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What’s that about Malay rights?

IF one were to take to heart everything top Umno leaders say, and what the Malay-language newspapers report on, Malay Malaysians are on the brink of political extinction. From being sidelined by the Pakatan Rakyat state governments to losing electoral power to non-Malay Malaysians, the Malays are doomed.

So goes the headlines in Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian as they echo the “Malay rights” rhetoric of Umno leaders from the deputy president to an Umno Youth bureau chairperson. From the rhetoric and reports, it seems that only one thing will save Malay Malaysians from losing their pole position in the country — uniting under Umno. Umno, as the narrative further goes, is the original defender of Malay rights and the backbone of the Barisan Nasional (BN), to boot.

But just how true is it that non-Malay Malaysians are threatening the political and economic survival of Malay citizens? And is it really true that supporting Umno alone guarantees that Malay Malaysians will not lose out?


Scan of Berita Harian

Scan of Berita Harian

It is undisputable, from the available evidence, that Umno leaders and the media under their control are trying to scare the bejesus out of the Malay Malaysian electorate. After all, how does one explain Berita Harian’s sensationally-erroneous front page headlines on 28 June 2010?

The headline announced in big bold letters, 1:40, to refer to the ratio of newly-registered Malay to non-Malay Malaysian voters. The report’s sub-title added that the ratio of newly-registered voters was “troubling”. The figure, provided by Umno Youth membership and voter registration bureau chairperson Hishamudin Yahya, wasn’t just disputed within Umno.

It was proven to be grossly inaccurate when the Election Commission pointed out that the correct ratio was actually 2:1 – there were twice the number of newly-registered Malay voters compared to non-Malay Malaysians.

One can brush aside the report and the figure as a careless mistake. But note how Hishamudin described the situation when releasing the information. The ratio, he declared, should jolt Malay Malaysians into realising that their political power could be “wiped out” if they didn’t register or vote.

And Hishamudin’s declaration is neither new nor peculiar to him. Just scan one day’s worth of news in Utusan Malaysia — for example, the 5 July 2010 edition — to see how both Umno and Utusan journalists are whipping up the fear that Malay Malaysians are close to having their power snatched away.

But really. How likely is it that Malay Malaysians are about to lose power in a country of more than 28 million where Malays alone, minus the other indigenous groups, constitute more than 53% of the population? Additionally, the second largest ethnic group, the Chinese, only represents 26% or half the Malay Malaysian population.

Tommy Thomas

Tommy Thomas

On top of that, as has been argued before by constitutional lawyer Tommy Thomas in 2007, “Defending Malay rights presupposes attack against the Malays, but who is attacking them?” He points out that external challenges can be totally discounted. At the same time, Malay political dominance has never been challenged or questioned by non-Malay Malaysians.

Further, he asks, how can Malay power and dominance be challenged by non-Malays when the army, police, civil service, the media, and nearly all major national and public institutions are in Malay Malaysian hands. How, indeed.

Umno’s loss

Apparently, it’s not just non-Malays who are threatening the Malays. According to Umno, the threat is also coming from other Malays, notably from the opposition. Parti Keadilan Rakyat advisor Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is, of course, chief among the threats to Malay power.

“The people should realise that Anwar is causing a split among the Malays,” Umno deputy president and Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin says.

Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal Abidin

Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal Abidin (public domain | Wiki Commons)

Not only that, Muhyiddin blames “a small section of the Malays”, who question government policies, for threatening Umno and the BN, noting that these Malay Malaysians supported the opposition, particularly the DAP. “The Malays should be united under one umbrella to ensure the agenda to develop them are achieved,” he says. Clearly that umbrella is Umno.

Safe to say, it would seem that what is really under threat is Umno’s power. After all, it’s tough to be out of power, to quote Umno Lembah Pantai chief Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal Abidin.

Who benefits?

Will Malay Malaysians really benefit if they support Umno? More importantly, will all Malaysians benefit if Umno remains in power?

Clearly, not everyone believes, and rightly so, what Muhyiddin says about Anwar being the cause of Malay disunity. Umno instead, is the culprit. Additionally, many economists have pointed out that it is under Umno/BN’s administration of the New Economic Policy that has resulted in Malay Malaysians continuing to be the poor’s majority. Additionally, the wealth disparity among Malays is the worst compared with the Chinese and Indian Malaysian communities despite years of Umno rule.

