The ungrateful Malaysian

Part 2: How citizenship as a privilege shapes fundamentalist nationalism


In Part 1 of this essay series, I talked about the seafaring history of pre-Colonial Malay kingdoms and the multicultural influences that shaped them.

One of the prevailing themes I spoke about was the issue of sovereignty and privilege. The Malaysia we know today comprises thirteen states and three federal territories. Of these, nine were independent absolute monarchies. Some states, like Penang, Sarawak and Sabah, took their modern shape as leased territories to European interests. Other states were dependencies of the existing Sultanates, or as is the case with the Peninsular’s northern states, sometimes vassals of Siam.

Like other colonies that eventually became modern nations, the basis for our geographic boundaries was not divisions along historical lines, but simply what made sense to incoming powers at the time. Some historical border disputes continue to haunt us today. In 2013, Sabah was invaded by loyalists from the Sultanate of Sulu (in the present-day Philippines) claiming historic rights to parts of the state. If we learnt anything from this, it’s that our borders are not just more porous than we thought, but also more fluid. Real people don’t see the invisible dots on the map, but that doesn't mean the borders they recognise are ones we’re comfortable with either.

The diverse aborigines of the Peninsular and Borneo shared deep connections with our ancient kingdoms. Apart from filling the role of community representatives in local courts and non-Malay officers, the traditional forest and marine products for trade were collected and supplied by aboriginal peoples on both sides of Malaysia. Certain aboriginal groups, notably the Orang Laut, formed the core maritime forces for the Malaccan Sultanate and its dependencies. Further down this essay, I will talk about their subsumption into Malay society and the contentious issue of Bumiputera status in particular.

Non-Malay communities who were not traditional to Malaysia included migrant merchants and sailors from around Asia and the Middle East. This older generation of migrants were migrants in the true sense. They had the time they needed to amalgamate themselves in local culture, their children identified themselves as locals, and they were here to stay.

Malaysia’s modern racial divisions are bound with the story of our migrants. This includes all our migrants, from the regional peoples of the Malay Archipelago and Southeast Asia, to the Chinese, Indians, Arabs and other communities that sought their fortune here, including the Europeans. The region offered reliable sources of raw material to fuel their industries as well as new spheres of influence. Much is made of how the Europeans insinuated and outright forced local Sultans to accept their increasing supervision. What often goes untold is how local courts used incoming European influence for their own profit.

Our present-day Conference of Rulers is a mere shadow of the nine historic Sultanates. Bloodlines ran across the Straits of Malacca from Sumatra and down the Peninsular. Power grabs and succession crises between feuding princes pulled communities apart and created new competing states. Pirates, led by cast-off nobles or their allies, were a frequent threat to merchants who failed to dock at their ports. Numerous kingdoms sought protection from Imperial China as well as Siam, sometimes even from each of these powers against the other.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, new economic opportunities in tin mining and plantation farming also saw different states opening up land to non-Malay migrants for development. High demand for tin and products like gambier and pepper from Europe helped drive the switch from trade in traditional forest and marine products to these new commodities. The first wave of economic migrants en masse was encouraged by Malay Sultanates seeking to profit from the new European markets. While landowners were often linked to the Malay nobility, foreign migrants became the primary leasers and workers, even dominating occupations previously held by Malays and indigenous peoples.

Control over this sudden influx of migrants still lay in community leaders who liaised with the local courts, but unlike their predecessors, cultural insularity was increasingly the norm. Some, like indentured Chinese coolies beholden to clan and secret society rivalries, had little incentive to mingle outside of their communities. Others, like the Minangkabau and Bugis, developed settlements on the Peninsular that grew so large, they were able to declare their own states.

Both the Minangkabau and the Bugis developed different versions of Malay culture and practised very distinct political systems. The Minangkabau are famously matrilineal and clan-based. Although the Minangkabau territories on the Peninsular were initially part of the Johor-Riau Sultanate, by 1785, the local clans declared Negeri Sembilan’s first Yang Dipertuan Besar (paramount ruler). The Bugis nobility also declared Selangor’s independence from Johor-Riau and became a Sultanate in its own right. Extensive intermarriage between both communities and Malays blurred some cultural differences between them, but especially for the Bugis, entrenched them firmly in the venal succession politics of the Malay royals.

