Ellis Calvin

The March of Racial Progress in Malaysia


Illustration by Ellis Calvin

“Believing in progress does not mean believing that any progress has yet been made.” —Franz Kafka

In the United States, there’s a tendency to congratulate ourselves on becoming, or at least moving toward, a post-racial society. We have a sense that progress is the blurring of lines between racial identities. We can look back over the last century of our history and see the melting pot at work, merging together different European ethnicities, passing civil rights legislation, and slowly, slowly integrating parts of our society. Americans see this as the natural result of a progressive and modern society, where backwards traditions are gradually left behind.

Racial identity and ideology in Malaysia has had a very different trajectory. Malaysia has a majority ethnic Malay population, with a large Chinese minority and a smaller but still significant Indian population. The concept of race was introduced only with British colonization in the mid-19th century, but today race is at the core of the country’s society and politics. Instead of slowly fading away, the divisions between Malaysia’s races have remained firmly entrenched in the nation’s psyche, with most unaware that it’s a relatively new phenomenon.

The Malay Peninsula is arguably the most advantageous point for trading in Asia, and has long been a place for the exchange and mixing of cultures. Starting in the 13th century, the Chinese, Indians, and Arabs founded trading posts up and down the peninsula, and in the early 16th century Europeans arrived and founded trading posts as well. Early in the 19th century the British acquired the port city of Malacca from the Dutch, who had acquired it from the Portuguese. From Malacca and the British trading settlements on Penang and Singapore, British hegemony eventually spread over the whole southern part of the Malay Peninsula. The industries established by the British on the peninsula boomed, and the colonial authorities’ hands-off immigration policy led to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of workers from other parts of the Malay Archipelago, southern China, and southeastern India. Most of the first wave of immigrants were men, many of whom assimilated into Malay culture and married native Malay women. Peranakan, which means “native-born” in Malay, was the name given to the multi-racial peoples, usually Chinese-Malay, but also Indian-Malay and to some extent Euro-Malay.

The intermingling of different ethnic groups on the peninsula became problematic from the standpoint of the British Empire, so the British developed a census that divided the population of the Malay Peninsula into four racial categories: European, Malay, Chinese, and Indian. There was no category for peranakan or other multi-racial groups, and consequently the census forced them to choose which race they identified with. The census was central to the establishment of racial identity in Malaya, and, as the Malaysian historian Farish Noor puts it, “afforded a sense of pseudo-scientific credibility to what was essentially a policy of divide and rule.”

The colonial authorities managed to divide the peninsula into separate economies segregated by race. The European racial ideology of the time established that race determined one’s inherent behavior and potential. Not only would a segregated Malaya be easier to control, the British concluded, but each race could be put to work according to their abilities. Thus the Malays mostly worked in subsistence farming in rural villages (as they had done traditionally), the Indians lived and worked on British plantations, and the Chinese engaged in mining and small commercial agricultural enterprises. The British co-opted the Malay ruling class, making everyone from sultans to village headmen part of the colonial administrative structure and quickly replacing any defiant local authorities. The Chinese and Indians on the peninsula were kept in check mostly through their employers—plantations, mining, and railroad companies that were either British-owned or Chinese-owned under British influence. Each group had its own power structure, each ultimately under the control of the colonial authorities. The British had another motivation in segregating the division of labor: keeping wages low by suppressing collective action. An 1895 colonial journal advises employers on the peninsula,

To secure your independence, work with Javanese and Tamils and, if you have sufficient experience, also with Malays and Chinese; you can then always play the one against the other […] In case of a strike, you will never be left without labour, and the coolies of one nationality will think twice before they make their terms, if they know that you are in a position that you can do without them.
By ensuring the division of labor along racial lines, the colonial authorities were able to keep wages low and therefore maximize profits for the Empire.

Noor laments that “perhaps the most damaging feature of the colonial census was its capacity to erase and deny the legacy of cultural borrowing and cross-fertilization among…the peranakan communities.” Before the colonial census was established, Malays did not have the notion of a unified Malay identity; instead, they identified more strongly with their place of origin or with their allegiance to a particular local ruler than to the “Malay nation.” The early colonial censuses remained true to the self-identification of the Malay peoples: these censuses included subcategories under “Malay race” such as “Krinchi” and “Jambi,” which are place names on Sumatra, not ethnicities. However, the arrival of Western racial theory forcibly united ethnic Malays, as it united Chinese and Indians, while pitting each group against each other. The ethno-nationalist United Malays National Organization (UMNO), founded in 1946, advocated for independence of the Malay Peninsula as an ethnic Malay nation. In the meantime, the colonial authorities were fighting a jungle war against the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), a group comprised mostly of ethnic Chinese. Although the MCP had led the insurgency against the Japanese occupation a decade earlier, the party (and to a certain extent the Chinese, by association) came to symbolize the greatest threat to the fledgling nation. UMNO formed the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), parties controlled in large part by Chinese and Indian business interests. The BN coalition has held power since independence in 1957.

