Malaysia was once a harmonious society, where the different ethnic groups coexisted with a sense of community, and each ethnic group once openly celebrated festivals together. All the ethnic groups were free to express their cultures, and practice their religions without interference. Malaysia had a strong and stable government with a working multi-racial coalition. All of the nation’s citizens were once proud to be Malaysian.
Malaysia once lived up to the tourist slogan ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’.
There are many forces that have dramatically changed Malaysian society over the last 50 years. Tanah Melayu has changed from a rich multi-cultural society, that was appreciated by all, towards an insular narrow thinking one, where minority groups have become disconnected from the cultural, political, and social directions the country is now headed.
The product of this changing Malaysia is the current budget delivered by the new Ismail Sabri Yakoob government just recently. This budget has been criticised from many quarters. The budget is being charged as being unfair to all citizens, and totally lacking empathy towards the suffering Rakyat during this Covid crisis. Former minister Zaid Ibrahim said that Malaysia is the only country in the world that has a race specific budget.
The rest of this article will look at the factors that have brought Malaysia to this point.
The Forces changing Malaysian society
1. Changing demographics -distinct population change
Since 1970, Malaysia has undergone a massive demographic change. According to census statistics in 1970, 53% of Malaysia’s population of 8.3 million people where Bumiputera, while 35.5% were Chinese, and 10.6% were of Indian origin. This compares to 2019 estimates where 62.5% are Bumiputera (51% Malay origin), 20.6% Chinese, and 6.2% Indian.
After encouragement for families to have more children, the total fertility rate (TFR) rose to 5 children per woman. This TFR was much higher among Malays and rural people. There was also massive migration of Indonesians to the peninsula, and Sabah over a number of decades. This has pushed the national population up to 33.5 million people.
More than 1.8 million Malaysians have left the country, where the vast majority are Chinese seeking better educational and job opportunities. The current net migration rate is 1.49 per 1,000, ranking 55 in the world. Those Malays leaving the country, tend to be the more liberal thinking, leaving behind a more conservative Malay group in the country.
Malaysia has been subjected to a major clandestine social engineering project. The above demographic changes had a massive influence on the national mindset and outpouring narratives. One can observe the decrease of liberalism within society, where those who have liberal ideas criticized for daring to be liberal. There is an increasing censorship within the entertainment industry (local film and drama production). The local news media practices self-censorship out of fear of displeasing the government. Investigative journalism inside Malaysia has all but disappeared.
2. The New Economic Policy
The New Economic Policy (NEP) was designed in 1970 to increase Bumiputera participation in the economy. Equity rather than income was chosen as the measure, shaping both economic and social policy since.
At a deeper level, the NEP represented a dramatic change from Tunku Abdul Rahman’s multi-cultural Malaysia, towards a Malay-centric orientated policy mantra. To Malaysia, the NEP didn’t just bring positive discrimination towards Bumiputeras. The NEP signified heavy socialist like government intervention into the economy, creating highly regulated markets, where GLCs moved into strategic business areas, pushing out private enterprise. The NEP also gave birth to cronyism, corruption, and kleptocracy.
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed and his then deputy Anwar Ibrahim Islamized Malaysia’s public administration during the 1990s. This led to the formation of the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM), within the prime minister’s department (PMO) in 1997, with sweeping influence over Islamic affairs across the nation. JAKIM received RM1.4 billion from the 2022 budget. In addition, the power of the Syariah legal system has been widely increased, bringing a two-tier legal system to Malaysia.
Islamization has greatly weakened secularism in government. This has led to an almost complete dropping of the RUKUN NEGARA or national principles, as a guiding ideology inside the civil service and public education.
Socially and culturally, Islamization has seen the modification of Bahasa Kebangsaan or the national language with Arabic words and phrases. Arabism is replacing many artifacts of Malay culture. Tolerance towards the practice of traditional Islamic beliefs and rituals that Malays have practised for hundreds of years has been discouraged.
The forces of Islamization are also coming from outside the government, which is now a major influence upon the executive, administration, civil service, and public education. The well-funded Salafi leaning Alumni, a group of partly foreign paid graduates who work inside government and education have a subliminal mission to spread their influence through their workplaces and communities. This hidden pressure group, 25,000 strong, has enormous influence on government.
4. The influence of PAS
The Parti Islam Se-Malaysia or PAS has played a key role in influencing the direction of politics and society in Malaysia. The platform of PAS has always been to develop Malaysia as an Islamic state. The PAS ideology has gone from Malay nationalism, being inspired by the Iranian revolution, moderate Erdoganism, and linkages to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Within the political landscape, PAS has influenced Malaysian politics from the opposition, and within government. At present PAS has 18 members in the Dewan Rakyat and 3 ministers, including the coveted religious affairs portfolio, and 7 deputy ministers. PAS currently controls the Kelantan, Terengganu, and Kedah state governments. PAS potentially plays a kingmaking role among the Malay parties.
