The Bumiputera as a Political Creation: Analysing Malay Identity in a Globalising Malaysia by Terence Tsang


In the 2013 Malaysian General Elections, the coalition of political parties collectively known as Barisan Nasional (BN), which has ruled politically since Malaysia’s independence, found its rule heavily contested by the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR). Within their competing visions laid out to gain the support of the people, one issue that emerged as a point of contention was that of the bumiputera, revealing the parties’ view of the Malay people’s identification with the ‘Malay’ identity. The label of bumiputera (lit. son of the soil) has been used by the government since Malaysia’s inception in 1957 to categorise Malay citizens, creating the largest racial group in the multicultural nation. The term is most commonly encountered when discussing the affirmative action policies known collectively as the Bumiputera policy, officially termed the New Economic Policy (NEP), which provides preferential treatment to Malays identifying as bumiputera. The driving force behind this politics of race lies in Malaysia’s colonial history, and an Orientalist lens – the lens used by Edward Said in Orientalism to dissect Western-created representations – can be brought to bear as a tool to examine the state-driven development of the ‘Malay’ identity.

In rejecting the race-based NEP (PR Manifesto 2013), it is apparent that the political opposition sees limits to how far the Malay identity will continue to be the primary binding force for the Malay people as Malaysia strives towards a globalised first-world status. John Tomlinson argues that the general effect of globalisation has been to create a multiplicity of identities, unbounded by state institutions or national borders (Tomlinson 2003: 273). This paper will advance that in Malaysia such an effect is weakening the state’s hold on a singular and homogenous racial identity, and so eroding ideas based on Orientalist principles, allowing for a more diversified individual identity, and a greater sense of pluralism.

The Origin of Racial Categories in British Malaya

The division of Malaysia along racial lines did not originate with the BN, which strengthened the Malay identity as bumiputera post-Independence. Rather, the idea that people could be organised by ‘race’, a permanent essence based on perceived traits, was introduced by the British colonial power to the Malay states that would later become Malaysia. The idea of racial essentialisation stems from the Orientalist outlook, described by Edward Said – the British mode of managing Malaya. By Said’s analysis, thinking in terms of racial essences came naturally to the colonial powers when they viewed their subject people as objects to be studied and managed; the subjects could be essentialised into the ‘Chinese Man’, or the ‘Arab Man’, with the implicit understanding that only their own race belonged to ‘Man’, the collection of normal behaviours, from which all other races deviated and could be corrected by colonial rule (Said 1979: 97). Certainly, race as identity did not feature prominently in the identities of the native people before colonisation in the early 19th century; even up to 1931 the census taker in the Malay states reported frustration that the native people “[had] themselves no clear conceptions of race” (Milner 2011: 120). The concept had to be pushed by the ruling power, assisted by the seemingly innocuous bureaucratic practice of census-taking, though really a tool introduced in 1871 to organise colonial subjects. All indigenous people speaking the common Malay language, no matter their actual diversity, were collated as one newly created ‘Malay’ race, and any interaction with the colonial powers then meant presenting oneself primarily by race (Shamsul 1996: 482).

Orientalism as a “system of knowledge” constructs reality as perceived by those who subscribe to it – it becomes “an accepted grid for filtering” knowledge of the subject – and Said summarises Orientalism as a mode of discourse whereby all conversations, in any form, takes Orientalist ‘knowledge’ and methods of analysis as an unconscious background (Said 1979: 3, 6, 94). By viewing themselves as opposed to an established Other, drawing boundaries and defining themselves as opposed to an “alter ego”, the Orientalist’s own identity is similarly created by the same discourse (332). Within British Malaya, a similar process of identity creation can be observed in parallel for the Malay people. Through the lens of Said’s analytical tools, the ‘Malay’ identity can be seen as shaped by the race-based discourse set in place by Orientalist bureaucratic and civic institutions. The ‘Malay’ identity is taken to be the British-defined Malay racial essence, and set in opposition to other races, in particular the Chinese – immigrants who profited during colonialism while the indigenous people united through the sense of being “left behind” (Milner 2011: 110). In time, the natives internalised the concept and accepted their own labelling as one homogenous ‘Malay’ race, through both the presence of colonial bureaucratic institution, like the census, and civic institutions, particularly in the form of a “Western-oriented” education system that separated the ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’, and ‘Indian’ (Shamsul 1996: 482). Thus, from a pre-colonial concept of identity that depended on birthplace or region, such as the ‘Bintulu’ or ‘Orang Kuala’ (lit. people of the river-mouth), and that possessed little sense of permanence (Milner 2011: 96), under colonial rule the indigenous subjects in Malaya were organised as, and accepted, the Oriental concept of a singular racial essence, a created representation of permanent traits.

