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The benefit of being Malay first


ARE you Malay first? Or Malaysian first? That is the current rhetoric in some parts of our political landscape and is spurring some Malaysians to engage in a contest over what it means to be Malaysian.

For certain the question is not a new one. The DAP has for the longest time been brandishing the motto of “Bangsa Malaysia” in an attempt to dismantle the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s race-based politics. DAP advisor Lim Kit Siang, for one, is nowhere close to letting up on this issue. He has demanded repeatedly for, especially, Umno politicians to declare if they are Malaysian or Malay first.

And while Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin seemingly failed the test question, Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz recently scored some points by declaring he was “Malaysian first and Malay next”. But is the question really about which should come first? Why does it seem to matter so much? And which of the two labels — one about race and the other about citizenship — is more profoundly important to us as Malaysian citizens?

Asset vs liability

If there’s anything that we’ve learnt from our series of Found in Malaysia interviews, it’s that our identities are far more complex than, first, the British colonialists and now, the BN government would like us to believe.

Chef Wan (Pic by Roland Tanglao @ Flickr)

Chef Wan (Pic by Roland Tanglao @ Flickr)

Just read some of the stories from the Malay Malaysian personalities we’ve featured. Chef Wan has Japanese and Indonesian ancestry in him, national squash player Mohd Azlan Iskandar is European, Indian, Malay and Chinese all in one, and Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz who is featured exclusively in the Found in Malaysia book is, in her own words, of pendatang stock since her ancestors were from Sumatera.

And so, one wonders why someone like the deputy prime minister, who is also Umno deputy president, feels compelled to respond to Lim’s challenge by making his Malay identity more important than, in this instance, his national identity. Why was it not possible for Muhyiddin to have replied that he was both Malay and Malaysian with neither one identity being more important? After all, our racial identities are far more complex than the tightly contained boxes we are expected to tick.

But this isn’t just about Muhyiddin although what our deputy prime minister, who is also education minister, says has implications on politics in Malaysia. It is about a larger issue of why being Malay to some is far more critical in Malaysia than placing equal or more importance on being Malaysian.

Najib Razak

Najib Razak

This is where I find a commentary by Deputy Education Minister Dr Puad Zarkashi and the remarks by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak at the end of September at the United Nations rather disingenuous. Our racial diversity, we are told, is an asset, not a liability, that is cherished.

These claims, however, belie the fact that it is really far more advantageous to be a Malay citizen than a non-Malay citizen in Malaysia. From quotas for education and housing to promotions in the civil service to becoming prime minister, it cannot be denied that the system in place clearly favours Malays over non-Malays primarily on the basis of race.

And so if it’s clear that there are two classes of citizens in Malaysia — Malays and non-Malays — it is only logical to expect the growing incidence of name-calling of non-Malay Malaysians whether in political rallies, Biro Tatanegara programmes or in schools. In order to maintain the paradigm of ketuanan Melayu that is repeatedly used to justify continued Malay privileges and dominance, one must not ever admit that regardless of race, we are, as citizens, all actually the same and hence deserving of equal opportunities and treatment.

Puad (©

No surprise then that the likes of Muhyiddin are not about to declare they are Malaysian first. Similarly, that would also explain just why Puad, who is an Umno supreme council member, would so quickly label the likes of Nazri as suffering from “Malayphobia”. Those who declare themselves as Malaysian first, Malay second, are dangerous because they are violating the constitution and Umno’s raison d’etre, charged Puad.

Herein lies the weak link to the BN’s claim that it believes in the vision of 1Malaysia. How can citizens believe that the government, especially Umno, cherishes our diversity if it consistently favours one racial group of citizens over others?

Any attempt to reframe the equation so that all of us are the same — from a citizenship point of view — would of course be seen as a threat. After all, such thinking could just dangerously lead to changing the equation of privilege and superiority to one of equality.

Inclusive instead of exclusive

Nazri Aziz

Nazri Aziz

And that’s why Nazri‘s remarks made him such an instant hero in some circles. No matter the actual motivation for his remarks, this is what I suspect many people heard him say. That it was more important to him to belong to a group of people (“Malaysians”) where everyone was the same than it was to belong to another group of people (“Malays”) who enjoy exclusive privileges at the expense of others.

For many Malaysians, including me, saying “I am Malaysian first” is not about denying the cultural heritage of our respective ethnic groups. It is about reclaiming an identity that is inclusive instead of exclusive. It is about contesting the equation of Malay privilege so that no citizen needs to feel disadvantaged because of their race.

For certain, our identities are not one or the other, and cannot be limited to just race or nationality. Class, gender, sexuality, and religion are other aspects of identity that have been sidelined in this debate about being Malaysian. Indeed, depending on context, one aspect of our identity may be far more important than another with no contradiction at all to who we are. When Malaysians are overseas for example, it’s the most natural thing to say, “I’m Malaysian” instead of “I’m Malay/Chinese/Indian/etc”.

Still, if Umno politicians, or any other politician for that matter, want us to believe that 1Malaysia is for real, they best start talking and acting in ways that demonstrate they believe in an equation of inclusivity instead of exclusivity. The sum result, after all, is in the proof.

Jacqueline Ann Surin says “I’m Malaysian first” because there really is no benefit or meaning to saying “I’m Dan Lain-Lain first”.

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50 Responses to “The benefit of being Malay first”

  1. Fikri says:

    It’s surprising that the Malays are the only target of this question, “Are you Malaysian or (insert ethnicity) first?”

    Do other races get bombarded with this question? I have yet to see Mr Lim Kit Siang ask this to MCA, Gerakan and MIC members, or even to PR representatives. Biased much?

