Where do the Malaysians come from

In the Southeast Asian tiger state, the old ethno-nationalism of Charles Dannaud has had its day

It was one of those typical generalities that the rulers in Malaysia never tire of praying down: The Chinese Malaysians, Mahathir bin Mohamad, the long-time expremier of the country (1981-2003) claimed at the end of July, were faced with a dilemma: “Either they'll tear them too political power per se, since they already have economic power, or they accept the principle of division that has made Malaysia what it is today. "[1]

Political power for the Malays, the Chinese - a quarter of the population is of Chinese origin - the economy, that has been the tacit social contract since independence in 1957 that created that image of a polar social order that was finally carved in stone after the unrest of 1969 . At that time, after a parliamentary election, there were fatal clashes between the Malays and the Chinese. Afterwards, the government justified the outbreaks of violence by stating that the Malays had long since built up anger against the Chinese, who were accused of usurping all of the country's riches.

Indeed, the alliance of the ruling Malay, Chinese and Indian elites had failed to appreciate the level of poverty that deeply divided society. But the government then focused solely on the ethnic aspect of the dispute. With the introduction of the “Malaysian New Economic Policy” (NEP), the distinction between Bumiputras (“sons of the country”), i.e. the Muslim Malay people, and the other population groups was enshrined in law, so that in the following the former were given preference in the redistribution of resources .

The poor Malays and rich Chinese theory was a political construct. The economist Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux has shown that the greater relative poverty of the Malays was related to three factors: the dualism between subsistence economy and production for the market, the ethnic division of labor and the different access to education. In truth, there were marked class differences within each community, and "the fact that 98 percent of the Chinese were workers or peasants was simply ignored."[2]

In the 2013 election campaign, Mahathir, also Dr. M. called, despite the old fears of the Chinese minority. With moderate success: His party, the national conservative United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and its 13-party coalition Barisan Nasional ("National Front"), which forms part of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) also has a Chinese and an Indian component, were confirmed in office in the parliamentary elections on May 5, 2013, but they achieved the worst election result in their history. Overall, they even received fewer votes than the Pakatan Rakyat ("People's Alliance") opposition alliance.[3]

In addition, the vote was overshadowed by numerous irregularities: The political scientist Bridget Welsh from the management school in Singapore speaks of "unequal conditions, including constituency manipulation, voter relocation without giving reasons and one-sided reporting". State funds were also used for the election campaign and vote buying.

The incumbent Prime Minister and UMNO party leader Najib Razak is actually considered to be moderate. But in response to the extremely narrow victory, he too joined the racist discourse and blamed Chinese voters for the disappointing election result. In fact, the Chinese had turned their backs on the MCA en masse. The party is considered ossified and a vassal of the UMNO. While Razak spoke of the “Chinese tsunami”, he completely ignored the fact that some of the Malays had also defected to the opposition. Razak's reaction illustrates very well how difficult it is for the UMNO leadership team to admit that ethnic separation is a long outdated concept.

But then Razak made a 180-degree turn and called for "reconciliation". After all, he is the initiator of the “One Malaysia” campaign, which aims to evoke “harmony” between the ethnic groups. In the eyes of the political scientist Ahmad Fauzi from the Science University Malaysia, however, Razak is only following an easily understandable strategy: "It is an old tactic of the Barisan Nasional to first play off drivers against each other, then to talk about reconciliation and to present oneself as a peacemaker." But the Malaysian scientist believes that it would not be so well received, especially not by the city's voters.

Especially in a country where 56 percent of the population is under 30 years of age, the UMNO's strategy seems clumsy. "The young generation sees themselves as Malaysian [not as Malay, Chinese, Indian ...], and they are less racist than the older generation," explains Bridget Welsh. In the Barisan Nasional, on the other hand, the ethnic parties have allied themselves, with their paternalistic demeanor - gifts are given to young people and appearances are organized with stars from film and funk - have obviously still not understood how deep the rejection of traditional politics goes, for Mahathir's self-importance is the symbol par excellence.

The youth did not witness the fantastic rise of the country in the 1980s and feel in no way committed to the old nationalist party. "That is the paradox of the UMNO," explains the political scientist Fauzi. “It pushed the development of the country forward and helped the Malaysians to emancipate themselves - and they no longer want to vote.” Lafaye de Micheaux says that Pandora's box was opened with the 1997 Asian crisis. By then, the Malaysians would have accepted an authoritarian society because growth benefited everyone. But then it became clear to them that by giving up their freedoms they had paid too high a price.

Independence: August 31, 1957. 1965 Singapore leaves the "Federation of Malaya" and becomes independent.

Administration: Malaysia is divided into twelve states and three federal territories (Kuala Lumpur, Labuan and Putrajaya). East Malaysia, the northern part of the island of Borneo, consists of the states of Sarawak and Sabah and the federal territory of Labuan. West Malaysia consists of the remaining eleven states and the two federal territories Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya.

Population: 29.24 million people.

Form of government: Elective federal parliamentary monarchy.

Official language: Malay.

Head of State: King Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah (since 2011). He is elected by nine sultans for five years.

Head of Government: Najib Razak (since 2009).

Literacy rate: 93.1 percent of the population over 15 years of age.

Population: 60 percent Malay, 25 percent Chinese, 10 percent Indian, 5 percent indigenous peoples.

Religion: Islam is the state religion, but freedom of belief is guaranteed. 75.9 percent of the Chinese population are Buddhists.