Most importantly, what Umno leaders are saying when it tells Malay Malaysians it cannot trust non-Malays, is that really, non-Malays cannot trust Umno either. See, by saying that Malays cannot trust non-Malay leaders to protect and uphold their interests, isn’t Umno also saying that non-Malays cannot trust Malay leaders? Why then should any non-Malay Malaysian trust that an Umno politician will care for our interest as citizens? If, according to Umno, political interest can only be upheld according to racial lines, why should non-Malay voters trust and vote for Umno?

Muhyiddin (left) and Najib

Muhyiddin (left) and Najib

Yes, Umno leaders may talk about Datuk Seri Najib Razak being everyone’s prime minister. And yes, Umno leaders may stress that there are elements of 1Malaysia in Umno’s constitution, including the provision for the creation of a single, strong Malaysian race. But yet, in the same breath, Umno deputy minister Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir and Muhyiddin have both urged Umno members to be bolder and vocal in demanding for Malay rights. After all, Umno’s raison d’être is Malay rights.

Umno wants to scare Malay Malaysians into believing that they are under siege. That is clearly a lie. But that’s not the only lie. Umno also wants Malay Malaysians to believe that only Umno can protect its interests. Does the evidence show that? As for the rest of us non-Malay Malaysians, do we believe it when Umno declares that it is capable of taking care of our rights as citizens, too?

Jacqueline Ann Surin would vote for any party or politician who promotes citizens’ rights and public interest regardless of the party or politician’s ethnic identity. She wonders why Umno hasn’t yet figured out that the way to win back support is to demonstrate that it will protect everyone’s rights, and not just the Malays’.

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20 Responses to “What’s that about Malay rights?”

  1. shanghailily says:

    Could somebody please do an article on “Malaysia without the Chinese and Indians’, say in 2020??

  2. cassandra says:

    Awesome writeup as usual, Jacqueline. Wholly agreed.

  3. Sean says:

    Good. 50% of Malaysians will think this is a great article and 50% will vehemently disagree. Nice easy article to write – like shooting fish in a barrel. The same thing goes for opposition politics in Malaysia: with the champions of a failed and repulsive solution to a previous problem of economic hegemony sticking to their guns, the opposition can ‘look good’ by merely criticising.

    Tommy Thomas is wrong. There’s no need to pre-suppose an attack at all, unless one closes one’s eyes to history. There was a group who had control of Malaysia’s economy and it was as big a problem here as it always is in any country where an enclave wields a power not supported by a head-count. It’s fair enough to point out Umno’s big lie, but this article joins a body of literature which together comprises a complementary tacit lie: that if the response to that earlier problem is undone, the earlier problem will not return.

    I think part of the manifest disaffection with Malaysian politics is the apparent bi-polar choice of hegemonies on offer. The BN-sponsored hegemony – to be fair to it – is explicit. The opposition hegemony is (deliberately?) nebulous. There appears to be the real chance that a change of government would result in a change of faces only and the continuation of the current hegemony. On the other hand if ‘reform’ means undo the attempt to convert one group’s hegemony into another group’s hegemony, it would take a concerted effort to ignore the evidence of history and believe that that previous hegemony will not simply return.

    Can we stop suggesting that Malays are always going to be all right because they have control of the gilded chairs and fancy dresses? Economic power is everything. Dismissing their genuine fear on the grounds that they can keep the consolation prize is no consolation at all.

    • Justin says:

      I have to say that your criticism of the article is unjustified in many ways.

      Firstly lets note that the article sets out to debunk myths about Malay rights that Umno and their newspapers are propagating at the moment.

      Secondly, it does not say anything about the opposition. So I am not quite sure what are you ranting on about. If you trying to recommend that The Nut Graph or the author explore the mis-truths that the opposition is propagating, then say it. No need to go on ranting aimlessly.

      Thirdly, I don’t get what is your problem with this article. What do you mean by “if the response to that earlier problem is undone, the earlier problem will not return”? What problem are you referring to? If you’re talking about the economic disparity that Malay Malaysians face, then you’re probably referring to the NEP as the response. The NEP, if you haven’t noticed, hasn’t been very successful. Furthermore, this article isn’t even advocating the abolishment of NEP or Malay rights. So I am not quite sure what response is being “undone” here.