    • the acrobat says:

      The whole point of the article is that it is not a balanced and symmetrical question. To be asked if you’re Chinese/Malaysian first is different from being asked if you’re Malay/Malaysian first. Malays are led to believe they have everything to lose by answering [“Malaysian”]; non-Malays believe they have everything to gain by answering [“Malaysian”].

      All we’re left with is each side (race) judging the issue by its own standards of what ought to be. The article is implicitly saying that we need another standard to determine what ought to be done, and the recent bandying about of the 1Malaysia concept would appear to be a candidate model of what ought to be, i.e. Malaysia as an inclusive state where citizenship counts before race.

      I believe that’s why Mr LKS keeps bringing up the issue of 1Malaysia, because it is a concept that he agrees on in principle. On the other hand, I rarely hear Umno politicians doing anything but qualifying and adding caveats to the concept – and our PM is usually silent on it.

  2. Albert Wong says:

    A large part of what is wrong about Malaysia is its systemic institutional racism. Without recognising this essential truth, all talk of uniting is nothing short of eyewash. Until it is understood that equality, which is the essential element of justice, is key, many Malaysian problems well remain unsolvable, to the detriment of our future.

  3. Hang Jebat says:

    Excellent article – hitting the nail on its head, unlike some other commentators e.g. Helen Ang who seem to go off on various intellectual tangents without really getting anywhere closer to the crux of the matter (

    I believe that part of the problem is the names that were chosen for the nation’s symbols (e.g. Malaysia, Malaysian Airlines, Keretapi Tanah Melayu), which further strengthens this fallacious notion that somehow there is one master race in Malaysia, and all other races must bow down in obedience and servitude to this master race. Sri Vijaya, Langkasuka or most other names would have helped neutralise this malignant cancer that has metastasised and infected almost every aspect of our national identity and life.

  4. jimmy says:

    It is extremely very unhealthy for a country that practises supremacy of one race above other races. Interpretations become very biased. When a person gets an “invitation” to go to a house party, s/he reckons that such “invitation” includes free lodging, free food to any edible materials in the house, all the beds are his/hers to choose to sleep on, etc etc.

    Remember, in Malaysia, the supremacy of a race is synonymous with the religion one embraces. Look at Khir Toyo, his father is from Indonesia, but he gets not only Malaysian citizenship but also the supremacy of race just because he is a Muslim. I know of a Chinese friend, born of a non-Malaysian father, who failed to get his citizenship after so many appeals.

    Sometimes, an “Islamic” person practises non-Islamic principles, while a non-Islam person practises Islamic principles!!

  5. Steven says:

    Why all these arguments when nothing, absolutely nothing, zilch, will change the mindset of these bigots and racists? You want to reverse the brain drain and bring ex-Malaysians back to help your country […]? Fat chance if you keep harping about your constitution and privileges.

    I am one of the thousands of ex-Malaysians who opted to migrate to a country where the laws treat every citizen as equal. No special privileges and assistance unless you are poor and disadvantaged; NEVER based on race, religion or gender. This is the kind of country and society I want my children and grandchildren to grow up in, not your kind of bigoted, backward and downright racist country.

    I used to head one of the largest and most well-known US design companies, and I have the experience and skills that most countries would be proud to have and need. Will I ever go back to Malaysia to assist in nation-building? Not even if you pay me a trillion dollars!

    • Z says:

      Well Steven,

      I’m sorry that you feel that way, but really, if you have no interest in your own country, I don’t think we (those of us who want change and are actually doing something about it) would want you anyways.

    • Malaysian says:

      If you don’t care, why comment? I guess you’ve lost hope. I sort of understand what you mean, Steven, because I remember feeling a sense of wonder that I could have more rights in an adopted land then in the land my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather chose to live in. But I had to come home because my mom wanted me home. And so I live here and I will hope for better things – that my vote counts and my voice be heard.

  6. Jasmin says:

    I am a Malaysian, first. It doesn’t matter if I’m a Malay, Chinese, Indian or dan lain-lain. But the fact remains that I am a Malay, and it irks me big-time when our Malaysian-Chinese and Malaysian-Indians identify themselves as Chinese or Indian first when they meet foreigners in Malaysia. However, when they travel, they’re Malaysian first. And they’re very proud to be Malaysians.

    The question is, why is it when you’re in the country, you have to identify your race first? This has caused a lot of confusion among foreigners visiting Malaysia. When a Malaysian-Chinese says “I’m Chinese” to a foreigner, the immediate response would be, “Oh, so how long you’ve been living in Malaysia?” And this Malaysian-Chinese would have to give a long explanation. Why can’t he [or she] say, “I’m Malaysian” first? If people are interested in you, just tell them that “I have Chinese heritage”.

    As a Malaysian (and a Malay), I am proud of our constitution that has a provision for vernacular schools. However, there are still many loopholes in the education system that segregates all of us. Our national-language policy has also failed. Why? Because our national language is based on the Malay language.

    I’ve come across many non-Malays who are Malay-phobic and refuse to master their own national language despite formal exposure to the language for at least 11 years. Many foreigners are confused that some Malaysians they meet (especially in the urban areas) apparently cannot speak the national language. Imagine, in their eagerness to pick up some common phrases in the national language, these Malaysians say, “I don’t speak the language.” Bloody liars, I tell you. Eleven years of formal schooling and you can’t speak simple, basic Bahasa Malaysia? This is embarrassing. I don’t know who to blame. Their upbringing, or our race-centric politicians?

    One of our non-Malay ministers, in addressing an audience that included foreign tourists, said, “I’m Chinese”. She wasn’t addressing a political rally. She was promoting a tourism product. By saying, “I’m Chinese”, it confused foreigners. Someone whispered and asked, “Oh, foreigners can be ministers here?” The minister actually meant well. She was launching Ramadan bazaar in the compound of a mosque. She was trying to tell them that we’re united and live in harmony etc. But the way it was communicated caused a lot of misconceptions.