Malaysia, which was often counted among the Asian "tiger states", has good economic data to show today: According to official statistics, the gross domestic product (GDP) is growing by 5.6 percent annually, and inflation in 2012 was only 1.7 percent[4], and unemployment reached 3.3 percent in April this year. In September 2010 Razak launched its Economic Transformation Program (ETP): By 2020 Malaysia should have developed into a high-wage country. With a budget of 300 billion euros, the program combines support for state-owned companies (particularly in the energy sector) with support for private initiatives, including in the form of investments from abroad. The Malaysian stock exchange has meanwhile developed into a recognized financial center, and not only in Islamic finance. Overall, the markets reacted positively to the re-election of Prime Minister Razak.

In order to achieve social improvements, Razak announced the expansion of the domestic market: This should not only reduce the country's dependency on exports by 2020, but also increase the income of the population. A minimum wage was introduced in May 2012, which is actually minimal in view of the high cost of living in the cities (at the equivalent of 7.50 per day, this is around 200 euros per month). Judging by the election results, however, the population is skeptical. The Malaysians are concerned about the stagnation of purchasing power, and they have long called for an improvement in public infrastructure and higher education. At the center of the criticism, however, is the preference for the Malays enshrined in the economic reform of 1969, even if this has actually led to less inequality.

Young citizens want equal rights

Politically, however, this strategy has deepened the rifts in society, says Lafaye de Micheaux. Because the members of the Chinese and Indian minorities have thus been degraded to second-class citizens: They have more difficult access to the public service and universities, can hardly acquire property and in the large state-owned companies that arose in the course of the NEP, more difficult a job. In addition, the system of state patronage has exacerbated corruption, especially where it comes to control of public markets and state revenues, such as from the sale of raw materials or from tourism.

With the wave of privatization that was set in motion in 1986, nepotism got a boost. "The richest 20 percent own more than half the wealth in the country," says Lafaye de Micheaux. In the meantime, a wealthy oligarchy close to the UMNO in particular benefits from a policy whose beneficiaries are no longer the poor Malays, any more than the indigenous peoples of Borneo, whose natural resources are exploited on a large scale.

Independent journalists keep exposing financial scandals. Razak himself was involved in a corruption affair involving the purchase of French submarines during his time as defense minister. After a Malaysian organization filed a complaint, two coroners have now been entrusted with the case.

The political opposition of the Pakatan Rakyat, the People's Alliance, based its election campaign on the demand for more transparency. But her electoral success is in large part due to the fact that she advocated an alternative model of society. The alliance consists of parties that do not recognize ethnic borders, and with the demand that the redistribution should not be based on ethnic, but solely on social criteria, "it created a right to representation in the civic, not in the ethnic sense," explains Lafaye de Micheaux. The question of identity is so important to the opposition that Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Pakatan Rakyat, is considered to be the "midwife of the multicultural identity in Malaysia". Incidentally, he was long traded as the successor to Prime Minister Mahathir, whose finance minister he was. In 1998, however, he fell out of favor: Anwar was sentenced to several years in prison for corruption, but he was acquitted of the politically motivated charge of “sodomy”, which was intended to discredit him and prevent his candidacy.

Malaysia with its two parts of the country, the Malay Peninsula and the north of the island of Borneo, has almost 30 million inhabitants. The country experienced several waves of immigration: Chinese came from southern China from the early 19th century, and Indians, especially Tamils, poured into the country by the end of the same century. When the country became independent in 1957, all immigrants and their descendants born in the country received Malaysian citizenship. However, ethnic origin and religious affiliation are entered in each passport.

As the economist Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux explains, these are "arbitrary, largely invented categories" that have nothing to do with Malaysian reality: it was the British colonial rulers who, for the sake of efficient administration, subdivided the population after the late 19th century ruling racial doctrine classified. Because the colonial administration attached such great importance to ethnicity, thinking in terms of ethnic categories is still firmly anchored in Malaysian society today. C. D.

This development towards opening up society is also influenced by other factors. On the one hand, there are various initiatives from civil society that, inspired by the Arab Spring, are calling for a political turnaround - above all two large demonstrations for a reform of the electoral system. On the other hand, the social networks ensure an enormous spread of such initiatives. More than half of Malaysians are now active on Facebook.

When the opposition rose after the May 5th election and challenged the election results, a new phase of political engagement began. Tens of thousands of Malaysians demonstrated peacefully in the country's football stadiums and called for the electoral committee to resign. Razak's government then brought charges against MPs, students, bloggers and members of the opposition. "Civil society has grown up and civic engagement will increase now that the fear is gone," says Welsh.

Despite the large number of complaints submitted, it is unlikely that the electoral committee, set up by the Prime Minister's office, will review the results. "But something will change, that is inevitable, if only because of demographic developments," says the political scientist Fauzi. “It would be no harm for the UMNO if they had to relinquish power. Then it could follow the example of the old nationalist parties - such as the Indian Congress Party or the Kuomintang in Taiwan - and get rid of corrupt elements and return with a new identity. ”Mahathir's time horizon, the year 2020, until Malaysia joins the group of developed Countries supposed to have risen could come with the birth of a democratic nation capable of realizing that its multiculturalism is a great asset.


1^ "Chinese better off after Merdeka", New Straits Times, Kuala Lumpur, July 27, 2013.

2↑ Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux, “La Malaisie, un modèle de développement souverain?”, Lyon (ENS Édition) 2012.

3↑ The Barisan Nasional received 47.4 percent of the vote, but 59.9 percent of the parliamentary seats, compared to 50.9 and 40.1 percent, respectively, which went to the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat. This discrepancy can be explained by the size differences between the electoral districts, which, despite their different populations, each send a representative. The Barisan Nasional benefited from the fact that the electoral districts are smaller in the regions it dominates.

4↑ See “World Development Indicators,” World Bank, Washington, D.C., 2013.

Translated from the French by Barbara Schaden

Charles Dannaud is a journalist.