When the Dutch and British first arrived, local Sultans saw them as another force through which they could give their cousin-princes and rival kingdoms comeuppance. By the 17th century, Malacca had been captured by the Portuguese, scattering the remnants of its Sultanate to Johor and Riau, and emboldening rival states in the Malay Archipelago. The Dutch, followed by the British, were keen to access trade opportunities in the region and had no qualms about siding with factions they thought could give them an edge.

Naturally, the ousted descendants of Malaccan royals in Johor lost no time in soliciting Dutch assistance to recapture Malacca from the Portuguese and thwart their rivals in Aceh. When Dutch influence waned in the 19th century, British interests in the Peninsular and Borneo took over, and as our popular historical narratives note, the British were remarkably more bullish about pursuing advisory positions for themselves in local courts, with the overt intention of taking over the local economy.

The coming of the British is noteworthy to the racial narrative in the way their migration policies strained local capacity to breaking point. As they aggressively opened plantations and mines, and transformed Singapore into both a major trading hub and centre of operations, they began needing different forms of labour to keep up with their expansion. Lower-ranking civil service roles were initially filled by English-speaking Ceylonese who were familiar with the British administrative style. Sikh police forces were drafted to maintain security. Chinese entrepreneurs and thousands of indentured Chinese coolies helped open, run and maintain the very plantations and mines crucial to the local economy. Eventually, falling tin prices saw a decline in incoming Chinese migrants. To overcome worker shortages, programmes to bring in large numbers of cheap South Indian labourers were initiated.

Because the British now assumed primary responsibility for these migrants, the need for maintaining meaningful contact between all these racial groups and the Malays significantly dwindled. It didn’t help that many migrant labourers were transients, returning to their native homelands after set tenures. Although a significant number would settle here as our modern Malay, Chinese and Indian communities in the long term, the inconsistent nature of this new migration pattern played handily into keeping the different ethnicities apart. The idea of transient migrants with few roots in Malaya would also feed into a persistent, growing narrative of disloyal non-Malays displacing the local population.

These new migrants included people from the Malay Archipelago who were not necessarily ethnic Malays. To the British, however, the differences between Malays, Bugis, Minangkabau, Acehnese and other ethnic groups from the region were moot — they were all eventually subsumed into ‘Malay’ for census purposes. This included a small section of aboriginal peoples like the Orang Laut and Orang Asli who associated with Malay culture enough to be counted a part of it.

Overwhelmingly, the aboriginal peoples on the Peninsular and Borneo were invisible to early colonial sources. The arrival of commercial farming and mining virtually decimated their traditional trade in natural products (and most of their interaction with outsiders). This, plus their traditional territories deep within the forests, meant that their voice was seldom regarded in censuses, much less matters of state.

The story of Malaysia’s aboriginal peoples continues to be one of the greatest tragedies in our racial relations. On both the Peninsular and Borneo, they provide bulk to the Bumiputera quota needed to keep the other races in check but receive virtually none of the economic growth, infrastructure and opportunities for self-determination hogged by Malays. It begs the question of what our demographics would really look like if the Bumiputera (interpreted here as strictly the aboriginal peoples) were to be separated from the Malays.

The Others I spoke of in Part 1, including the Peranakan, Baba and Eurasian communities who had long been part of Malay cultural society, literally became the ‘Others’ for British census purposes. They did not fit the pat ethnic divisions the British administration envisioned (Malay, Chinese and Indian), but they also had little in common with the newcomers from their ancestral homelands.

The very nature of Malay society itself changed in this era. Along with simplified ethnic divisions, early Malaysian society was also undergoing the stratification of economic roles by race. The British largely maintained a hands-off approach to the Malay ruling class’s sovereignty in matters of religion (Islam) and Malay cultural affairs. Collusion between the Malay elite and notions of the British class system seem hazy, but it’s clear having hard divisions of rulers and commoners was not a totally alien notion in either society. Remember, the kerajaan of ancient Srivijaya which begat our Sultanates held their rulers as demi-gods. Even after the arrival of Islam, derhaka (treason) still carried supernatural elements, albeit with the added duality of defying both an earthly ruler and God. If anything, privilege and entitlement (that is, being born into power) was a cachet the British were more than happy to encourage, so long it kept the local nobility content and away from interfering in their administration.