Defining the Bumiputera in Post-Independence Malaysia

To understand the continued development of the Malay identity even after colonial rule, we must recognise that the relinquishing of colonial rule did not mean the state relinquished the Orientalist race-based discourse that colonial experience had gifted the newly formed Malaysia. Post-Independence, the idea of race as a category was developed and formalised further by the ruling coalition that positioned itself as a defender of Malay supremacy. Enshrined in Article 160 of the Constitution is the definition of the Malay – the indigenous people, the bumiputera. To be ‘Malay’ means “a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, [and] conforms to Malay custom…” This definition defines the scope of Article 153, in which “the special position of the Malays” will be safeguarded. The term bumiputera, promoted by the ruling Malay government, at once denotes the native Malay people and connotes them as the sole inheritors of the land – the legitimate inhabitants (Derichs 2002: 47). The bumiputera label then has two implications: first being that the line dividing identities in the nation-state is set as racial in nature, and the other being that other races, the non-bumiputera, are illegitimate inhabitants, merely visitors. In other words, orang pendatang (lit. immigrant), a pejorative made infamous by its use by a BN parliamentarian to refer to all non-Malay racial groups in Malaysia (Mauzy 1987: 238). The “special position” of the bumiputera justified the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1971, which allocated economic benefits to people who identified with the state’s definition, and positioned race as an all-important category in the everyday lives of people (Shamsul 2001: 364). The national Malay identity thus continued to be shaped by racial lines and along familiar Orientalist principles – the boundaries drawn by a state definition of each race’s essence, and the Malay race then set in opposition to all the other non-Malay races, by virtue of having a common homeland where their destiny is to prosper (Shamsul 1995: 63) if not for the alien racial groups that occupied their rightful land.

Furthermore, since Independence and under BN, schools continued and expanded (a racial quota favouring the bumiputera in university admissions was implemented in 1973) the colonial era practice of division along language lines – a state-endorsed separation of races through language, in particular the ‘Malay’ indigenous people from all others. Notably, in an Al Jazeera interview with Dr Mahathir, former Prime Minister of Malaysia and BN leader, he justified the policy of setting up separate Chinese and Indian schools as merely “supporting the language of the immigrants” (‘101 East’) – an Orientalist outlook that regards the Chinese and Indian communities as a permanent Other. Through BN’s policies, both bureaucratic and civic institutions were set to shape and entrench the national discourse, which defines the identity of the people. As government policies identify all individuals only in terms of race, the consequence is that “no ‘neutral’ or ‘nonethnic’ role or culture… exists for Malaysians”, and the population thinks of themselves first by race, and then as Malaysians (Nagata 1974: 347). Up to 2013, the manifesto of BN positions BN as a defender of bumiputera rights throughout its rule, and promises to enhance “the effectiveness of the Bumiputera agenda” if re-elected (BN Manifesto 2013). Since Malaysia has historically maintained a majority of Malays (Leete 1996: 18), positioning themselves as the defender of Malay racial supremacy has served BN well when the Malay people primarily identified with their racial identity. Shamsul noted that in Malaysia, all political groups only represent the interests of a particular racial group, like the Malays, the Chinese, the Indians and so forth (Shamsul 1995: 64) – both BN and PR are coalitions of parties that each claim to represent a particular race’s interests – and few parties align with economic or cultural positions, as with other pluralistic democratic countries. Thus, racial rhetoric was the accepted mode of discourse within politics – and by extension how each race thought of their representation in the nation.