PAS has influenced the state of politics, particularly within the Malay heartlands. Malay parties like UMNO and Bersatu have been forced to prove their Islamic credentials, inorder to be electorally competitive. As PAS has become more influenced by the Ulama faction within the party, Islamic narratives have become much stronger.
PAS is staunchly pro-Palestinian, and strongly supports Hudud laws. The PAS state government in Kelantan bans traditional Malay dance theatres, advertising depicting women not fully clothed, enforces women wearing headscarves, and segregated check-out aisles in supermarkets. Recently, the PAS International Affairs and External Relations Committee chairman Muhammad Khalil Abdul Hadi congratulated the Taliban on their takeover of Kabul.
5. The Civil Service
The civil service is one of the most powerful influences upon Malaysian society. It is primarily mono-ethnic and doesn’t represent the ethnic diversity of the nation. As such, this massive two million employee multi-ministry, department, and agency apparatus is one-dimensional in its corporate culture.
During the 18 months Pakatan Harapan was government, some ministers found it extremely difficult to assert their will over their assigned ministries. Over time, due to the cornerstone NEP, a ‘Malay agenda’ culture has developed, designed to cater to ethnic-Malays and little else. This has created a collective narcissist, inward looking, overly sensitive mindset. There is an extremely strong power-distance relationship between superiors and subordinates, where subordinates are not encouraged to question their superiors. Leaders often feel self-important, and behave like ‘little Napoleons’, as described by former prime minister Abdul Ahmad Badawi.
There are instances where departments ‘go rogue’, not following their minister’s instructions. The Selangor Islamic Department (JAIS) in 2014 conducted raids with the police on the Malaysian Bible Society, that were embarrassing for the then opposition led Pakatan government.
Corruption is endemic, with numerous methods used to profit from public funds.
For all intents and purposes, the civil service is the real government. Due to little public transparency, the civil service is a law unto itself, mostly beyond public scrutiny. Today, the civil service directly employs 11.8 percent of the country’s total workforce, continuing to grow due to the government’s belief in heavy market intervention. The newly released RM12 document has confirmed this.
6. The Malay Elite
The structure and fabric of Malaysian power are made up of a patriarchal elite Malay hierarchy. At the top are the royal families, which yield a symbolic cultural authority. Next are the long-established political families who have been involved at the forefront of politics and government since independence. Next is a network of political warlords spreading down to the village level. These warlords operate under the patronage and in-turn provide support to the leaders of the political families.
Alongside these groups are lines of Islamic clerics, who create religious legitimacy. Then comes a large sway of civil servants whose loyalty is to the Malay agenda rather than the government of the day and who caused chaos for the multiracial Pakatan Harapan government. Connected professionals and businesspeople complete the make-up of the Malay gentry.
Since independence, political control has been concentrated within a few elite Malay families. Malaysia’s second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak’s son Najib Razak was also a serving prime minister and remains extremely powerful within UMNO today despite the 1MDB scandal. Onn Ja’afar’s son Hussein Onn became the third Malaysian prime minister. Hussein Onn’s son Hishammuddin Hussein is still powerful within UMNO and served as minister for defense, transport, home affairs, and youth and culture respectively. Khairy Jamaluddin, the current defense minister, is the son in law of former prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Mahathir Mohamed’s son Mukhriz Mahathir was the Kedah chief minister twice and former minister of international trade.
Anwar Ibrahim was deputy prime minister, his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail was also a deputy prime minister, while their daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar is a member of parliament. In addition, members of these elite families are intermarried to each other, royalty, diplomats, judges, and other senior Malays. These dynasties also exist at regional political warlord level, as is the case with former minister and parliamentary member for Arau, Shahidan Kassim, whose brother Ismail Kassim is involved in local state politics. There is also a mixture of mutual business interests, and opaque influence.
When Pakatan Harapan defeated the Barisan Nasional in the May 2018 national election, part of this elite grouping took power in a different configuration. The administration of the current beleaguered Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is yet just a reconfiguration of the same people, as is the reconfiguration into the Ismail Sabri administration. Malay politics is more about the dynamics of these families than about policy and ideology. Malay politics has been primarily about feuds and alliances rather than vision.
7. The Education System – the younger generation indoctrinated
The emphasis on Islamic education over the last three generations has shaped the Malay psych. Islam has become the central pillar of Malay life. This influence has become so strong, the rest of the community feel obligated to conform.
This has deeply altered Malay culture towards Arabism, where much of the richness of Malay tradition has disappeared. Traditional Malay identity is quickly disappearing. Today’s value set is biased in favour of an Islamic society, rather than secularism. This has been a major factor in dividing communities that were once very cohesive, especially at the local community level. Today, a major part of Malay society is subservient to authority, and self-segregating. This is in stark contrast to the multi-ethnic sense of community 50 years ago.
