By: Murray Hunter

The seeds of today’s political crisis in Malaysia were sown decades ago in an elaborate structure that has maintained a small elite in power since it was known as Malaya and achieved its independence from Britain in 1957.

Direct discussion of the subject has basically been criminalized since the 1970s and deemed too sensitive for debate. Thus there has been little public discourse on who really exercises power, how and for whom. That has helped to enshrine a structure that has used a form of Malaysian apartheid to support this elite in positions of privilege over the rest of Malaysians they rule. 

Ever since the British colonial era, Malaysia has been divided and regarded through a racial prism. The major races that represented the Malay Peninsula steered Malaya to independence in 1957and into the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. However with rekindled Malay nationalism developing in the 1960s, an opportunity arose after disastrous 13 May 1969 race riots that took the lives of several hundred people on both sides of the racial divide.

Although the country’s founding father Tunku Abdul Rahman had already invoked a state of emergency in 1969, closing down the parliament and ruling by decree through the National Operations Council, Abdul Razak became prime minister in what by any other name would have been described as a coup. As premier, he was able with the backing of the Malay aristocracy to push through the New Economic policy (NEP) without hindrance.

Mahathir the Architect

The NEP was based upon many ideas within Mahathir Mohamad’s 1970 book The Malay Dilemma, that argued that a program of affirmative action was necessary to break Chinese economic superiority. At the time, the NEP was seen even internationally as necessary. It stipulated the use of quotas in granting educational places at schools and universities, the use of quotas in public service, favoritism to Malays in the granting of business licenses, the development of Malay reserve land, restricting non-Bumiputera purchases, subsidies on the purchase of real estate, quotas on public equity holdings, general subsidies for Bumiputera businesses, and exclusive Bumiputera mutual funds (ASN, ASB), which gave better rates of return than commercial banks. 

When the Parliament reconvened in 1971, both the Sedition and Internal Security Acts were strengthened to limit any discussion about matters concerning Malay special rights, the Malay rulers or citizenship under the guise of preserving intercommunal harmony. These restrictions also applied to members of parliament, weakening the principle of parliamentary immunity and attracting international condemnation.

The Malay Agenda

It was during this period that a concerted effort was made to create a leadership to maintain and support what they called the “Malay Agenda,” according to an interview with an anonymous official within the Abdul Razak government at the time. Most executive positions, civil service placements, and high ranking police and army personnel were to be filled with people sympathetic to the Malay Agenda.

The source also told Asia Sentinel that it was during the Razak era that selected bureaucrats and other people began to create and acquire corporate assets with the objective of channelling funds back to UMNO to fight future elections, to ensure victory.

The Malay agenda meant running government and agencies within government with the objective of looking after Malay interests ahead of others. The agenda was rarely spoken about in the open but had wide appeal among all levels of Malay society, including some members of the royal families.

The Start of Crony Capitalism

That was the beginning of crony capitalism in Malaysia. This loose ruling political-cabal developed in the Malay-feudalistic tradition in the sense that it required unquestioning loyalty to the leader of UMNO, who has always been the prime minister. A small proportion of this group became very rich through the implementation of this special agenda and are now Malay “old money.

Section 153 of the Malaysian constitution became the proclaimed legal basis of Malaysian apartheid measures. The Reid Commission, an independent commission responsible for drafting the Constitution of the Federation of Malaya prior to independence, had only intended Sec. 153 to be a temporary measure, to be reviewed by the parliament within 15 years.

The section states that  “…it is the responsibility of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong [the ruling
to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak,” thus turning Malay into a political construct, as there is no single Malay tribal grouping. The authorities over the years have attempted to “Malayanize” the indigenous peoples of the Malay Peninsula, the orang asli, through encouraging their conversion to Islam and adoption of Malay customs.