    At a national lantern festival organised recently, a tourist asked me, “So every Malaysian knows how to speak Chinese?” Why? Because the event was conducted mostly in Chinese. Fair enough, given that the lantern festival is part of Chinese culture. But this festival catered to non-Chinese Malaysians interested in Chinese culture, and obviously to tourists.

    So, what kind of impression are we giving to the international community? Why are we looking inwards rather than outwards? We should all be proud to be Malaysian first because socially, we love our Malay, Chinese, Indian, and dan lain-lain brothers and sisters. We are socially correct but politically incorrect. If it weren’t for our community leaders who fan racial sentiments, we wouldn’t be wasting our time arguing or questioning our identity.

    • J says:

      Firstly, are you sure that the Chinese [Malaysians] like to introduce themselves to foreigners as “I’m Chinese”, or are you quoting based on one specific incident? I am a Chinese and I have never done that.

      Secondly, it’s a lack of common sense to introduce yourself as a Chinese as if it’s not obvious enough. Can’t people tell who are Indian, Malay or Chinese judging solely on skin colour?

      As for the issue on Bahasa, the same applies to a lot of people who cannot speak English properly. Have people not had formal schooling for 11 years? 80% (if not higher) of Malaysians cannot speak very fluent English. So why are you singling out the Bahasa issue? Then again, don’t most of us get at least a Pass or a Credit in BM or English? We were assessed and told that we were good enough. Apparently not. Failed education, maybe?

    • just malaysian says:

      Dear Jasmin,

      Not only the Chinese Malaysian or the Indian Malaysian; the Malays do the same thing.

      As for the Bahasa part – I dare tell you there are Chinese and Indian [Malaysians] who speak better than Malays.

    • Beth says:

      Because that’s how we have been told to describe ourselves since the day we were born. Every single application form requires you to tick “Melayu, Cina, India dan lain-lain”. In reality, why should it matter if my great-grandfather was Chinese, Indian, Malay or DLL?

    • gua says:

      “We should all be proud to be Malaysian first.”

      I agree absolutely, but first you have to tell Umno that all should be treated as Malaysians. Outside of the country they say we are Malaysians, but back on the home turf, it’s “I Melayu”, “you Cina, India” etc

    • JJ says:

      I wonder why a foreigner would need to ask us our citizenship when meeting us in Malaysia. I suspect perhaps the foreigner is wondering what our ancestry is, given that we look so different.

      The race card has been played for over 40 years (I think it was less of an issue during Tunku’s time). Many of our paradigms have also been molded that way.

      As for language, many are turning to private schools and overseas for their education due to the declining standards of our national schools. When BM was introduced as the medium of instruction in schools, I still remember seeing a Chinese [Malaysian] teacher speaking to a Chinese student in BM. Reason is, the teacher was educated in English and did not speak Mandarin, while the student was educated in Chinese in primary school and was not fluent in English.

      Then the education ministry started messing around with entry into the universities to the extent that good students were unable to get the seats they deserved. The reaction was quite natural. Turn to overseas colleges, which would require one to be proficient in English. We are now required to pass TESL, when we used to be able to walk into any college in the UK or Australia without having to sit for TESL.

      The change needs to start from the top, from the policymakers, and flow downwards. We are where we are today because of the policies of previous administrations. It will take another generation to change the paradigm. but we need to start now. Does our present administration have the gumption to make that change?


  7. Farouq Omaro says:

    I would have proudly called myself Malay if I had been around prior to World War II. Saudin, the first Murut to visit New York city from Sabah, introduced himself as a Malay to the outside world. He was not Muslim, and North Borneo was not under Malayan rule then. In the aftermath of World War II, left-wing Malay nationalists had suggested “Malay” to be the name to denominate all Malayans. These were times when I would be more than happy to be a Malay. But under the present circumstances, I’d just be what I actually am, a non-Malay!

  8. kam says:

    I am a Malaysian first, but no one treats me as a Malaysian first.

    • Penne Cole says:

      And this, as I see it, is the crux of the issue. The Malaysian constitution is a violation of basic human rights. What happened to “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political, or other opinion”?

      I understand why Malays are fighting so hard for their many advantages. Who wouldn’t? But until and unless they are willing to give up their special privileges, the country will never be at peace.

  9. Laugoo says:

    Imagine this scenario: Malaysia versus Singapore in a golf competition, both teams tied with one more game between Malaysia’s Danny Chia and Singapore’s Mahmat Matjan, going neck to neck.

    Malaysian fans – whether Malay, Chinese, Indian, Kadazan, Murut etc – who feel that they are Malaysian first would surely cheer Danny on. What about the DPM, who feels that he is Malay first? Who would he be rooting for to win?

  10. why malay? says:

    This is just another article from people who think they are not racist while accusing others of racism. Why shouldn’t this article title be “Chinese first” or “Indian first” or any other race or ethnic group that exists in Malaysia? The moment you think to write this article, you have been racist and biased. Is your patriotism level so high that you don’t feel at home here and want to migrate to somewhere else? The only reason that Malaysia has harmony is because of the of the tolerance of the Rulers. Malays have been tolerant since Independence Day, but still there are people who are not satisfied. Why? Because of lack of power? Talking about benefits, do you think Malays in Singapore get the same benefits as compare with other races in that country? Ah… I wonder from which race does their fair ruler come from. Oops… I’ve been a racist too!

    • Liew says:

      “Malays have been tolerant since Independence Day”
      Well stop tolerating us – just work hard and compete with us, can you?

      • Megat says:

        but you see Liew, we must continue tolerating you, so that you can continue your hard work.

        btw, what are you saying actually?
        chinese = work hard
        malay = busy tolerating you, so does not work so hard??

        what kind of work do you do [that is] so hard that I cannot compete with?

    • Kong Kek Kuat says:

      @ why malay?