Racial tensions escalated through the first years of independence until in 1969, a group of Chinese in Kuala Lumpur celebrating the results of a political election were attacked by a group of Malays and major rioting ensued. That the results of the 1969 federal election were at the core of the riots demonstrates the growing racial political divide. For their complicity in pro-Malay policies, the MCA and MIC lost support from their constituents, who handed big victories to the Democratic Action Party (a Chinese socialist party) and the Malaysian Islamic Party.

After being booted from UMNO for his criticism of then-Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s handling of the 1969 race riots, a politician named Mahathir bin Mohammad set out to write down his thoughts on the racial dynamic of Malaysia. His book, The Malay Dilemma, is a wholly unscientific work of social Darwinism and racial stereotypes reminiscent of the British imperialist rhetoric of 70 years earlier. Mahathir takes for granted the idea that race determines not only appearance and culture but inherent behavior and abilities as well. In the book he claims that millennia of famine and strife made the Chinese industrious and ambitious, while the Malays existed in a bountiful tropical paradise that made them lazy and complacent. In two of the most alarming passages, he writes,

[For the Malays] no great exertion or ingenuity was required to obtain food. There was plenty for everyone throughout the year. Hunger and starvation, a common feature in countries like China, were unknown in Malaya. Under these conditions everyone survived. Even the weakest and least diligent were able to live in comparative comfort, to marry and procreate. The observation that only the fittest would survive did not apply, for the abundance of food supported the existence of even the weakest.


For the Chinese people, life was one continuous struggle for survival. In the process the weakest in mind and body lost out to the strong and resourceful. For generation after generation, for four thousand years, this weeding out of the unfit went on, aided and abetted by the consequent limitation of survival of the fit only. But, as if this was not enough to produce a hardy race, Chinese customs decreed that marriage should not be within the same clan, in direct contrast to the Malay partiality towards inbreeding.

Mahathir argues that unless the government provides special treatment for the Malays, they will eventually be wiped out by the Chinese. Despite initially being banned, the book became hugely popular and his proposals were eventually implemented by the same party that had previously expelled him. The New Economic Policy, as it’s called, is possibly the most radical affirmative action program in the world. Malays were given large quotas at public universities and businesses, and even given discounts on real estate.

Mahathir, welcomed back into UMNO, served as prime minister for 22 years beginning in 1981. The New Economic Policy officially ended in 1990, but most of its measures remain in effect today. The numbers show that the program may have had some success in increasing equity between ethnic Malays and non-Malays, and especially in decreasing poverty rates, but it may also have inculcated a sense of racial entitlement and privilege among young Malays. The NEP policies have also further alienated the Chinese and Indian communities. Officially the government line is that Malaysia needs to break down its racial barriers—the current prime minister launched a campaign called 1Malaysia whose goal is to unite the country into a bangsa Malaysia, or “Malaysian race”—yet through policies like the NEP the BN ensures that it will not.1

Is this just a different form of racial progress, one which diverges from our American notion? In the same time period that the United States went from the end of slavery to a multi-racial president, Malaysia saw the introduction and imposition of racial ideology that became the premise of its national history. The trend since independence has been toward continuing or even deepening racial divisions, but it’s important to note there are signs that the process may be reversing. The country’s radical affirmative action policies are less and less popular, even with Malays. The internet, which enjoys more freedom than traditional media in Malaysia, has allowed criticism of race-based government policies. Although the 2008 general election returned the BN to power, non-racially affiliated opposition parties received nearly 47 percent of the vote and, for the second time in history, more than a third of seats in Parliament. These signs would seem to indicate that a universal idea of racial progress, one which involves the disassembling of racial barriers, may prevail after all.

1 These policies that reinforce racial divisions are also evident in the design of Malaysia’s new capital city, Putrajaya, about which I’ve written previously.

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