Contemporary Changes in ‘Malay’ Identity Perception – From Malay to Malaysian

However, the stability of the state-created discourse based on race, and hence the created racial identity, can be questioned by the political de-emphasis on race-based policies. In the 2013 Elections the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat stated their complete objection to bumiputera policies, and attained 50.87% of the popular vote compared to 47.38% of the popular vote for BN (BN still retained the majority of parliamentary seats due to Malaysia’s first-past-the-post electoral system). The first and most prominent promise in PR’s manifesto was to “eliminate racial discrimination”, and encourage national unity, rejecting any race-based economic policy for a race-blind, needs-based policy (PR Manifesto 2013: 8). While it can be argued that a single policy promise cannot be viewed in isolation to explain electoral success of any party, of note is that the BN manifesto, released five weeks after PR’s, does not confront PR’s stance on ending policies favouring the bumiputera. Instead, though BN would continue these policies, much of the manifesto trumpets BN’s renewed focus on national unity, and advances its track record in bringing “progress to all segments of Malaysian society” (BN Manifesto 2013). The polling done in the period leading up to the elections bear out the political manoeuvre by both sides to step away from racial politics. In a survey by the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research conducted in January to February 2013, significantly less Malays supported the view that “race related entitlements” would assist with BN’s popularity, compared to Malays who supported the BN in general. From the promises made by fiercely competing parties, we see that both now strive to represent national unity, instead of the racial unity that BN’s policies had promoted in the past.

The movement towards national unity from racial unity has been progressing since 2000, when Chinese organisations broached the topic of the bumiputera’s special rights. There was not a united Malay counter-response as expected, but instead a debate on whether racial unity was in opposition to national unity (Derichs 2002: 57). Since then political parties have gradually shifted from “communalist politics to politics of integration” (Derichs 2002: 58), or in other words, from racial representations to representing political pluralism. This change is as Tomlinson predicts in Globalisation and Cultural Identity, where he argues that the effect of modernisation caused by globalisation is to cause a proliferation of complex identities, split along more labels than the dominant state power has defined. Malaysia has aggressively pursued economic modernisation since Independence, with BN promising to strive towards first-world status and a hub for global trade. Yet the modernisation that comes hand in hand with globalisation ‘deterritorialises’ cultural experience (Tomlinson 2003: 273) – by which Tomlinson means that media and technology is advancing to a point where national borders and state institutions become increasingly irrelevant in determining our shared experiences.

Consider for instance the experience of outspoken gay activist Pang Khee Teik (Found in Malaysia) who, in the interview, shares his frustration at being censored by the state media in 2009. Yet, he is able to publicise the fact and receive support through the internet, and even have his story picked up by the international magazine Time. In the form of the Internet community and influence of international media, uncontrolled by state institutions, modernity in Malaysia has made a homosexual identity conceivable by creating a sense of a community of supporters. The division effect of state education is also rendered less effective by increasing affluence and popularity of an overseas higher education (Blessinger and Sengupta 2012), by which students are exposed to foreign perspectives not coloured by the same racial lens that the government has promoted; this is evident from the myriad interviews of Malaysians from all walks of life in Found in Malaysia, where a diverse education correlates with the sense of a similarly diverse identity. A shift in institutions that matter in the everyday lives of people – from state-controlled institutions towards unbounded modern institutions such as the internet and freedom of education – makes possible the acknowledgement of diversity and pluralisation in Malaysia, moving away from a monolithic racial identity. It is this new-found acknowledgement that makes PR’s promotion of national identity over racial identity, and the pressure on BN to promise the same, politically viable.

Towards Pluralism or Polarisation?