For the Malay commoner, a pastoral ideal was developed. The seafaring ways of coastal Malays were discouraged in favour of settled farming. Part of this policy stemmed from the need to reduce seasonal piracy, which was a major source of income apart from trading and gathering natural products. Added to this, the sharp influx of Chinese entrepreneurs eventually overtook local Malay traders and marginalised new Malay entrepreneurship. Although Malays did participate in commercial planting and mining, they would ultimately be outnumbered in persons and expertise for these fields.


By simplifying ethnic bonds and effectively dividing occupational roles along racial lines, the British created a problem not just for local inhabitants, but also for themselves. This became patently obvious during the Japanese Occupation in World War II.

Life during the Occupation was generally difficult for everyone. Our historical record is clear on the fact Malaysians of every class suffered. But the ethnic divisions the British encouraged, through ignorance or instigation, worsened the struggle for basic amenities between rural Malays and dislocated Chinese. The anti-Japanese movements in China, whose ideas the Chinese diaspora in Malaya propagated and physically supported, made the Malays more favourable administrative collaborators in the eyes of the Japanese. Ironically, it was the same Chinese diaspora that would be at the forefront of combating the Japanese while the British abandoned Malaya to its fate, at least until the last few months of the war.

Formed in consultation with the British, the largely Chinese Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) were at the forefront of resistance activities even before the penultimate fall of Singapore to Japanese hands. The dominating force within the MPAJA was the Malaysian Communist Party (MCP).

Precisely because the MPAJA/MCP became the most experienced and well-armed faction against the Japanese in Malaya during the war, they also became among the first groups in the Peninsular able to restore control in several areas afterwards, especially where there were large Chinese populations. These actions included dealing harshly with old enemies, such as Malays classed as “collaborators”, and those displaying “capitalist” sympathies. Unsurprisingly, many Malays saw this as Chinese aggression.

This turbulent period bled into the Communist Insurgency that lasted until the early 1950s in the Peninsular, and into the 1970s in Borneo. In the process, it uprooted and split the Chinese community and disenfranchised Malays, who bristled under how much their security depended on the British.


As a born Malaysian national, it’s hard for me to imagine a time when our founding fathers weren't even able to agree on jus soli (right to citizenship by birth) for residents of Malaya. But that was one of the major “concessions” the Malays of that generation made to the other races. Perhaps this is why, when reading our history on the run-up towards independence, the sheer volume of privilege, directly in the sense of Malay privilege, and the entitled sense of the three major races to their own domain, is so galling.

WWII was a huge blow to British prestige in Malaya. The reality of life without the British sunk deep into every ethnic community, giving spark to the possibility of complete self-determination. Popular people’s movements flourished and ran the gamut of ideas, from uniting Malays under a greater Indonesian banner, to multiracial parties, socialist-leaning ideologies and nebulous international Muslim states.

Unfortunately, the deep cracks between the different races meant that in spite of continuous efforts to form successful multiracial political parties, the ability of such parties to win popular support has almost always been stymied. The added factionalism of the Islamic revival movement is also a spectre that still splits the Malay vote between rural and devout, urban and evangelical, and moderates who want no party to this debate.

The notable survival of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) as a political entity hinged on its increasingly fundamentalist and insular Islamic platform, which itself is tied to the traditional association in Malaysian society that Muslims are Malays, and all Malays are Muslim. Thus, without explicitly calling itself such, PAS was (and for the most part continues to be) a Malay party with Islamic-flavoured politics.

Of course, the risk of starting on a single-race platform is that this policy eventually calcifies into fact. It sets clear lines between the different races, making reintegration as a national whole difficult. Yet, when Malaysia’s first political parties were formed, it became clear that interracial suspicion meant the best means of communicating to each race, and then to each other, was through race-based politics.

By the end of WWII, when the British actively sought to move Malaya towards independence, it was clear that a significant population of the non-Malay migrants who had toiled in the country’s plantations and contributed to business entrepreneurship were staying put. Although not fully Malaysian in the modern sense, many of the non-Malays in this generation were already different enough from the people in their ancestral homelands that the promise of citizenship was a natural extension of what they had contributed to this country.