      I have been waiting for someone to make a comment directly on the Malays in Singapore and juxtapose it with ignorant conclusions, as you just did in your comment.

      As with most people in Malaysia, from the people in the streets to the highly educated and cultured, there is ignorance when it comes to the specific subject of Malay Singaporeans. I give no apologies for making the aforementioned statement. Here’s why:

      The Malays in Singapore do not merely get the same benefits as compared with other Singaporeans – they, in fact, get more! For example, Malay Singaporeans get direct subsidies for their education from the Singapore government via MENDAKI (which keeps the funds from the Singapore government separate from the zakat funds it collects).

      There have been so many Singaporeans calling for the equalisation of the status of all Singaporeans regardless of race. However, the Singapore government has adamantly refused those strong demands. In fact, Lee Kuan Yew (peace be upon his wife, Mdm Kwa) – who rarely intervenes in parliamentary debates since he stepped down as the Singapore PM – defended the special position of the Malays in Parliament as recently as in 2009.

      This is the supreme law of the land, by the way […] which is why I cannot say it any better than Article 152 of the Singapore Constitution as it stands today:

      Minorities and special position of Malays
      (1) It shall be the responsibility of the Government constantly to care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities in Singapore.
      (2) The Government shall exercise its functions in such manner as to recognise the special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore, and accordingly it shall be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.

      (Note that unlike the Malaysian Federal Constitution, which has been significantly amended during the Mahathir administration, the Singapore Constitution remains large untouched till today.)

      Perhaps there is ignorance, or perhaps it is the intention of Malaysian politicians to skew the knowledge of Malaysians in relation to the subject of Malay Singaporeans. Perhaps it is far too detrimental to the positions of the Malaysian politicians to allow Malay Malaysians to see that there is a possibility that they might have a better quality of life if Malaysia had a Lee Kuan Yew.

      Perhaps you should start re-assessing everything that was told to you to see if they (even those you respect highly) are telling you the truth or are perpetuating fallacy after fallacy. For example: “Malays have been tolerant since Independence Day, but still there are people who are not satisfied.” Are you sure that the Malays have been tolerant, and are you sure that people are not satisfied in general? I can tell you this for sure: people (including the Malays) are generally satisfied, but are NOT satisfied specifically with the current BN government for obvious reasons.

    • siew eng says:

      So it should be “The benefit of being Chinese first” in a country that privileges the bumiputera in the constitution and in other spheres from politics and economics to civil employment? Is there anything left to dissect, then?

      I, for one, would love to read an article that says “The benefit of being an Orang Asli first”.

      At any rate, do you know of any Malays with mixed ancestry who acknowledge the parts of them that are not Malay? I find that most of them don’t, even those interviewed in The Nut Graph‘s “Found in Malaysia” series, whose mixed ancestry would not have been “discovered” were it not for this very series.

      To give an example that’s not from “Found in Malaysia”, does Dr Wan Azizah speak of her Chinese heritage or even consider it a heritage? I’m picking her as an example despite my anti-BN leanings to show that this issue cuts across both divides. And we all know already the ‘prime’ example of a Malay political icon who never showed pride in his Indian ancestry and actually told Indian Muslims to choose between their Indian heritage and Muslim identity… guess why?

      Back to Wan Azizah. You’d think that such a political icon who heads a party that supposedly espouses equality would use this fact of her identity as a means to promote ethnic tolerance, understanding and acceptance, and speak out against the rhetoric of Chinese Malaysians as pendatang. But in this regime that rationalises the rights and might of one particular ethnic group over others through a narrow-minded and bigoted worldview, is it any surprise that Wan Azizah, or any other Malay for that matter, chooses to identify themselves as Malay only, and even downplays or rejects their non-Malay heritage?

      So is TNG not justified in choosing to highlight this aspect, and hence, the title you objected?

    • just malaysian says:

      It should be the Orang Asli first. […]

    • gua says:

      “Do you think Malays in Singapore get the same benefits as compare with other races in that country?”

      Please migrate to Malaysia immediately if you want to be a Tuan. There is no problem, as Indonesians are coming in by the boat loads.

  11. Jay C. says:

    Humans first… Bumiputera sometimes… Malaysian of course lor…

  12. Ramlah Ramadan says:

    I don’t support any kind of ethnocentrism that ultimately oppresses those who are not members of a ‘privileged’ race, but I’d also like to voice some concerns regarding the ‘protection’ of Malay interests.

    I come from Singapore, and the Malays as a minority are without a history. What I mean by this is that there is a systematic de-emphasis on Singapore’s Nusantara past, replaced by a glorification of the colonial ‘founding’ of Singapore, and by implication the immigrant history that proceeded from the institution of colonialism. As a Malay person, I feel dispossessed of who I am, constantly told that Singapore (not even its original name, Singapura) was a mere fishing village, ‘terra incognita’, rather than belonging to the spheres of influence of the Srivijaya and later Johor-Riau empires.

    I can understand why this narrative is established in Singapore – the majority in this island are Chinese, and such a history, if allowed official and popular legitimacy, might create certain fault lines in society, sharply dividing those who are considered ‘indigenous’ against those considered ‘immigrants’. I don’t think the Chinese in Singapore want to think of themselves as an oppressive settler community, and I would not want to wish this kind of cultural baggage, and its attendant guilt (for those members with a conscience), on them. They have enough problems comparing their Chinese-ness to that of the motherland, with all the kinds of angst over deculturalisation and insecurities as members of a peripheral diasporic community.

    However, as I have mentioned, the denial of indigeneity in Singapore has led to a lack of self-pride within the Malay community, who have had to surrender their history for the sake of appeasing the majority. Consequently, there is a sense of inferiority in being Malay, not only because the community is the most economically depressed and plagued with various social problems (high divorce rate, teenage pregnancy, drug addiction), but also because they are *not* Chinese and Indian, two identities that have such prominence in the global consciousness. Both China and India boast long-standing civilisations, being the birthplace of various inventions, philosophical schools of thought and religious traditions.