An alternate view could argue that a close reading of the evidence suggests Malaysia is heading towards greater polarisation, not pluralisation, of beliefs. Historically, the Islamic faith has been important, but not the defining element in what it meant to be Malay (Maznah 2013:106). Yet alongside a more globalised Malaysia, more Malay Muslims are also professing identification with a stricter interpretation of Islam that strengthens the view of non-believers as outsiders. Both BN and PR manifestos promise to uphold and enhance the image of Islam – a necessary move given the great number of Malaysian Malays who identify with an Islamic community rather than a national or racial identity (Martinez 2006). Islamisation of the Malay identity has increased in step with modernisation, even while democratic voices have been strengthened by the same, since the idea of a supra-national Islamic community has experienced a resurgence in popularity globally (Derichs 2002: 59). The deterritorialization posited by Tomlinson that led to a more complex concept of identity has also made it easier for such a cultural community of a transnational nature to establish itself. This strengthened sense of community has led to pressure to expand the jurisdiction of Syariah law – the religious law system that regulates Islamic affairs and offences – an “expanding Islamic legal-bureaucracy” that has begun to encroach into the public sphere of the secular civil law that governs both Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia (Maznah 2013: 116-17). In this light, the Malay identity could just be shifting to a religious identity as the core, over racial identity and national identity, and shaped again by defining one community as the Self, opposed to the Other – non-believers.

Against the backdrop of the seemingly alarming developments presented above, I argue that such concerns fail to critically examine unstated beliefs, and fall into the trap of thinking in terms of the latest iteration of Orientalist thought. In a debate on the role of the scholar with regard to the Islamic world, Said argues that any scholarly contribution on Islam that filters through to the media consciousness in the Western world has invariably “sacrificed understanding and compassion” (Said et al. 1987: 91). It is the old orientalist mindset, only now transformed – instead of essentialising race, now Islam has been expressed as a homogenous bloc uniformly opposed to Western values of democracy, individual rights, and concept of the nation-state. That there could be diverse factions with vibrant ongoing debate even within Islam in Malaysia is not a question even asked – glossed over unconsciously, or perhaps consciously on the part of the state, which as Maznah noted, has outlawed at least forty five branches of Islamic teachings (Maznah 2013: 119). In this light, the proliferation of Islamic identities is merely one of many issues Malaysia must contend with as she develops – alongside all the other identities that proliferate alongside and in contention with it, as is natural in a pluralistic society.


Said ends Orientalism on an optimistic note – that a challenge to orientalist thinking could be made if “we can benefit properly from the general twentieth-century rise to political and historical awareness of so many of the earth’s peoples.” (Said 1979: 328) Pakatan Rakyat in the 2013 Elections took advantage of this rise in political awareness within Malaysia to challenge the Oriental construction of the Malay identity. Through globalisation, the resulting deterritorialisation of cultural experience makes possible a challenge to such a constructed identity. Tomlinson concluded in his essay on globalisation that the truly interesting question that must arise in a globalised world is how nation-states will respond to the challenges these multiple and complex identities will pose (Tomlinson 2003: 276). In a nation where Malay identity is becoming more than just ‘Malay’ and is increasingly multi-faceted, whether state institutions can adapt to the changing reality on the ground remains a similarly open question.

Works Cited

Al Jazeera English. “Malaysian Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. (cited as ‘101 East’)” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 17 May 2012. Web. 03 Nov. 2013. ‹›.

Barisan Nasional. “A Promise of Hope.” General Election 13 MCA, 6 Apr. 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2013. ‹›.

Blessinger, Patrick and Enakshi Sengupta. “Is Malaysia the regional leader in international higher education?” Guardian Professional, 2 Jul. 2012. Web. 13 Nov. 2013. ‹›.

Derichs, Claudia. “A Step Forward: Malaysian Ideas for Political Change.” Journal of Asian and African Studies 37.1 (2002): 43-65. Print.

Leete, Richard. Malaysia’s Demographic Transition: Rapid Development, Culture, and Politics. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research. “Public Opinion Survey Nº1/2013: Peninsular Malaysia Voter Survey.” Merdeka Centre, 26 Feb. 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2013. ‹›.

Milner, Anthony. The Malays. Oxford: Blackwell, 2011. Print.

Maznah Mohamad. “Legal-Bureaucratic Islam in Malaysia: Homogenising and Ring-fencing the Muslim Subject.” Encountering Islam: the Politics of Religious Identities in Southeast Asia. Ed. Hui Yew-Foong. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2013. 103-32. Print.

