The MH370 tragedy has left us with many enigmas, but it has also revealed to the world a fact Malaysians have always known: an administration produced by an ethnocratic system will be mediocre or incompetent. In trying to understand how and why Malaysia operates as it does, it is essential to look back 50 years, to the origins of the modern state, and to the apartheid system which has been gradually erected since 1963.
The year 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the creation of Malaysia. This unexpected nation brought together British possessions and protectorates in the Thai/Malay peninsula with those in northern Borneo. In the process by which Malaysia was created, two key aspects of the new state were greatly contentious. These two aspects continue to cast a long shadow over this nation and they are increasingly presenting dangers both domestically and regionally.
The first aspect relates to the nature of the polity itself.
By bringing together the states of the peninsula (Singapore, Melaka and Penang and the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak) as the new Malaysia, the British aimed at dealing with all of their leftover colonies in Southeast Asia in one fell swoop. By ensuring that Sabah and Sarawak did not seek independence and instead became dependent on and subordinate to Kuala Lumpur, the British Cold War strategy of creating a Western-oriented bulwark across the middle of Southeast Asia was achieved.
This relationship of dependence and subordination of Sabah and Sarawak to Kuala Lumpur has, however, been a cause of dissatisfaction ever since. Originally proclaimed as equal partners in the new nation, the two Bornean states have been continually exploited for their oil and timber resources, fiscal allocations (they are given 5% of the oil and gas revenues they produce) and their representation in the federal parliament. This exploitation has been exacerbated by the corruption of those, such as Taib Mahmud, who were assigned fiefdoms in the Bornean states by Kuala Lumpur.
The second contentious aspect in the creation of Malaysia is the racial structure of political power and social representation.
In 1947, the British annulled the Malayan Union which they had created post-war and which had provided equal citizenship to all peninsula residents. In its place they instituted a system where the feudal rulers were strengthened and Malays were assigned a special position under the constitution. Louis Mountbatten presciently wrote to the Colonial Office at the time that 'I cannot help feeling that in the long run nothing could perhaps do more to perpetuate sectional antagonisms, to the risk of which you pointedly refer in your letter, than the giving of special recognition to one race.' It was this provision for the privileged position of the Malays which was incorporated within the 1948 Constitution of the Federation of Malaya and subsequently in the Malaysian constitution of 1963.
Mountbatten's concerns have been vindicated by history, with a resultant ethnocracy being pursued on the basis of the constitutional provisions and the New Economic Policy instituted since the 1970s. These practices have seen non-Malays essentially excluded from government positions, judicial appointments, diplomatic postings, military careers and, increasingly, tertiary education. The public sector has been essentially purged of non-Malays, with even the respected Kelantan prince Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah asking 'Where have all the non-Malays gone?'
The ethnic divide is widening, with continuing efforts by the Government to increase the Islamic portion of the Malaysian population and reduce the non-Malay elements of society. Former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim suggested last year that a 'secretive task force' existed under the National Security Council, which is responsible for arbitrarily granting Malaysian citizenship to Muslims from other countries. Through these policies of apartheid, non-Malays (some 30% of the population) have essentially been made non-citizens.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has done little to redress the growing divisions and social inequalities between communities within Malaysia except to promote his derided 1Malaysia initiative. The speciousness of the program was revealed in late 2013 when Najib announced a new raft of advantageous policies for the Malay constituency. Meanwhile, his deputy happily declares himself 'Malay first and Malaysian second.'
The apparent powerlessness of Najib in the face of increasingly intense Malay politicking suggests that his tenure will not extend too far into the future. The resignation of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) chairman P Waytha Moorthy from his position as deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Department has further undermined Najib's position. In addition, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO ) has pursued the elimination of key opposition figures such as Karpal Singh and Anwar Ibrahim through the UMNO-controlled courts. These actions suggest an administration in grave crisis.
Radical Malay nationalist groups such as Perkasa and Pekida continue to enjoy high level support from government, while dangerous new pseudo theories of Malay origins and current circumstance propose that the people of Chinese descent in Malaysia are part of a long term southward invasion targeted at Malays.
The increasingly divisive dispute between Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia over the use of the term 'Allah' has further incited sentiments nationwide, while discussion of the extension of hudud laws to non-Muslims has also induced concerns among much of society. Recent events have, through their nature and intensity, led some observers to suggest the imminent demise of democratic constitutionalism in Malaysia, and the growing potential for ethnic violence. The parlous state of the Malaysian press is also attracting wide attention, as is the continuing decline in the quality of education in Malaysia. None of these issues can be discussed in isolation from the systemic racial discrimination which has marked the Malaysian administration intensely since 1969.
These burgeoning domestic crises within the Malaysian polity have major significance for regional stability and great power relations, and these issues will be addressed in the next post.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.