Again, the racial rifts the British had encouraged caused more problems than workable answers. A united Malayan Union, which afforded automatic citizenship and equal access to all residents, regardless of race or creed, was the original plan the British attempted to enforce. Malay reaction against the Malayan Union was both united and vehement. The Sultans of the nine kingdoms only gave their agreement to the Malayan Union under pressure, seeing it as the last straw in a long history of ceding their sovereignty to the British. For Malay commoners, there was the fear that the large non-Malay population would ultimately mean the loss of their homelands. They were particularly resentful about Chinese intrusion into Malay areas during the recent war, and saw the Malayan Union as a sign of increased Chinese dominance vis-à-vis full and equal citizenship.

The formation of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in 1946 was primarily spurred by opposition to the Malayan Union. It brought Malays together into a political movement that for the first time had the support of all the different classes, from the aristocracy to left-wing students and Islamic leaders. Even so, it cannot be stressed enough how much the Malay elite and the traditional nobility were tied together as they negotiated a new form of Malayan state, and how this cemented Malay privileges into our final Constitution.

Firstly, we define the Malay elite. The British grudgingly began educational institutions for the Malay royalty and nobility in the early 20th century, in order to fill its administrative service. Malays and non-Malays of the upper classes also attended English-medium schools, run by the government or missionaries. These were the only real multi-ethnic schooling systems available at the time. They helped bond an elite class of students by social status and English as a mutual language. Bahasa Malaysia was as yet non-existent and Malay was not widely spoken among non-Malay communities, with the added barrier of Jawi (Malay written in Arabic script) being more common in written documents than Romanised text.

This core of upper class multi-ethnic students, one side of the educated elite that participated in Malaysia’s path towards independence, were the British’s preferred negotiators for the new nation alongside the Sultans. It is no accident that these elite negotiators in many cases were part of the Malay nobility themselves. This put them in a prime position to set our royal families’ sovereignty into stone, make inroads for majority Malay participation in the administrative service and argue for increased Malay privileges, which they did.

Nor is it an accident that the non-Malay members of these early negotiators represented the wealthy English-speaking Malayans most likely to be pro-British in their terms. Together with the Malay elite, this same privileged class would eventually spearhead our first Cabinet, while influencing the upper echelons of politics. Even now, their descendants continue to fill political office in both the Opposition parties and the ruling Coalition.

As one would imagine, the social reality over which this privileged group presided was far different in terms of class and values. Again, the means and types of education available deeply influenced how the lower classes of society approached Malaysian self-government.

Under the British, educational opportunities for Malay commoners were sorely lacking. Traditional village-level schooling focused on Arabic language and Islamic subjects, in some cases including secular topics like English, mathematics and science. However, the crux of these madrasah and pondok (hut) schools was to preserve the Islamicness of Malay culture and unite Malays under an Islamic identity. Their graduates typically undertook tertiary education in Mecca, Cairo and South Asia, where they were exposed to modernist Islamic ideas including the influence of Islamic revivalism and Salafism. Social critics, political figures and writers who came out of this group were initially moderate centrists, but as the 20th century wore on, would grow increasingly fundamentalist and conservative in their discourse.

Public Malay vernacular education only really began to take off in the early 20th century. Colonial-run vocational schools taught occupational skills, primarily in agriculture, which the administration believed was better suited to its vision of sedentary pastoral Malay serfs. (The British administration feared a class of well educated Malay graduates would lack for things to do, as development in the country did not match their standard of learning.)

Thankfully, more progressive ideas on Malay education prevailed. In 1904, Malay spelling was standardised and Romanised, which helped the publication of Malay literature in a form everyone, including non-Malays, could access. Malay literature itself was added to the Malay public school curriculum to expand understanding of the culture. Compulsory attendance helped increase the Malay student population, which extended to education for girls. Eventually, expanding education for Malays required additional teachers. Teachers’ training colleges were founded that helped create another part of the Malay discourse on independence — that of the well-read, socially and politically aware intelligentsia.