    So I think the debate over ‘ketuanan Melayu’ has to take this into account: the grievances of an ethnic group which was previously colonised, and whose decolonisation, unfortunately, did not just involve the restoration of power and transfer of sovereignty to this group, but a case of power-sharing with groups that were imported and which benefited from colonial capitalism.

    Other countries in Southeast Asia dealt with their Chinese communities in ways that effectively assimilated them. Witness the Sino-Thai community that suffered under Phibun Songkhram’s regime, with the shutting down of Chinese schools and associations. Under Suharto, the Chinese in Indonesia eventually evolved from a Totok to a Peranakan identity, a process facilitated by the ban on Chinese newspapers and schools and the forced adoption of Indonesian names. Vietnam didn’t even bother to assimilate its Chinese community; they were targeted and expelled, resulting in the famous boat people exodus of the 1970s.

    I’m not saying that these are the steps that Malaysia should have taken with its non-Malay members. But I am certainly saying that many Malays are not ready for a melting-pot model of Malaysian citizenship, where everyone is expected to discard their ethnic heritage in favour of a civic, deracialised form of identity. The nucleus still needs to be Malay in character, because the centres of all the other identities are well and thriving in the great homelands of China and India. So naturally, the Malays are defensive about their hold on political primacy, exacerbated somewhat by rivalry for the leadership of the Malay world with Indonesia (a very old rivalry, which can be traced to the conflicts between Majapahit and Malacca).

    One can argue that Chinese and Indian Malaysians are focused on their present existence in Malaysia and are not influenced by events in China and India. The argument is that they feel that their destiny is in their current home. In my experience this is very idealistic thinking–I have witnessed myself the excitement in Singapore over the Beijing Olympics, and a deepening of Sino-Singaporean ties in recent years. I’m quite certain also that soft power elements–Bollywood movies, Mandopop, etc are enjoyed extensively by the Indian and Chinese communities in Malaysia, who form a substantial overseas audience.

    On a final note, I am very wary of the way that The Nut Graph has been evangelising its own take on what is a ‘pendatang’. I think a crucial distinction (and not just an academic one) needs to be made between migration from *within* the Nusantara and *without*. To call Rafidah Aziz, for example, a ‘pendatang’, just because her ancestors came from Sumatra is mischievous. The Malay world is a large entity that encompasses an entire archipelago, and anthropologically speaking, its inhabitants – classified as Austronesians – bear striking similarities in terms of their cultural practices and behaviour. Even if we want to make a distinction between the ‘Melayu’ peoples and the ‘other Indonesians’ (such as the Javanese), we should bear in mind that ‘Melayu’ is not just a peninsular identity, but one that stretches from the coasts of Sumatra, Borneo, the kingdom of Patani, as well as Riau. It was colonial interference that dismembered this polity into as many as five different nation-states: Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Brunei.

    Sorry for this long missive, but I thought I had to provide a corrective to some of the editorial policies that The Nut Graph seems to be espousing. As a Singaporean, I have firsthand experience of what happens when an immigrant community, specifically the Chinese, gain both economic and political power. And it all begins with erasing the very idea of indigeneity.

    • mike says:

      Hi Ramlah,

      You wrote: “…I am certainly saying that many Malays are not ready for a melting-pot model of Malaysian citizenship, where everyone is expected to discard their ethnic heritage in favour of a civic, deracialised form of identity.”

      Are you confusing unity with uniformity?

    • Gloria Ayob says:

      With all due respect, I have to disagree with two assumptions that have been made in this post, namely that: (a) ‘China’, ‘India’, and ‘Nusantara’ are polities that naturally delineate natural ethnic groupings, and that (b) this consideration trumps the practical and moral challenges that arise from the fact that citizens of modern-day states see their country of residence as their homeland. Both assumptions are highly contestable.

      Re. assumption (a): Without going into debate about ‘China’ and ‘India’ (Tibet? The Hindi/Dravidian divide?), and sticking just to ‘Nusantara’, there is a case for saying that the notion of ‘Nusantara’ as it is used today is itself a creation of European colonialism. Until the Dutch attempt to gain a monopoly over trading routes between islands in the archipelago, it probably hadn’t occurred to most people living in the region that they were part of a single entity (known as the ‘Nusantara’ or by some other name). The Achehnese cannot understand the Javanese, except by means of Bahasa Indonesia. And the fact that both languages belong to this theoretical linguistic category, ‘Austronesian’, doesn’t make a blind bit of difference for practical purposes (e.g. trade, a sense of shared identity). Interestingly, and as is so often the case with these things, the current conception of ‘Nusantara’ was introduced by a Dutch [person] in 1920 (according to Wikipedia: So not only do we have the Dutch to thank for centralising power in what was otherwise a very diverse region, we also have them to thank for the name that is now used to justify the claim of Malay indigenousness throughout the archipelago.

      Re. assumption (b): putting to one side the very fraught claims that are being made about the geopolitics of ethnic identity, there is the more pressing question about the demands that justice places on us as human beings. People of diverse ethnic identities are Malaysian, and many have never been to their so-called [‘home]land’ (India or China). It is as foreign to them as Ghana or Peru. Malaysia is where they have grown up, it is where their parents were born, it is where they will be educated and later work and pay their taxes. It is where they will have children, will grow old, and then die (and be buried on Malaysian soil). Can we really say, in the face of these realities of human life, that these people are ‘less entitled’ to feel themselves a part of this piece of earth, and still claim sincerely to be just? And by what right can we claim that a person who happens to be Indian feels less loyal to his [or her] tanahair than a person who happens to be Malay? Surely the one who knows best is the person speaking for him [or her]self, and if he [or she] claims to be loyal, what grounds do we have for doubting them? We risk being unjust, and therein being less human than we are capable of, if we ignore the other person when he [or she] speaks. If he [or she] says that they loves this country, then this surely counts as much (if not more) than the abstract concepts we use to arbitrarily delineate boundaries on maps.

