Half of all Malaysians and 81 per cent of Malays deem ‘Malay special rights and privileges’ a ‘core feature’ of Malaysian society. Many Malays are anxious about ‘fair competition’, but perhaps encouragingly from the perspective of reform, there are indications of openness to change.
A spirited debate broke out in Malaysia recently, springing from a politician’s assertion that Malays shun liberal democracy and want a ‘protector’ — in the form of Malay-based political parties. Fierce rebuttals ensued, echoing similar clashes in the past, but this round was distinguished by the youthfulness of the adversaries.
On 5 April 2022, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s (Bersatu) Youth chief Wan Ahmad Fayhsal said to The Vibes news portal: ‘The Malays need a protector. They have a neo-feudal mentality and are not ready to embrace a full-blown liberal democracy yet. At the end of the day, the societal nature of embracing a tribal mentality will persist.’ He also chastised the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) for alienating Malays by championing ‘liberal’ causes.
Wan Fayhsal’s phrasing of ‘neo-feudal’, ‘tribal mentality’, even ‘protector’ has hit raw nerves. That he is Malaysia’s Deputy Minister of Unity made his utterances extra jarring to some audiences. If he was aiming to goad DAP and MUDA into joining hands with Bersatu, he has instead started an arm wrestling match.
DAP Socialist Youth chief Kelvin Yii decried Wan Fayhsal’s ‘divisive’ rhetoric. Highlighting DAP’s service to all Malaysians, in terms of providing jobs, safety nets and social services, Yii warned that Malaysians needed protection from people like Wan Fayhsal instead.
MUDA President Syed Saddiq similarly lambasted Wan Fayhsal for ‘instilling fear, anxiety and insecurity among the Malays’, and charged that ‘the party that screams “Malays, Malays, Malays” has only benefited elitists, families of the politicians, and their cronies’. Like Yii, Syed Saddiq extolled MUDA’s dedication to serving the poor regardless of ethnicity.
In their attacks on Wan Fayhsal, Yii and Syed Saddiq imply that the ‘Malay protector’ notion is baseless and backward, stirs primordial sentiments and delivers no benefits while providing a smokescreen for a plundering Malay elite. They are quite correct in upbraiding Malay-based party leaders who exploit the ethnic agenda for self-enrichment: such behaviour exemplifies the worst abuses within Malaysian politics.
Surveys have repeatedly shown that the Malays endorse social assistance for all Malaysians and special assistance exclusively for the Malay community. Support for universal policies does not equate with the rejection of Malay-targeted policies.
However, their fervent critique is flawed, as it is self-absorbed in rehashing party dogmas rather than critically engaging with current policy and evidence. Malaysian Malays across the income spectrum widely enjoy special access to public technical institutions and universities, microfinance, business support, public procurement, and public sector employment. Notably, Yii and Syed Saddiq neglected to mention any of these policies in their retorts to Wan Fayhsal. Some of these programmes are less well known, but one would expect political leaders to be mindful of their existence.
Yii and Syed Saddiq are undoubtedly earnest in their commitment to inclusiveness, democracy, and social protection for all Malaysians. But they complacently ignore the vast system of preferential programmes that enhance opportunity for the Malays at the expense of other racial groups. Surveys have repeatedly shown that the Malays endorse social assistance for all Malaysians and special assistance exclusively for the Malay community. Support for universal policies does not equate with the rejection of Malay-targeted policies, as Yii and Syed Saddiq seem to believe.
Malaysian politicians have failed to engage with these realities and to devise solutions that genuinely empower the Malays while systematically reforming ethnicity-targeted policies. Malaysia has already introduced higher education and SME support for Indians and Orang Asli indigenous peoples in Peninsula Malaysia. Yii and Syed Saddiq tacitly welcome these minority-favouring interventions while stridently opposing measures favouring the Malays. Such inconsistencies undermine their policy critique.
Wan Fayhsal has a point in arguing that Malays lean toward the Perikatan alliance of Bersatu and Islamist party PAS as their second favourite choice after UMNO. The Malay-based parties provide a security blanket. His assertions about the Malay mentality might feel overblown, although the term ‘Malay protector’ is a much debated social science concept. Nonetheless, he has squandered a chance to convey – without the loaded lingo – how the Malay community extensively gains access and opportunity in the current system. Malays are quite rational to support the existing system but perhaps they can also be tactfully persuaded by their leaders to undertake change.
From a policy standpoint, more regrettable than Wan Fayhsal’s abrasive terminology is his sweeping dismissal of liberal democratic ideals, to the point of disregarding equality as a cornerstone of Malaysian democracy. While invoking the Malay community’s fears of losing its special privileges, he neglects to ask whether the many programmes that provide Malays with opportunities adequately equip them for more open and fair competition against their fellow Malaysians or the wider world. The Malay community is diverse, and some Malays are surely confident enough to welcome change in this area.
The same day this debate started, the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) released an ethnic relations survey report. Conducted nationwide by well-regarded pollster Merdeka Center in March 2022, the findings give all sides pause for thought.
The survey confirmed that Malaysians support helping all of Malaysia’s poor: 99 per cent of minorities and 92 per cent of Malays believe that ‘government should assist people based on their need and not based on their ethnic background’. However, we must exercise caution in extrapolating from these findings.
Indeed, the survey reminds us that it should not be presumed that such unanimity means many Malaysians actually reject Malay-targeted policies. Half of all Malaysians and 81 per cent of Malays deem ‘Malay special rights and privileges’ as a ‘core feature of our society’ and think that they ‘should stay in place forever’. At the other end of the spectrum, some 22 per cent of Chinese and 37 per cent of Indians polled ‘don’t approve’ of and ‘cannot accept Malay special rights and privileges’, which they feel ‘should be abolished immediately’.
The sharp differences in opinion of those surveyed indicate that Malaysia remains sharply polarised on this issue, a reality underscored by the convergence of minority responses regarding introducing ‘fair competition so that no one group gets special privileges’ in Malaysia. 97-98 per cent of Chinese and Indians agreed with this statement, as did 82 per cent of non-Malay indigenous peoples. A slight majority of 57 per cent of Malays surveyed align with this view. The findings suggest that many Malays are anxious about ‘fair competition’, but perhaps encouragingly from the perspective of reform, there are indications of openness to change.
Malaysia’s political youth leaders have channelled precious little of their energy toward thinking critically about race policy and unpacking survey insights like the above. This edition of the ‘Malay protector’ debate will eventually fade. One hopes, however, that the next round will not be negated by another display of self-absorbed, complacent minds.
Lee Hwok-Aun is Senior Fellow of the Regional Economic Studies Programme, and Co-coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.