      Lastly, the article is not dismissing real fears that Malay Malaysians have. It is dismissing the unfounded fears that Umno is trying to propagate. It is dismissing the myth that continuous support for Umno will improve their lives and protect them from non-Malay Malaysians, when in fact, based on history, disadvantaged Malay Malaysians continue to be disadvantaged.

      In brief, I am not quite sure why would you disagree with such an article and make claims that 50% of readers will take the same position as you.

      • Sean says:

        “50% of readers”
        Yes that was careless, I agree with you. While winding up to a good rant, I mistook polarised for a percentage and that’s an obvious error.

    • Hang Jebat says:

      Sean – If economic power is everything as you claim, why didn’t the Malaysian Chinese obliterate the Malaysian Malay population in 1957, 1963, 1969, or even today since they supposedly still control the economy – if the government is to be believed?

      Besides the “gilded chairs and fancy dresses”, Malaysian Malays control the parliament, civil service, police service, armed forces and the judiciary in greater numbers now than any other point in Malaysia’s history.

      While no one denies their fears, are these fears really grounded on facts or are they the irrationally stoked by demagogues from Umno and Perkasa who stand to make political mileage from them?

    • C. Moloney says:

      Right, so you are suggesting that controlling the government, the defence forces, the civil service, the health service (for the most part) and education (hardly consolation prizes, in my opinion), still places the Malay [Malaysians] n a weaker position because they are slightly in the minority when it comes to the economy? The Malays have had more than equal opportunities to remain and even surpass everyone else in ALL areas. Some have, the majority I think haven’t. However, that is no one’s fault but their own. I have many Malay friends who agree and who are frankly insulted that everyone else keeps making excuses for them. Besides, how long do you honestly think this economic power wielded by one enclave will remain so when so many of them are leaving the country as we speak? BN in power has done nothing for most Malaysians, including the Malays. I don’t know for sure if the Opposition will do any better but, after 53 years, I think we deserve the opportunity to find out.

      • Sean says:

        I agree with most of what you’ve written. The answers to the two questions are “yes” and the other question is more difficult, though I wonder if the architects of the redistribution policy didn’t ask exactly the same question.

        “we deserve the opportunity”
        I think discussing ‘the opposition’ is off-topic, and I’m sorry – that’s my fault. I am 100% supportive of the idea of voting for a complete change of government at the next General Election, if that helps.

    • Nobody is suggesting that Malay Malaysians are gonna be alright because they are in control of so many aspects of our government and public institutions. In fact, I don’t believe that the Malays in Malaysia will be alright at all if they continue to be dependent on the crutches offered by the BN government.

      What I am arguing is that the threat that some Malay Malaysians have conjured up for the community is not founded on anything that is real. If non-Malays were in control of the government and public institutions and constituted the overwhelming majority, then their fears may be “legitimate” as you have described. But since that is NOT the case, how can any of us reach the conclusion that their fears are real and legimitate?

      • Sean says:

        “At the same time, Malay political dominance has never been challenged” is not “nobody is suggesting…”. You are suggesting that the Malays are really all right because they have unchallenged political dominance. Political dominance is precisely meaningless unless it can also deliver economic dominance – otherwise, there’s no material fact of dominance.

        What I am arguing is that both you and Tommy Thomas are denying a fact of history which does lend credibility to people like Ibrahim Ali and Mahathir. Your ‘if’ relies on a sleight-of-hand where you imply that control of public institutions which does not extend to interference in the private sector can be somehow balanced against economic control. The fact of Malaysian history is that such a laissez-faire public sector cannot effectively counter-balance the private sector. Economic dominance by a non-Malay minority was a fact in Malaysia. Since nobody appears to be offering a decent solution to the original problem, I think any Malaysian with a long memory or an interest in history has a perfectly legitimate concern (or fantasy, depending on outlook) that history will repeat itself.

        It is that legitimate concern that the proponents of ‘Malay rights’ use as the fuel for their rhetoric. No, they don’t make exactly the same argument – it would not be in their selfish interest to do so. I am not defending their cause. I only wish to point out that there is a basis for ‘legitimate fear’ which will both polarise and stunt political development in Malaysia until that legitimate fear is adequately addressed. ‘Malay rights’ is an inadequate solution. Pretending the problem doesn’t exist is not better.