Malay teachers led the forefront of this movement, creating numerous Malay language publications that discussed current issues and became avenues for social debate. Of particular note here is the expanded role of female teachers, who helped spur girls’ education and criticised their under-representation via women teachers’ associations.

Like Malay education for commoners, non-Malay education outside of English-language schools was a mixed bag. Local Chinese communities had a long history of establishing dialect/region-specific schools to inculcate their children in Chinese history and heritage. By the turn of the 20th century, these vernacular schools became caught up in the growing commitment to a Chinese nation rather than language or region. Migrant Chinese (as opposed to straits born Chinese) developed schools with Kuomintang (KMT) or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leanings, helped by teachers brought in from mainland China loyal to either group. This helped set an even wider divide between the relatively newer migrant Chinese, who felt stronger bonds to China, and historical straits born Chinese whose identity was local (and more amenable to the British).

Indian vernacular education, compared with English, Malay or Chinese language education, was virtually unheard of for the lower classes, primarily Tamil estate workers and labourers. Very minor attempts to establish estate schools that imparted basic skills were made, often left to the discretion of private estate owners. This was unlike middle and upper class Indians, who could benefit from English-language education, and for the most part, avoided contact with those beneath their social standing.

Nonetheless, the independence movement in India did help build bridges by the 1930s, as well as new leadership among working class Indians struggling for improved rights. Indian voices were part of the negotiations for independence and later administration, but social division has continued to mean that this voice is fragmented, led predominantly by upper-middle classes removed from the blue collar poor.

While upper class Malayans who came to dominate our political leadership had a stronger shared base of alliances to work on, the split racial-communal lines between average Malayans meant that their collective voice would continue to find difficulty expressing itself. The divided racial relations of the masses was a more accurate depiction of the norm than the cosier upper-middle echelons of society. Finally, the demographics of this era saw a mass influx of migrant Chinese and Indians who had less time than their straits born predecessors to truly develop local ties before the battle over citizenship began.


It would be an understatement to say that forging a new nation in these circumstances was difficult. The best means of understanding the compromise our founding fathers created is to separate the concept of a union vs. a federation.

The reason the union failed was precisely because its central idea involved a united country, under a single democratic government. The Peninsular was a patchwork of the nine Sultanates and lands these royals considered rightfully theirs. Their Malay subjects, having watched their rights, land and economy increasingly whittled away to new migrants, were unwilling to cede citizenship to people they considered foreigners.

These latter communities in turn chafed at having to give up the roots they put down in the country. Generations of their children had grown up totally in Malaya and lacked real ties to their native homelands. Often, they did not have a definitive ‘home’ to go back to. (This is why up until our present time, Malays telling non-Malays — real or perceived— to go “back home” is insulting. Regardless of whether we agree with different aspects of the country, we are all people who were born and raised in Malaysia.)

The federation was a compromise that enabled the nine Sultanates to retain a veneer of sovereignty. Put more bluntly, it allowed the Sultans to save face, letting them keep their high social status and certain discretionary powers, while upholding their honour as symbols of Malay culture and Islamic leadership.

It also allowed Malaysia to simultaneously have a democratic government based on public elections. That is, the day-to-day affairs of the new country would be administered according to a modern mode of government, with an independent judiciary and legislature that checked and balanced the power of the executive branch.

Once again, the cultural symbolism of Sultans and the rotating, elected role of Yang di-Pertuan Agong (formally the Supreme Head of Malaysia, commonly translated as “King”) was less about a direct role in daily national/state governance, and more about maintaining a status quo involving the royals. To reiterate this point, the British’s chosen negotiators for independence were the Malay elite and their non-Malay peers of the era, who often had family ties and long friendships with the royals.

In the wider view, upkeeping the traditional Sultanates and having an elected Yang di-Pertuan Agong was a measure to reassure the Malay public that their cultural honour and high station would be preserved. Keris-waving Malay nationalists have tapped into the right vein by holding Malay lordship (ketuanan Melayu) hostage against all the other races that make up Malaysian society. Unfortunately, then and now, basing our constitution and state structure on historical Malay privilege has never been entirely in keeping with social reality.

