problem” pops up.

      • ftex

        You really need to learn some history. The ethnic Chinese in Malaysia have been there for generations. They were imported by the British to work in mining, farming and other industries. They are not “invaders”. Similar situation with the odd-man-out in Malaysia’s ethnic mess… the ethnic South Indians. They are the ones with no real clout.

        The ethnic Chinese in Malaysia no longer have ties with China. Same as why a Mr John Nystrom living in Minnesota has no real ties to Norway. Why were the Chinese imported? Well, the Malays had no interest in working, and when they did, the work was subpar. The frustrated British had no choice.

        I have been to Malaysia dozens of times over the years. While people are generally friendly and pleasant when together, they will tell you separately of the deep rooted resentment on both sides. Mahathir had to implement affirmative action back in the 70s to keep the country together. Unfortunately 40 yrs later, the progress of the Malays as a whole has been disappointing and they’re as dependent as ever on government support. Sound familiar?

        • captainc

          still, malaysia belongs to the malays, not the chinese. chinese can come back to china and re-adjust.

          • BonV.Vant

            Malaysia belongs to the may-lays, but look down the road a bit. Let’s say they kick out the Chinese. Malaysia then deteriorates, the population will face a crisis and most likely dwindle and another people, perhaps the Chinese again, will move in. I think it was a mistake for Europe to give up it’s colonies as somewhere down the road the Europeans and the Chinese will be competing to see who get’s the whole globe. The low IQ populations will lose out one way or the other. We could have populated the colonies with European peoples the way we did with Australia.I think it was the silly notions that Christians had that they could save all the different peoples of the world and that would somehow make them like us, I think it was that notion that prevented the west from populating the colonies with it’s own peoples. WE know now that a religious conversion does not affect DNA and inborn character traits.

  • MBlanc46

    We white Americans should follow the lead of the Malays in Malaysia.

    • ftex

      Without the ethnic Chinese, Malaysia would fall back to third word hell. I have worked in Malaysia many times. The engineers and managers are generally Chinese (again ethnic), very few Malays. The line workers are generally all Malays. Even with serious preferential consideration in university acceptance, job quotas, and subsidies based on RACE, the progress made by the Malays is terrible when considering how much the system is stacked in their favor.

      • benvad

        They must have enough intelligence to handle it. Drive their own people into engineering, business etc. the ethnic Chinese have a racket going on in business.

    • benvad

      Yeah, exactly.

  • dd121


  • Berkeley Guy

    Way to go Malaysia! Protecting your people is important. I support Malaysians in their quest for keeping their culture and nation intact.

    In China, the Han would never treat any other group with the same preferential treatment as they themselves receive. And so what? It is natural, and I believe good to prefer to keep your culture intact. If there is to be change, then perhaps it should be slow and generational, so as not to displace particular citizens from jobs, or to make them feel as if social harmony instead becomes social discord.

    People may complain that the Malays need the Chinese because Malays are lazy or incompetent or whatever. But if the Malays in their homeland have chosen to keep their culture from being pushed aside by ethnic Chinese, then the Malays have made their choice and it is their country, so I think we have to accept that. Furthermore, just because people think that Chinese make better engineers or managers or whatever else, the Malays would still be risking their culture in the long run. Why would the Chinese care about the Malaysians? And for the person who complains that the Chinese have been there for several generations, tell that to the Han or Cantonese who do not want Indians or others from becoming citizens of China and treated equally. Oh wait, that’s right, there really isn’t a government in China in our sense of the term but a system of bribing and ‘gifts.’

    • Bantu_Education

      “In China, the Han would never treat any other group with the same preferential treatment as they themselves receive.”

      Ethnic minorities, for example Muslim Uighurs, are not bound by the “one child” policy which is a huge concession. I believe they are given some other minor privileges too.

      • Berkeley Guy

        I mean you no offense, but to have to dig for “minor” concessions only underlines the disparity between groups. Besides, the Han have killed many Uighurs, so it’s not like they are worried about a people with such small numbers who they deny jobs to anyway.

        Copy and paste this into youtube: “Rascism & Child Abuse In China: 6 Years-Old Ethnic Uyghur Kid Beaten by Chinese Adult”
        The adults took turns kicking and hitting and stepping on the boy’s hands. He was a beggar who tried to steal a purse or something. Not sure what he did, but he was taught to do that by adults and he didn’t deserve to be beaten by a mob. I showed this to my at the time Chinese girlfriend who was at first appalled but then realized that the kid was an Uighur at which point she waved her hand at the screen and said ‘he’s just one of those kids who look half-blood.’ She wasn’t interested in his fate after that, and politely rebuffed attempts to discuss the scene further. I suspect the minor privileges granted are probably for a social release valve system, and not because there is any notion of goodness in it whatsoever.

  • Franklin_Ryckaert

    The conflict between the 30% Chinese and the 60 % bumiputra (“autochtonous”) Malays of Malaysia is essentially a racial IQ conflict. I cannot find information on the separate IQs of the Chinese and Malay populations, but if we keep in mind that the average IQ of the racially kindred Indonesians is 89 and that of Filipinos is 86 and Chinese generally have and average IQ of 105 then the IQ difference between the Chinese and the Malays of Malaysia will be about as great as that between Whites and Blacks in the US, which explains the difference in educational and professional performance. No policy of affirmative action ever can “close the gap” which is genetic and not social in origin.

  • BonV.Vant

    when the going gets tough diversity gets deadly

  • Katherine McChesney

    Hilarious. As funny as the ‘helicopter inventor’ on another thread.

  • Franklin_Ryckaert

    Tim Wise should preach the evils of “yellow privilege” to the Chinese of Malaysia.

  • Bantu_Education

    When in Malaysia I always go to eat in the Chinatowns because only they sell beer.

  • dd121

    Thanks Brian! What a hoot. Sounds just like a Burns documentary which are all about blacks all the time.

  • MBlanc46

    According to your argument we should welcome the Chinese invasion of the US. I do not. China for the Chinese. Malaysia for the Malays. The United States for Americans.

  • Berkeley Guy

    When did I ever say I was a White National? I don’t deny that I am very interested as of late in protecting my heritage, which took me a long time to realize. Not to say that I am not interested in finding out what a “WN lifestyle” is about. So if you have an idea of what that is, then please tell me.

    Just because I dated a Chinese girl–before I started to research in earnest what my heritage is–that makes me a hypocrite? What about the scores of other people on this website who spent decades trying to assimilate into the cult of multiculturalism who then later decided that it was not in their best interest and changed their lifestyle? Are they hypocrites?

    A couple years ago, when I dated a Chinese girl, I was still somewhat muddled in my thinking. What I am interested in now is protecting my fellow Europeans and Euro-diasporians against discrimination, harrassment, degradation of social harmony, and unchecked immigration. I am here for and to provide moral support. I am also here to learn, not just to give opinions. Furthermore, I am neither a liberal nor a conservative, since those terms have become muddled, at least to me.