        • Justin says:

          Again you’re going back to your original argument. Don’t you get it, this article is not really out there to defend Malay rights or suggest that political dominance of Malay Malaysians is a long term solution. The whole point of it is to debunk the FUD that is being propagated to justify and strengthen Malay rights.

          You’re arguing why Malay rights as of the moment is not a good solution but that is not the point of the article.

          Furthermore, I would like ask you to point out where does the author suggest that political dominance is sufficient. You seem to be putting words into the author’s mouth.

          You are criticizing the current social economic state of Malaysia which is not what this article is trying to address. I think you’re getting the wrong thing out of this article and going off in a complete tangent from the purpose and message that this article is trying to convey.

          Lastly, you seem to be quite focused on economic “dominance” like it is some zero sum game where you’re pitting non-Malay Malaysians vs Malay Malaysians against each other. Malay Malaysians don’t need dominance of the economy, what they want is economic equality with the other races.

          Rather than looking at this problem from a racial point of view why not see it for what it is, economic inequality. “Dominance” is in fact is a bad thing in this case because it would mean inequality.

          • Sean says:

            “debunk the FUD”
            Fear, uncertainty and doubt
            FUD is the point. I imagine that fear, uncertainty and doubt works very well for Umno, and it is exactly because – certainly in the case of their hard-core supporters – there is genuine cause for fear, uncertainty and doubt. It isn’t possible to ‘debunk’ it unless you believe the underlying decades-old, waning, but still apparent cause is not bunk. If you believe it is bunk, you are mistaken. I think Tommy Thomas is.

            “I would like ask you to point out”
            No. Type Ctrl-F or / or whatever opens in-page search in the browser you are using, copy-and-paste the quote from the comment you replied to and read the section of the article I’m quoting. The author puts the words in her own article after “On top of that, as has been…”. It’s not a neutral reference to another’s point of view.

            “economic “dominance” like it is some zero sum game”
            I think it would do nobody any good to discuss this article in terms of game theory. While you may be able to construct a game that supports your statement, simple models that appeal to voters such as “slices of pie” and “percent” are zero-sum by definition.

            “Rather than looking at this problem from a racial point of view why not see it for what it is, economic inequality”
            The article’s point is to declaim racial rabble-rousing, isn’t it? I agree with such a view 100%! The article mentions ‘economic’ in terms of ‘survival’ and the NEP. Where do you think the idea of ‘economic survival’ as a campaign platform came from? If we look at the present day, it does look like an iffy proposition: Umno appears to more or less own everything and (so the popular rumour has it) anybody else is leaving for distant shores. ‘Economic survival’ really doesn’t look like a cause that’s crying for a champion, does it? ‘Malay economic survival’ is a problem from 40 years ago. Not all voters of that time (and not all politicians) are yet dead. The stories have certainly not been forgotten.

            I think the ‘threat’ that Tommy Thomas has missed is the prospect of an old problem returning which the NEP hasn’t really fixed, but only biased. All that the proponents of ‘Malay rights’ have to do is point out that ‘Malay rights’ is the only solution on the table. I don’t believe it was (or is) the only response – it’s clearly not a solution. The only alternative currently on offer appears to be some murmurs of removal of the bias – and here I agree with the ‘Malay rights’ supporter and fully expect the old problem to return. I believe they are justified in being afraid, which explains (if it doesn’t excuse) the Malay rights proponent employing the ugly and superficially anachronistic rhetoric.

            This is where I believe the article is not balanced – yes “Malay Malaysians are under siege” is a big lie, but only if you pay attention to the tense: present. Perhaps one should also forget that there’s a great diversity of experiences of how far from siege are members of that group. That’s the effect of the bias of Malay rights. That bias wasn’t there once, and there was a problem. Future removal of that bias is associated (whether fairly or by political convenience) with Umno’s opposition, and hence Umno champions it. I don’t have an issue with TNG articles that moan about keris-waving, but I do think you have to be drinking the Kool-Aid to claim the phenomenon is totally without external cause.