Institutions of public higher public education have become Malay bastions. They are managed by Malay top and middle management, with primarily Malay academics, for primarily Malay students. These institutions see the imposition of the ‘Malay agenda’ part and parcel of education. Just like the civil service, public education has been Islamized by Ikramise, and the Alumni.
The new generations behave much more religiously than the generations before them. There are signs a proportion of the younger generations are much more sympathetic towards more radical Islamic theologies. With students immersed within these institutions and Tahfiz school system, education has played a major role in shaping today’s society.
8. The royal households – customs & constitutional authority
Malaysian royalty is technically a constitutional monarchy. Yet the monarchy is at the apex of an ancient Malay class-based authoritarian feudal system with all its artefacts, ceremonies, customs, and language. To some degree, Malaysia can still be seen as a patriarchy rather than a democracy. The last two administration were created in the Istana, rather than on the floor of the Dewan Rakyat or lower house of parliament.
The Malay monarchy is embedded deep within the Malay psyche, giving them patriarchal authority. The sultan is head of Islam in each respective state as well as defender of Malay and indigenous rights. The rise of Ketuanan Melayu narratives after the New Economic Policy was introduced has strengthened the monarchy’s position even more.
There is a degree of absolute power in the hands of the monarchs that doesn’t devolve to other constitutional royal families. They can appoint a chief minister from their respective state assemblies without their picks being tested. They have used these powers to appoint the chief minister they want over the candidate from the largest party or coalition in the state assembly.
The monarchy’s influence over the political arena extends well beyond appointments. The government had to back down on ratifying the Rome Statute when the Johor Sultan argued that the treaty on crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes would undermine Islam, the Malays, and the monarchy.
The monarchy has enormous informal power. Sultans hold regular weekly meetings with their executive councils, providing an opportunity each week to give views on the running of the state to the chief minister and executive councilors.
Section 44 of the constitution places the Agong beside the Senate and House of Representatives with responsibility for legislative power. Some loyal groups see the Sultan as the absolute law, more trustworthy than politicians who come and go. Article 153 of the Constitution gives the Agong the power to safeguard the position of the Malays (and indigenous peoples). A strong sense of Malay identity maintains the traditional feudal cultural environment which has a long history.
This is a continuation of the long-standing social contract between the Sultan and the Rakyat (people), something that existed long before the formation of Malaysia. This can’t be seen at a national level but is extremely important at the state level.
Thus, in the eyes of many government servants, loyalty to “Tuanku” overrides loyalty to the democratically elected government.
9. The Special branch and security mechanisms
Malaysia’s Special Branch, a secretive division within the Royal Malaysian Police force (PDRM), has functioned as one of the country’s most covert units, or did until earlier this year, when the human rights NGO Suhakam accused it of being behind the disappearance of two social activists, Amri Che Mat and Pastor Raymond Koh.
As a colonial creation, the Special Branch has never been legitimized by act of Parliament, It has, no public charter, and reports neither to the National Parliament or the executive. It became an arm of the police organizational structure with a director who reported to the Director General of Police (IGP). The only indication of its mission and objectives are on the police website, stating that it is“responsible for collecting and processing security intelligence to preserve the law and order of the public and maintain Malaysia’s peace and security.”
Today it conducts surveillance, intelligence gathering, and infiltrations that span all aspects of Malaysian society including religious organizations, mosques, churches, and temples, Chinese schools, universities, the state and federal civil services, government agencies, local government, trade unions, NGOs, media organizations, social activists, and even Royal households.
Today, the SB has a budget of more than RM500 million, which doesn’t include the slush funds it has to run secret and sensitive operations. Over the last decade SB staff have more than doubled to over 10,000. This doesn’t include 10-15,000 informers that the SB is handling across the country. This represents about one SB operative to 1,500 citizens, a ratio not unlike the old East German secret police, the Stasi.
10. The judiciary
There is a prima facie case that the judiciary is used as a tool of government to harass and neutralize opposition politicians. Most noteworthy were the 1998 and 2008 Sodomy charges, convictions and jail terms given to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Another case is the discharge of all graft charges against Lim Guan Eng, after he was appointed finance minister in the Pakatan Harapan government back in 2018. The most recent example of potential executive interference in the judiciary is the granting of passports to convicted former prime minister Najib Razak, his wife Rosmah Mansor, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, and UMNO lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, both facing court cases for corruption and money laundering.
