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Malaysia in transition

Racial divisions still simmer ahead of Malaysia poll

Affirmative action policy little debated, but weighs with many voters

Prime Minister Najib Razak's message in Chinese highlights Malaysia's multi-ethnic culture, but divisions remain. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto)

KUALA LUMPUR -- For decades Malaysia has granted privileges to ethnic Malays and other indigenous races, or Bumiputera, under a policy of affirmative action for the majority group that is less wealthy than the country's ethnic Chinese minority. While this policy has created discontent among some groups, it has largely dropped out of the political debate ahead of general elections on May 9, even as parties battle over Bumiputera votes that represent nearly 70% of the population.

"There is always unfairness we feel," a 58-year-old retired ethnic Chinese man told the Nikkei Asian Review on Thursday, speaking of the affirmative action entrenched in what is officially known as The New Economic Policy, launched in 1970. He was attending an evening rally by the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, in a residential area of Kuala Lumpur, which drew about 1,000 people from diverse races. Together, they called for the defeat of Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition.

The retired man said he felt that the Chinese were treated as "second-class or third-class citizens." Although he said that the Bumiputera privilege policy did not affect him very much personally, he added: "We are all hoping that there will be some changes [in the Bumiputera policy]."

The opposition, led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, is much more popular among ethnic Chinese voters than the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional, or National Front. However, the opposition has promised in its manifesto to "restore the dignity of the Malays" and "support the economic growth of Bumiputera and all citizens," in a bid to attract Malays who voted for the ruling coalition in the last elections.

Malaysia had 28.7 million citizens in 2017, according to government estimates, of which 69% were Bumiputera, 23% Chinese, and 7% Indians. When it comes to household income, however, the median monthly gross household income for Chinese and Indians was 6,582 ringgit ($1,670) and 5,428 ringgit respectively in 2016, while that for Bumiputera was 4,846 ringgit. The various ethnic groups generally live in different areas and apartment blocks and go to different schools, while interracial marriages are rare.

This gap has entrenched Bumiputera privileges, such as priority in public sector jobs. "This country is Malay country. It is not a problem that government protects ethnic Malays," said Atan Othman, 47, a Malay driver in Kuala Lumpur, adding that there was no fighting between races.

While the opposition aims to obtain Bumiputera votes, the ruling coalition is keen on retaining its core supporters. Its manifesto spells out aids to Bumiputera while making little mention of ethnic Chinese and Indians. "We continue to emphasize the founding principle of this nation, which grants a special position to Bumiputeras and Muslim citizens, [and] will continuously be strengthened without persecuting other races," reads the manifesto.

"It is important that no 'Malay tsunami' will happen," Najib repeatedly said during the campaign, referring to a possible big shift of voters to the opposition.

Najib, who took the premiership in 2009, once embarked on reform of the pro-Bumiputera programs because they were considered to be hindering economic growth. But the reform effort has faded over the years. Many Chinese voters supported the opposition in the 2013 election, making the ruling coalition rely more on the Bumiputera community.

"Unlike in the 2008 election, where there was a sense of inclusive national identity, ethnic [centered] politics now dominate," said Bridget Welsh, associate professor in political science at John Cabot University.

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