Martinez, Patricia. “Malaysian Malays: Living with diversity.” Text of New Straits Times, 10 Aug. 2006. Web. 6 Nov. 2013. ‹›.

Mauzy, Diane K. “Malaysia in 1986: The Ups and Downs of Stock Market Politics.” Asian Survey 27.2 (1987): 231-41. Print.

Nagata, Judith A. “What Is a Malay? Situational Selection of Ethnic Identity in a Plural Society.” American Ethnologist 1.2 (1974): 331-50. Print.

Nut Graph, The. Found in Malaysia. Selangor: ZI Publications, 2010. Print.

Pakatan Rakyat. “The People’s Manifesto: The People’s Pact, The People’s Hope.” Parti Keadilan Rakyat, 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2013. ‹›.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Print.

Said, Edward W., Bernard Lewis, Cleveland E. Dodge, Leon Wieseltier, Christopher Hitchens. “The Mesa Debate – the Scholars, the Media, and the Middle-East.” Journal of Palestine Studies 16.2 (1987): 85-104. Print.

Shamsul, A. B. “In Search of ‘Bangsa Malaysia’: Politics of Identity in Multiethnic Malaysia.” Spec. issue of Hitotsubashi Journal of Social Studies 27 (1995): 57-68. Print.

Shamsul, A. B. “Debating about Identity in Malaysia: A Discourse Analysis.” Southeast Asian Studies 34.3 (1996): 566-600. Print.

Shamsul, A. B. “A History of an Identity, an Identity of a History: The Idea and Practice of ‘Malayness’ in Malaysia Reconsidered.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 32.3 (2001): 355-66. Print.

Tomlinson, John. “Globalization and Cultural Identity.” The Global Transformations Reader: An Introduction to the Globalization Debate. Ed. D. Held and A. McGrew. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003. 269-77. Print.

Process Notes

I have always been looking for an excuse to delve into the history and politics of Malaysia, and my Paper 3 presented a ripe opportunity to do so. As someone who was born elsewhere, but had parents who actively chose Singapore to be the land I would be brought up, I always felt acutely aware of the divergent paths my life could have taken had they chosen any other option. The closest neighbour resembled Singapore in many ways, culturally, yet seemed to contain its own highly distinct identity. But what is that identity? And how has it changed?

Narrowing down the topic from the broad idea of ‘Malaysian Identity’ was surprisingly easy. The watershed 2013 Malaysian General Elections had just concluded and academic analyses of its implications were still scant. I felt this presented a sufficient challenge and a genuine motive – to synthesis knowledge where none had existed. Specifically, I wanted to examine political strategies leading up to the General Election to show the evolution of identity in Malaysia, and that the evolution could be explained as an inadvertent consequence of globalisation.

A few drafts in, I realised that the scope of my thesis was too broad. It required the explanation of several seemingly unrelated concepts, bringing readers through a condensed history of the region leading up to Malaysia’s formation, an examination of political rhetoric and identity and tying it all up with globalisation. My peer review was very helpful in this regard, to point out what were truly key points and what simply confused the general reader. In the end though, I think I still could have further tightened the focus of the paper given more time – but then, that is why looking closely at one’s thesis before beginning to write is important!

My paper would not have been possible without the immense patience and support of Dr Leung. She pointed out the dire lack of focus in my earlier drafts, as well as the tendency to get lost in the details of the many scholarly texts. The over-reliance on scholarly texts is a mistake easy to incur when new writers get exposed to the freedom of choosing and using any number of sources. I learned to have greater discipline in sticking to the key argument that lead to the thesis, to prevent my own voice form being drowned by the other referenced scholars.

On a parting note, authors of papers that attempt to extrapolate existing trends must realise that later events rarely transpire to expectations. Naturally, researching for and writing this paper has led me to a sustained curiosity and interest in Malaysian issues. The astute reader may then note that two years after this paper was written, the ‘alternate view’ counterargument – that a singular religious identity is further taking root in Malaysia – is even more apparent. Hence despite writing other papers since, this paper has still remained key to me –at least in the hope that time will prove my optimism that Malaysia can strengthen a Malaysian identity to be right.

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