          • Justin says:


            The point of the debunking is that not to say that Malay Malaysian economic inequality is bunk. It is to say that that UMNO and its newspapers are propogating fears that are UNJUSTIFIED. Seriously, you need to read the article. Example: The 1:40 Malay Malaysian to non-Malay Malaysian registered voters. If that is not pure FUD I don’t know what is? You’re saying that FUD like that is justified? There are genuine fears but the ones being propogated as of the moment is not. The point of the article is to point out the unjustified FUD. How hard is that to understand?

            The way I interpret the part after “On top of that, as has been…” is very simple. In addition to the evidence given, Malay Malaysians hold a political dominance that no one is denying them therefore the fear being propogated which is “Malay Malaysians are on the brink of political extinction” is BS. This evidence fits in well with the 1:40 ratio FUD. The argument here is not that Malay Malaysians will be OK because of the have their political dominance alone. Like I said earlier you’re arguing for something else entirely that is beyond this article.

            I don’t think you understand economics at all. When I said it is not some “zero sum game” it doesn’t mean I am constructing some fancy economic game theory or some such model. What I am saying is that in economics just because someone is well off it doesn’t deny someone else a good life too. Just because non-Malay Malaysians might be better off monetarily than Malay Malaysians this does not stop them from getting wealthier. Therefore the idea of economic dominance does not hold much water. The way you use economic dominance is as if non-Malay Malaysians are fighting with Malay Malaysians over set “slices of [a] pie” and I am saying this is not true.

            The pie depends on the productivity and value-add of the work done by everyone. So if Malay Malaysians gain the skills and confidence to do highly productive and value-add work they will be able to earn as much if not more than non-Malay Malaysians. It doesn’t only benefit Malay Malaysians it benefits everyone because if Malay Malaysians earn more they have more spending power and therefore they will be able to purchase more goods and services. Businesses in Malaysia in general will earn more profits out of this. More jobs will be created and so on. So which part of this is zero sum I am not quite sure.

            The politicians are the ones that make it so but that is not reality. So don’t buy into their FUD and lies.

            The criticism of Jimmy is unjustified because Jimmy is not talking about Malay Malaysian well being in general. He is just commenting that Malay Malaysian political dominance is not about to disappear any time soon.

            The NEP hasn’t fixed the problem then what difference if it is there or not? You argue that the NEP doesn’t work and then you turn around and argue that if it is abolished the old problem will come back. The problem has been around all the time. There is no bias for the people whose lives that have not been improved by the NEP, they are still poor. The bias is for those people who are too blinded by what the politicians say.

            Furthermore, no where in the article does it say that the NEP should be abolished. I am not even sure where you get that “The only alternative currently on offer appears to be some murmurs of removal of the bias” Where does that come from? Please show some sources? Yes I will admit some people want it to be abolished however that are also many that want it to be improved so that it covers all economically disadvantaged Malaysians regardless of race and make it more effective by eliminating corruption and waste from the program. Is that not another alternative on offer?

            The article is not meant to cover everything under the sun. Balanced reporting by the way doesn’t mean the reporter must report everything and anything. Reporters should investigate the truth of the matter and if there are two or more equally convincing arguments or evidences the reporter should discuss them and not pick one that they fancy.

            The article is about debunking UNJUSTIFIED FUD regarding the diminishing political dominance of Malay Malaysians, that is all. It does not say that Malay Malaysians are OK or not whether they retain their political dominance. That is not part of the article, it is something that you have conjured up in your comments and justified it by taking parts of the article out of context and interpreted it as you see fit. Again, I reiterate you’re arguing for something that is not directly related to the article and you don’t have a good justification for slamming the article and the author as unbalanced […]

  4. pilocarpine says:

    Umno’s relevance in this time is that their experience in running the country grossly outplays the young immature PR crowd … otherwise their hypocrisy in defending any rights of the people, Malays or otherwise, is just too obvious not to see.

  5. John Malott says:

    Jacqueline, thank you for an informative and excellent analysis.

    Just as your article was published,the Merdeka Centre released a survey which found that 70% of Malay respondents said that corruption among the community’s leaders was the main threat to the Malays’ political position, as opposed to demands made by other races.