      There is a great deal of truth in the following idea, put forward by Reem Kelani (who was in turn describing the music of Sheikh Sayed Darwish): “Don’t tell me whether you are Indian, Chinese, or Malay. If it is your homeland, your race should never divide you.”

      • Gloria Ayob says:

        I should perhaps clarify that the final quote was a modification of something Reem Kelani said. Speaking of the Palestine-Israel conflict, Reem Kelani made the following remark:

        “Don’t tell me whether you are Muslim, Christian or Jewish. If it is your homeland, your religion should never divide you”

    • Megat says:

      Ramlah’s extensive and clear rationalisation should be the final polite appeal to all Malaysians to understand the Malay’s plight, and thus, the defensive attitude. Nothing short of extreme tolerance must has restrained Malay’s forefathers from adopting the extreme measures as taken by neighbouring countries.

      If non-indigenous races, still refuse to acknowledge this reality, and keep stubbornly pushing their luck for another ‘Singapura’, then i would say, discussion on ‘unity’ is nothing but a waste of time..

    • CS says:

      Hi Ramlah,

      Thanks for your post. Food for thought.

      Among some of my peers, some of the disaffectation seems to arise from the fact that there seems to be an inordinate numbers of other races who are recent immigrants (first- or second-generation) and have not really contributed to nation building, who are now Malays.

      Some Malays we know are Tamil speaking, who regularly return to home villages in India, and are now holding high senior government positions.

      Some Malays return to home villages in Pakistan regularly and they hold senior positions in the military and police.

      Some Malays have relatives from Turkey and Arab States visit regularly and they hold senior positions in GLCs, etc.

      When I go back to my kampung, my heart always melts when I receive salam from my Malay neighbours with their distinctive oriental faces, polite manners, tolerant attitude and trust in Allah.

      Please do visit Malaysia more often and see the lost of indigenity first-hand, through constitutional and religious means.

  13. Azizi Khan says:

    @Fikri and @Why Malay?

    The answer to your question is simply this. The concept of “Malay tolerance” is a myth propagated by Umno as a supplement the “Ketuanan Melayu” concept they have been peddling.

    Why do the Malays have to bear the brunt of it, you ask? Well, only Malays seem to have the need to put their race as a stamp on everything. This is an irony in itself because Malays are Muslims and Islam doesn’t recognise race.

    The Umno policy seems to favour getting something out of nothing; i.e. so long as I am the tuan, you all work for me and I boss you around. So when Umno favours “Ketuanan Melayu”, they don’t mean the Malay kings or the average Malay Joe the burger seller. They mean Umno will boss you around and make sure that they are in power. That is “Ketuanan Melayu”. Umno has shown time and time again that they are willing to defile the Malay kings themselves to maintain this status quo.

    Malay tolerance is nothing special compared to other races. They are tolerant, too. They are tolerant when Malay-filled institutions provide bad service. They are tolerant when yesterday’s illegal immigrant has a blue IC, while Indian Muslims who have lived their entire lives in Malaysia are rejected. They are tolerant when the government favours only Malays when they are supposed to champion ALL Malaysians, and this is done without shame. They are tolerant when the government preaches that we are an Islamic country and yet doesn’t practise anything it preaches. They are tolerant when Malays pretty much change the Quran to make Allah their own, making Malaysia an international laughing stock.

    Finally, to answer your question about ancestry – if you have forgotten your history, let me remind that Parameswara was the descendant of the Chola kings of India. This is a historical fact. So they came from India. They became Muslims, and thereby to your definition, Malays.

    Umno policies and corrupt practices have pretty much corrupted Malays as well. We have people like Ibrahim Ali peddling racism and idiots lapping it up to no end.

    I am a human being.

  14. Anak Malaysia says:

    Dear Malaysians,

    Let me tell you the root problem of our country, why our country is always not united, why race is always a priority, why racial politics is always touched on, and why all Malaysians profess their race first then their nationality.

    The answer is our politicians! And the racial politics of our country that has been entrenched so deeply for the past 50 years! And programmes organised the prime minister’s department like the Biro Tata Negara that fosters such thinking!

    Fifty-plus years of rot, corruption, nepotism, despotism – you name it, we have it! Fifty-plus years of parochial and racial stereotypical thinking! It’s not that Chinese Malaysians, Indian Malaysians, Malay Malaysians are like that, but it’s because such a thinking has been inculcated in our education and way of living, it’s so pervasive, it’s basically the air we breathe!

    Let me stress, it’s our politicians that’s our undoing! And lo and behold, the rakyat have had enough of this!

    The focus of this article is not to fan racist sentiment or to cast a negative light on our Malay Malaysian brothers and sisters. The article focuses on our DPM because of his response to the question “are you are Malaysian or Malay first?” Hence, his response was indeed an eye-opener, partly because he is the future PM of our country, and a high-profile civil servant, a supposed leader of all Malaysians who consist of people of all races and religions.

    Think about it!

    • Z says:

      You may have a point there, @Anak Malaysia, but I have to disagree. The root issue is education. There’s a quote that says, “The people get the government that they deserve”. Though this may sound a bit extreme, but we have to start from down-up rather than up-down.

      The government is only as strong as its people. And when we succeed in changing our mindset, then things will progressively change.

  15. Ed Soo says:

    At the recent National Unity Forum, I raised the point that the question “Are you Malaysian or Malay first?” is a false choice (if you are interested, Google “fallacy of false choices”). It is like asking do you love your parents, your spouse or your children more? We can love our parents, spouse and children all at the same time, albeit in different ways.

