Malaysia is a country that is engaged in constant balancing act–several of them, actually, all at once. Geographically, Malaysia balances two distinct regions separated by the South China Sea: Peninsular Malaysia (West Malaysia), which is the populated, urban hub of the nation, and Malaysian Borneo (East Malaysia) whose many, many animal species help make Malaysia one of the world’s few megadiverse countries. Religiously, Malaysia balances its Muslim majority (60% of Malaysians–only Sunni Islam is allowed) with its Buddhists (20%) and other religious minorities. Ethnically, Malaysia is exceedingly conscious about balancing the rights and privileges of indigenous Malaysian people, known as the “bumiputra,” (60% of the population) with those of Chinese Malaysians (25%) and others. (The distinction of “bumiputra” includes ethnic Malays as well as several non-Malay indigenous groups. Being considered bumiputra is very important in Malaysia. More about about that below.)
Before western colonizers began arriving in Malaysia–first the Portuguese (in 1511), then the Dutch, then eventually the British, who ruled Malaysia from 1795 until 1957–Indian and Chinese settlers had been present on the peninsula for fifteen hundred years. They established ports and towns and used the Malaysian peninsula as a regional trading hub. Most people on the peninsula became Hindu or Buddhist. For several centuries a succession of Indonesia-based empires ruled Malaysia, during which time many Malaysians converted to Islam. When the Westerners arrived they didn’t support conversion to Christianity with as much vigor as they did in other countries in the region; today only about 10% of Malaysians are Christian.
The British ruled Malaysia in a number of small parts for a century and a half (Penang, Malacca, Singapore, etc.). Only after a Japanese occupation during World War II did several Malaysian states come together in 1946 to form the Malayan Union. In 1957 Malaya became independent, and in 1963 Malaya united with Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah to become Malaysia.
The initial few years of independence were difficult for Malaysia, especially those immediately following the unification in 1963. Until 1966 Malaya/Malaysia and Indonesia fought an undeclared war over the future of Borneo. Indonesia’s leader at the time, Sukarno, concerned the British declaration of an independent Malaysia was a deceptive tactic intended to solidify colonial control in the region, was intent on evicting them from Borneo. Eventually the two sides came to somewhat of a stalemate and signed a peace accord in 1966, resulting in a shared Borneo. (Read Wikipedia’s “Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation” page for a blow-by-blow account of this labyrinthine conflict.)
The real internal conflict in Malaysia was the struggle between minority Chinese Malaysians and majority ethnic Malays. Historically, Chinese-descended Malaysians were more urban and economically advantaged than their ethnic Malay counterparts. With Malaysian unity and eventually independence, ethnic Malays became the dominant group, creating an imbalance with the previously dominant Chinese Malaysians. The tension came to a head several times in the early ’60s. In Singapore in 1964 Chinese Malaysians and ethnic Malay’s fought one either. Singapore, which was primarily composed of Malaysians of Chinese descent withdrew from Malaysia in part because of these tensions. On May 13, 1969 Chinese Malaysians and ethnic Malay rioted violently against each other in the Kuala Lumpur streets. The government eventually regained control, in the process declaring a national emergency and suspending parliament until 1971.
After the May 13 riots the Malaysian government took swift and substantial action to address the nation’s cultural inequities. First, Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak introduced the New Economic Policy, which codified “affirmative action” for the ethnic Malays and other bumiputra. Then the government also stepped into the cultural arena with the “National Cultural Policy,” which defined three principles as guidelines for “national culture”:
“1. The National Culture must be based on the indigenous [Malay] culture
2. Suitable elements from the other cultures may be accepted as part of the national culture
3. Islam is an important component in the molding of the National Culture.”
Non-Malay ethnic groups like Chinese and Indian Malaysians resented this government intervention in the nation’s culture and economy, yet the Malaysian government continued to play an increasingly prominent role in it citizens’ private lives.
In the 1980s Muhathir bin Mohamad, a non-aristocratic Muslim of Malay-Indian descent known colloquially as “Dr. M,” led the country through a period of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Malaysia soared financially, replacing agricultural work with computers and electronics. During this time Malaysia’s cities transformed into modern urban wonders, full of mega shopping centers and international chain stores. Kuala Lumpur grew with such speed that skyscrapers seemed to be springing up daily, including the world’s largest buildings at the time, the twin Petronas Towers.
Yet at the same time as Malaysia embraced shopping malls, consumer goods and other manifestations of modernity, the government solidified its role as ethnic, cultural and economic mediator. The government has specifically concerned itself with the behavior of the ethnic Malays. Article 160 of the Constitution declares that all ethnic Malays are considered to be Muslim, and are therefore required to follow the decisions of Islamic Shariya courts in decisions that have to do with their religion, like marriage, divorce and religion conversion. The nation’s “religious police” have the power to arrest ethnic Malays on moral infractions, and, since civil courts in Malaysia don’t decide matters that have to do with Islam, those who disobey the rules of Islam, as interpreted by Malaysia’s
government, face Shariya justice.
Today Malaysia continues to walk a line between being an internationally savvy economic powerhouse and an ultra-intrusive state that micromanages its people’s morals. Though Muhathir bin Mohamad resigned as prime minister in 2003 his legacy as someone who led the country boldly along this line remains strong. For the foreseeable future Malaysia seems as if it will to continue to actively manage its ethnic, religious and cultural diversity as a way to make its way in the world.
Wikipedia on Malaysia | Megadiverse Malaysia is home to Indochinese tigers, the clouded leopard, the Sumatran Rhinoceros, the Malayan tapir, the Sambar deer, sunbears, Sunda Otter Civits, Bornean orangutans, Proboscis monkeys and yes, even Gaurs | Malaysia’s Mega-diversity Under Threat (pdf) | Malaysia’s rapid deforestation | The 1963-1966 Indonesian-Malaysian conflict through Australian eyes | Despite its being a democracy, Malaysia is also a monarchy: All hail the Yang di-Perturan Agong!! | Brunei carves out a little section of Malaysian Borneo | They usually say, “Don’t try this at home,” but if you’re going to try this anywhere, definitely don’t try this on the Petronas towers.