    It reminds me of the famous quote by “Pogo,” an American cartoon character. Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

  6. stewoolf says:

    I believe that the American and Israel Jews, through Apco, pose greater threats to Muslim Malay’s interests in Malaysia than the Chinese Malaysian. (My personal projection is that by 2030, the Chinese Malaysians will constitute less than 10% of Malaysian population due to falling birth rate and increasing emigration.)

    If you believe my statement is a joke, then the Umno’s fear mongering is a bigger one.

  7. Shrimp Warrior says:

    Will there be a Bahasa Malaysia translation of this article? I think that’s desperately needed.

  8. Malaysian First says:

    PM Najib is in a dilemma as being a veteran politician, he knows that Umno is in dire need of reform. At the same, he knows that he cannot ignore the non-Malay [Malaysian] votes, especially those in Sabah and Sarawak.

    That is the reason why many Malaysians are skeptical about his 1Malaysia, due to the contradictory messages coming out from Umno, especially Perkasa (although Perkasa is not part of Umno, but certain Umno leaders are perceived to be in support of them). I believe Dr Mahathir had much higher support from the non-Malays when he unveiled his Vision 2020 in 1990. That is the reason why we are now seeing more concerted efforts to raise the well-used weapon of instilling fear into the Malays (especially those in the rural and small towns) that they are under “threat”.

    As the next GE draws closer, we will see more of these rhetoric, especially by Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian.

    During the last three years, I have had the good opportunity of working in a company dominated by Malay [Malaysians] (non-Malays only constitute 15%), and it is an eye-opener for me. Most of my Malays colleagues are professionals (mostly lawyers, finance and accounts executives). They are confident and do not easily believe in what the government and politicians preach. In fact, some of them are so fed up with the current situation in the country and are even considering working overseas or settling abroad with their families. What surprises me is that these group of young (mostly in their 30s and early 40s) Malays are no longer worried about going abroad and living without the protection of the so-called “Malay rights”. They have studied abroad and dealt with foreigners in their day-to-day work.

    In my opinion, the Umno-led BN is most worried about this new group of young Malay voters because unlike their parents, there is no certainty that they will continue to vote for Umno and the BN. I believe this is one of the many consideration PM Najib will take into account before deciding whether an early GE will be advantageous to Umno and the BN to avoid taking any chances with a few hundred thousands young voters, both Malay and non-Malay.

    • Ellese A says:

      To the contrary. There has been more and more Malay [Malaysian] professionals who are unhappy with the push to the left of our nation by Pakatan. They have become more and more right. What they are seeing is that they are pushed to give more and more yet others are not required too. Why is it they are bombarded as racists if they ask for NEP but those preserving the cause of NEP (Chinese economic dominance through racial business practices) are not? Why is a Malay fighting for Malay rights racist when Chinese protecting their culture and language are not? The apex was the Allah issue when practices of the minority is preferred for over practices of the majority. Worse, the Christian friends that they saw don’t even use BM as their language yet suddenly become champions of the language. These are genuine simmering dissatisfaction among Malay professionals as well.

      What is wrong with the article by Jacqueline is not so much the content. It’s the agenda which is very bias and thus like a pot calling the kettle black. It’s trying to depict again the government as unreasonable, unfair, racist and without integrity, while Pakatan as principled, true and non-discrimnatory.

      That’s why we will never get here an article criticising Anwar’s integrity when he led thousands on an anti-Zionist crusade and then apologise for it among his Jewish friends. Similarly the blatant lie by Pakatan that Felda is bankrupt. Nut Graph condemns Utusan and Berita Harian for being one-sided and but they too do the same. It’s like Malaysian Insider crying for freedom of speech when the Suara Keadilan is disbarred from publishing when they blatantly censor many of my comments critical of them.

      I can’t understand why we in Malaysia can’t be balanced. Why can’t we move to the centre. Why can’t journalists cover events deeper.

  9. Mitch says:

    I really wish our politicians could let go of the “rights” mentality. There is only one “rights” they should be standing up for, which is Malaysian rights. Enough already on who will lead better because of [this or that]. The fact is, I don’t care. I am looking for a party that will put aside all the race issues and look at us all as ONE. There are no differences between Malay, Chinese, Indian and “dan lain-lain” – we are all MALAYSIAN.

    Grow up, Umno!

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