    I am reminded of my recent philosophical eureka moment, when I thought of calling that great unwritten book of mine The Innocent, the Deluded and the Enlightened. In the context of this racial discussion, I am reminded of my innocent school days, when race simply wasn’t an issue – it was simply “I friend you” or “I don’t friend you”. Then one day (I can’t remember the exact moment) I lost that innocence. Like one’s virginity, once gone, by definition, it’s never to return, and we can only mourn its loss.

    I think we are now in the delusion stage, when each person thinks his/her view is correct and is the only one that matters. This too, hopefully, shall pass. We will reach a stage of enlightenment when we accept the different views even if we don’t necessarily agree with them, find meaning and purpose in our Sisyphean quests, and dream of better tomorrows.

  16. Beng says:

    If you didn’t care about the situation in the country, you wouldn’t be visiting this site. If you didn’t care about the country, you probably wouldn’t comment.

    There is always the easy way out of complaining and blaming “the situation” for any shortcomings. But if we don’t lift a finger to help the country, who will? Every little bit of positivity could help in small margins. Bak pepatah, “Sikit sikit, lama lama jadi bukit.”

    I’m proud to be Malaysian. I’m still trying to instill positive nationalism through friends and family. It’s hard, but hey, we’ve all got to give it a try!

  17. walski69 says:

    To me the distinction between being Malay/Chinese/Indian/Whatever first, and being Malaysian first is simple – being Malaysian first means that one puts national interests above other interests.

    That’s about all there is, as far as I’m concerned.

  18. Ellese A says:

    I think this is a one sided article claiming a moral highground. Let’s take DAP Bangsa Malaysia and the vernacular school. This does not jive. If we segregate our kids from a young age, how do you expect them to appreciate being Malaysian first? If they never laugh, play, eat and cry together, how can you expect them to empathise with one another when they are older? I used to have two best friends in school, one Chinese and one Indian. But because of the pronounced school segregation now, my kids in SK in KL don’t even have a single Chinese friend in their class. My kids are being deprived of befriending other races in school. Now if you think “Malaysian first”, don’t you think you would be against this system? Yes. Yet Kit Siang dares not even say a word on this, and neither does the writer.

    The Malays see this of Kit Siang. It’s selective racism. It’s racism if it is against one group but not the other. This is not right. If you want to fight racism, you fight it across the board and not be selective. Kit Siang and the writer should espouse for enactment of non-discriminatory law and practices; push for outlawing all racist practices. They should have the same verve attacking A153 as with the rights of vernacular schools. They should have the same passion in criticising the NEP. If they did this, a lot more Malays would respect them. But when you charge only one group with racism, the anti-racism clarion call seems shallow.

  19. Farouq Omaro says:

    I don’t think this article sounds racist in any way. There are still people who are not satisfied because some of the promises made before 1957 and in 1963 seem to have been broken. Some of them are like the status of Malaysia as a secular state, freedom of religion in the states of Borneo and more. Nobody is complaining about the lack of power. But there are some who complain about the erosion of rights. And I don’t see why we should compare ourselves with Singapore with regards to this article. Why not compare ourselves with Australia, where a recent migrant from Malaysia could be MP? Recently, an Orang Asli customary meeting was halted, something which never happened since Merdeka! And I don’t see Orang Asli leaders going around saying I am Orang Asli first! These are all merely my opinions.

  20. Nina Aziz says:

    Malaysia as it stands today is intertwined with the Islamic faith and the old feudal system of “ketuanan Melayu”. While it is important to appreciate the spiritual and historical relevance of both in our complex society, it is even more important to develop a realistic grip on the embroidery of Malaysian society today. There isn’t much use in attempting to build a progressive nation that is stuck on destructive old roots. “Bangsa Malaysia” is the only way forward for a truly progressive and meritocratic society.

    Change is often painful, so we have to take baby steps towards the ultimate equality where everyone is subjected to the same opportunities and challenges in the country one shares. Hardly anyone – Malay or of any other race – is indigenous in Malaysia except the Orang Asli … therefore we are all kaum pendatang.

    I am Malay and am spoilt by the protective “cushion” and the burden of conformity, but would be ashamed to put my race and religion on my ID card. I am first, last and above all Malaysian with Malay roots, which is not a secondary identity. It’s simply my heritage and nothing more relevant than a personal and private appreciation of the culture and tradition. This doesn’t give me a de facto right over anything more than other fellow citizens of different racial roots.

  21. mike says:

    The word that comes to mind is POLARISED. Reading the article and seeing the comments, it’s obvious there are only two stages of discussion: everyone speaking at the same time and ignoring each other. Race-based politics, or more correctly, identity politics does that to everyone. If only we appreciated our common ground – Malaysia – then we would understand that sectarianism is actually destructive.

    To be sure, our government and its policies are race-based. Does that make them racist? Our official opposition, and all the rest of the politicians, also practise race-based politics. That’s the fastest way to secure their base. Aren’t they racist as well?

    Jacqueline A Surin has used Lim Kit Siang’s rhetorical “Malaysia vs Chinese or Indian or Malay” as the basis of this article. But the whole point of rhetoric is not to solve a problem but to undermine another person’s idea. In this case, Lim Kit Siang’s rhetoric tries to undermine Najib’s 1Malaysia.

    Why can’t we embrace 1Malaysia and still help Malays more, or Indians more, or whichever ethnic group that needs the most help from the government? We are Malaysians, and if fellow Malaysians – whatever their ethnic group – need governmental support, then our government should step in. If our government is perceived as racist, then it’s a perception problem, not a policy problem.