11. Rewriting history
Malaysia’s history has been rewritten within the ideologies of race, religion, and exclusion. Modern textbooks have been written to accommodate the ‘Malay agenda’ arguments. Historical facts are either discarded of reinterpreted to suit Malay-centric ideologies. For example, Hari Merdeka is celebrated over Malaysia Day, even though Hari Merdeka occurred before Malaysia actually existed. Hari Merdeka is the celebration of a country that no longer exists.
History has been rewritten with the theme that Malay history belongs only to the Malays, which actually contradicts the concept that Malaysian monarchs are monarchs for all citizens. Non-Malays are then painted as pendatangs, or new comers, who have no psychological or emotional stake in the concept of Malaysian statehood.
The modern interpretation of Malaysian history has become a force of division rather than unity of all citizens.
12. Corruption – 1MDB is only the tip of the iceberg
Corruption is endemic, with numerous methods used to profit from public funds. Some officers in areas close to the procurement process set up small trading companies which supply items not subject to tender such as office furniture, fixtures, stationary, printing, and computer equipment at inflated prices to their respective departments or ministries.
Other misuses occur through false travel and accommodation claims, and payments for goods not supplied or work not done. Tenders are often manipulated to hand out construction jobs to specific companies. Assets are sometimes misappropriated for personal use.
Numerous guilty parties to acts of fraud and corruption have escaped prosecution due to relationships high-ranking civil servants have with each other. Others escape prosecution because heads of departments and ministries don’t want any scandals to go public, preferring cover-ups. Many departments and agencies within the civil service are so much under the control of a single person or select group that corruption or wrongdoing is nearly impossible to detect.
Institutions are hesitant to investigate those involved in corrupt acts and bribery, tending to cover up and hide any misdemeanors. This institutional attitude creates a belief on the part of culprits, they will never be held accountable.
A survey by University Malaysia Kebangsaan (UKM) found that 30.5 percent of respondents were open to accepting bribes if they had the power and opportunity. Further research found that all civil service campaigns, policies introduced, and Islamization have not affected civil servants’ involvement in performing acts of bribery and corruption.
13. Repression of opposition through narratives (customs)
Malaysia’s narratives espoused by Malay political parties deny the cascade of alternative realities possible for Malaysia. The sense of national pride from the 1980s and early 1990s has been replaced with a depressing siege-like mentality against an imaginary enemy.
This is used as a cover against potentially damaging truths that may destroy the ‘Malay persona’. For example, the Timah whiskey controversy arose just when the Pandora papers were released and members of the UMNO ‘court cluster’ had their passports returned to them by the court.
The myth of the ‘Malay plight of needing a defender’ is a tool to promote conformity, subservience, and gratitude towards the Malay elite. Crooks are reframed as Robinhoods and Bossku, heroes of the people. Islam is state defined rather than something that should be inside the souls of believers.
Different points of view seen as critical of the establishment, are reframed as being attacks on the mythical concept of ‘Malay unity’. The national narrative has destroyed Malay self-confidence. Ketuanan Melayu according to a UKM professor Noraini Othman has connotations of enslavement, with a Malay master and servant relationship implied.
Some Conclusions to think about
The Malaysian economy is akin to a centrally planned economy with high government intervention, high market regulation, restrictive equity rules, and government linked companies (GLCs) occupying many strategic business sectors. Malaysia has become a kleptocracy, where rent seeking is preferrable to innovation. The brain drain doesn’t just include individuals, it also carries out corporations, as the Grab experience indicates.
Household income inequality is rising as is reflected in the rise in the GINI index over the last decade to over 40. Poverty is on the increase. Malay culture is under constant attack by cultural vandals. Malays are getting sick of being told they need assistance. These types of narratives are destructive to the Malay psych.
The standard of public institutions is waning, as is the efficiency of the bloated civil service. Malaysian defence forces have declined from being one of the best in the region, to a position where Malaysia’s military forces won’t be able to respond to the strategic challenges of the region.
Malaysia is becoming a neo-feudal state, run by a bickering elite, who can’t be questioned. Any truth has multiple layers. Racism is only a symptom of a problem much deeper, the domination of all citizens by a small Malay elite.
Its highly unlikely Malaysia will become a multi-cultural democracy anywhere in the near future. What is most likely for Malaysia is that it will continue to be ruled by the Malay elite, in some form of power sharing arrangement, which is playing out now. Islam is the biggest threat to the power of the Malay elite. There is always risk that there could be a popular Islamic movement to dispel the Malay elite, however the Islamists within Malaysia are far from united. The Salafists tend to be apolitical, and the Erdoganists aspire to work within the parliamentary system. What is most likely, is the Malay political parties will share power with the Islamists via PAS, steering Malaysia towards some form of a pseudo-Islamic state.
Any alternative rebirth of Malaysia will require the scrapping of the race-based political system. Race based idealism must be replaced with policy-based idealism, where governments work upon a platform based on consensus. This is unlikely to happen.
Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.