Pre-independence Malaysia’s economy and society was built on the backs of all Malaysians, who were local indigenous peoples as well as migrants from Indonesia, China, India and a vast international patchwork. Saying that non-Malay communities are beholden to Malays for citizenship, in a country they helped build, is unconscionable.

At the end of World War II, the fragmented Sultanates were unlikely to have survived individually as absolute monarchies, should they have been given the option. Finger-pointing at foreign influence is easy, but the point of the matter is that the independent Sultanates of Malaya had long since lost most of their real relevance in their states’ actual governance.

(For a rather interesting idea of how a post-British absolute monarchy might have worked, we need look no further than Brunei. Members of the Malaysian Sultanates may be privileged, but their ability to be unabashedly authoritarian, corrupt and venal is checked by the powers invested in the Malaysian public. )

Malay historical privilege is itself failing to withstand scrutiny as more than a racial fantasy. The legends we tell of glorious kingdoms past are just that, things of the past. They were transcribed in the ancient courts to glorify and justify their elites. Insofar as the number of royal families claiming bloodlines reaching back to Bukit Seguntang goes, much of that history seems to have been copied from each other.

But that is what our nation is built on: a constitutional monarchy, Malay privileges as law and a multi-racial society whose acknowledged non-Malay citizens must somehow continue proving themselves to their Malay equals that they are still worthy of eating from the same rice bowl. Over all of this is an increasingly calcified lacquer of Malay pride, fed by affirmative action policies and quotas.


What must be separated from this narrative is that economic disparity genuinely continues to be a problem in Malaysia. The original Malaysian economic plans were designed not just to help Malays gain higher education and access to entrepreneurship, but also to diversify the economy (not putting all our eggs in one basket) and reducing income disparity in general.

Affirmative action is a real tool in social development. We may cringe at the idea of quotas and percentile goals for women’s participation, Malay participation, etc. But that initial step in the door is one crucial way in which affirmative action works. Imagine it this way: if affirmative action programmes did not strive to put women in corporate boardrooms, or enable them to join medical practice as doctors, or open the gender and financial doors to tertiary education via scholarships, many of us would have never seen women as business leaders, doctors and scientists. The first person through the door sets an example, the second, third and fiftieth normalise them in the public eye.

If the United States of America had not had its first African American President, children of all races in the US would forever be told they could dream of being President, but up to that point, none of the non-Caucasian children would have thought it possible.

All Malaysian children are told they can dream of being Prime Minister. But how many non-Malays, or even non-Malay Bumiputera, think that is possible?

There’s also a limit to how long quotas can be enforced without itself turning into a tool of discrimination. In the case of pro-Malay affirmative action, some of these limits have continuously been extended, citing numbers that still have not reached their intended goal.

However, the failure to meet a goal in this case has not been balanced by the sheer number of decades these quotas have been in practice. During those decades, Malaysia experienced incredible economic growth, creating a large and relatively affluent middle class comprising citizens of all races. This has helped temper dissent as citizens moved up the social ladder, but also changed affirmative action policies designed to put Malays in corporate leadership, public universities and urban homes from being assistance for the underprivileged to investment tools of the privileged.

The Malay elite, both in the nobility and political office, continue to dip their fingers into the most promising pies. The descendants of the pre-Independence elite still amass rank and money through their privileged cachet. Cronyism, regardless of the actual race of the perpetrators, has often been tied to Malay leadership. Non-Malays have found creative ways to work with Malays and their special privileges in the economy, using Malay figures as fronts and shell companies for investments in their name.

Concentrating power and money in elite circles can go unnoticed in a boom period, but noticeably polarises income disparity and political representation once that fog is gone. We are faced with Malaysians, not Malays, Aborigines, Chinese, Indians or Others, who are unable to afford basic costs of living; Malaysians whose rights are being eroded by outdated affirmative action policies; Malaysians who can no longer see a chance of social mobility and survival for their children on Malaysian soil. Malaysians who are sick of stepping aside for the old moneyed elite, who want their votes to matter and be regarded equally as “children of the soil.”

That is a reality more palpable than high notions of historical royalty, perceived racial hegemony and building walls between our neighbours. Ultimately, it might be our only way out of this mess. You are a Malaysian. I am too. How can we build dialogue?