    This article is polarising because it is *characterising* the issue of race-based policies in Malaysia, instead of *discussing* the reasons for race-based politics. Maybe Jacqueline can do that in her next article.

    And yes, I agree with the NEP, it’s there to help those in need into the middle class. And no, I don’t think it’s implemented properly. The government, too, has a perception problem.

  22. fika N. says:


    There’s always discussion and debate over this matter. I’m not a highly educated person, but I like to think rationally and critically. In my humble opinion, one will automatically be regard as a Malay when he/she converts to Islam and thus will get all the benefits of being a Malay.

    Take, for example, Anas Zubedy – from what I know he doesn’t have Malay ancestry; his granddad was a pure Arab and so thus so are his parents. But why is he considered a Malay? Because he’s a Muslim. The same thing applies with my friend, who doesn’t have a single drop of Malay blood but is treated as one.

    Thus, in my own opinion, the government is trying to protect the Muslim identity. So are you a Muslim or Malaysian first? I would say I’m a Muslim first.

    That said, I think the government is just being too biased towards the Muslims and neglecting the rights of non-Muslims, which is very unjust.

    • Me says:

      I’m of Iranian-Chinese parentage, and I’m a Muslim. I believe to this day I am considered a Lain-Lain. I have a letter from Mara which nicely sums up why I was rejected their scholarship as a nice reminder of this.

      It pains me to see people thinking that masuk Islam means masuk Melayu. Frankly, though, I’m a lot happier this way. I wouldn’t have been motivated to work hard for what I want if I knew that all my life I would be served on a silver platter.

      I just had to say this. Been reading too many comments of people who have the wrong idea.

  23. Anonymous Coward says:

    I’ve had this theory for quite some time and I’m a bit wary of sharing it with people outside of my trusted social sphere for fear of being judged unfairly for this view but… well, I believe that it’s an interesting perspective, even if it’s extremely emotionally charged.

    Here it is: I feel that bit by bit, the Malays – an ethnic group to which I belong, whether by choice or legislation – are turning themselves into the new Jews. Yes, I know, isn’t it an extremely racist thing to say? After all, depending on your viewpoint, what’s wrong with the Jews? Or, if you’re a die-hard Malay conservative, how dare you compare us to the Jews! But bear with me.

    The Jews, especially the Israelis, have an identity that is closely associated with their religion. If you’re born a Jew, you will forever be considered as a Jew, regardless of whether you have completely abandoned your faith in Judaism. You can see that the same mechanism is in place for the Malays: once you are a Malay, constitutionally defined as a Muslim, you will forever be considered as one. This puts a thorn into those who would like to leave their religion for whatever reason. The sociocultural expectations are always in place for the Malays, regardless of what they choose to be.

    Second, the practice of religion is tightly controlled. There is no room for the Malays to practise religion (i.e. Islam) as they see fit. The state- and federal-level religious control of the Malays is in juxtaposition to personal freedom supposedly guaranteed by the constitution. The way I see it, there is an interesting parallel to the Jews living in Israel and to the Malays living here.

    Third, there is an implicit understanding that there is an “us” versus “them”. In the Israeli situation, the “us” on one side are the Jews and on the other are the Arabs. It’s frightening to see how many parallels you can draw about their political structure and ours, that somehow the Malays have more rights than everybody else. This mentality has been drilled again and again into our collective psyche that there is almost no way for us to extricate ourselves from this distinction.

    Now, I can sense that some of you are seething in anger. My apologies, I do not mean to make you angry. I’m only trying to bring to attention how similar we are to what many of us call “our most hated enemy”. If we do not agree with the policies being practised in that region, then why are we practising some of that policy in our own land? Should we not extend the same kind of courtesy to our own set of minorities that we expect of the Jews to give to theirs?

    I suppose the question that is most pertinent is, what kind of nation do we want to build? Do we want to end up like the Israelis, democracy in name only but a theocracy for all intents and purposes? For their goal (that is, the formation and continued existence of a *Jewish* state) is close to some of the ideals espoused by our own leaders, that is to establish and maintain the existence of a Malay state or collective thereof. If we would like to see the Israelis extend a hand to their Arab citizens and our Muslim brothers, then perhaps we should take a long, hard look at ourselves. If we don’t, this Ketuanan Melayu and Malay first business is nothing more than Zionism, just with a different name and a different religion on its banners.

    • farha says:

      dear anonymous coward,

      thank you for speaking-up…don’t be surprised, there are malays out there who share your sentiment

    • JW Tan says:

      I think Israel is a far more democratic country than Malaysia. For one thing, it passes the democracy test – it has had at least two peaceful changes of government of different ideological persuasions. The BN doesn’t really have an ideology, except perhaps to stay in power.

      Secondly, it is a Malay-fostered myth that Muslim=Melayu, when in reality maybe Melayu=Muslim, but Muslim does not equal Melayu. In Israel, it is very clear that Jewish ethnicity does not necessarily equate to the Jewish religion. There are many secular Jewish people in Israel, and they have the same rights as the ultra-orthodox.

      Thirdly, Israel is the only country for people who want to self-identify as Jewish (ethnicity or religion). Malaysia isn’t even the only country for people who self-identify as Melayu, much less Muslim. So Israel is something of a special case, and it’s somewhat unreasonable to accuse them of being undemocratic for wanting to adopt a “Jewish” (in several senses) identity.

      But I agree with the broad thrust of your argument.

  24. Farisya says:

    I agree. Why are we judged by the colour of our skin, our religion, race? Everyone in this country deserves the fair share of the pie. I am half Malay, Sumatran and Portuguese descent. The only native peoples are the Orang Asli.They are the first owners of the land.

    • gua says:

      Umno, especially while under Mahathir, has fanned the racial divide. The greatest evil done by them is to instill hatred for other Malaysians by planting this seed during the BTN courses that are compulsory for those in government service.

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