Is the Barisan Nasional truly multi-ethnic?

Malaysians walks in front of a billboard of faces decorated in the country's colors promoting Malaysia's ethnic diversity in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Wednesday, March. 11, 2009. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

All races are equal, but are some races more equal than others?

By Isabel Yeo

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s commitment to his multi-racial 1Malaysia policy where “every Malaysian perceives himself or herself as Malaysian first and race, religion or region second” is an attractive ideal for a modern and cosmopolitan state like Malaysia. In spite of this professed commitment to multiracialism though, the Barisan Nasional (BN) has often been accused of not being genuinely multi-ethnic. While the coalition includes parties forwarding ethnic minority interests, interests of the Malay majority are perceived to take precedence at times.

Najib supported stricter amendments to the Sharia Law Act

Since Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak decided to support the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia’s (PAS) pursuit of stricter amendments to the Sharia Court Act in 2016, commentators have questioned the BN’s commitment to the principle of multiracialism in Malaysia.

The bill proposed the Islamic court be allowed to administer stricter punishments in religious and family matters for Muslims.

In response, critics like Dr. James Chin of the University of Tasmania asserted “the entire setup of BN was never meant to narrow the ethnic and religious divide, but rather cement the ideology of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy), and in recent times Ketuanan Islam (Islamic supremacy).”

However, non-Muslim parties in the BN coalition eventually struck down the bill, suggesting that ethnic minority groups do carry some political weight. Nonetheless, concerns over a growing wave of conservative Islam and cultural marginalization of ethnic minorities remain.

 UMNO’s dominance in the Barisan Nasional

 Although the BN is comprised of thirteen different parties, it is clear that the party serving Malay interests, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) is the dominant party in the coalition.

While the BN’s leadership team and Supreme Council include politicians from all thirteen constituent parties, the key positions are held by representatives from UMNO. The posts of Chairman and Deputy Chairman, the top two positions in the coalition, are held by UMNO members Najib Razak and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi respectively. UMNO representatives dominate BN’s leadership taking on the various positions of Secretary-General, Treasurer-General, Women Leader, Youth Leader, Strategic Communications Director and Executive Secretary. In contrast, each of the other twelve parties has just one representative holding the same post concurrently – that of the Vice-Chairman.

The Malaysian Cabinet reflects a similar situation. Most Cabinet ministers are from UMNO, and UMNO ministers exclusively oversee key ministries of Defence, Finance and Home Affairs.

This arrangement might possibly be explained by UMNO being the biggest individual party in government – it won the most seats in the 2013 General Elections. However, some critics have a less optimistic view of UMNO’s dominance. As Chin comments, “while multi-racial and multi-religious on paper, [the BN] was in effect simply a political vehicle for UMNO to dominate the federal government while paying lip service to leading a multi-ethnic coalition.”

The BN promotes pro-Bumiputra policies

 The “special position” of the Malays is enshrined by Article 153 of Malaysia’s Constitution and promoted by UMNO. As a result of UMNO’s dominance in the BN coalition, pro-Bumiputra policies have prevailed in Malaysia. Bumiputra (or Bumiputera) is a Malay term that describes ethnic Malays and other indigenous people Malaysia. Pro-Bumiputra policies can thereby be seen as policies of affirmative action, which serve to elevate the position of Malays and indigenous people groups in Malaysia.

The long running Malaysia New Economic Policy (NEP) adopted from 1971 to 1991 was one such pro-Bumiputra measure. While its official objective was “to reduce and eradicate absolute poverty irrespective of race through raising income levels and increasing employment opportunities for all Malaysians,” individual objectives showed that the NEP was meant to benefit the Bumiputras primarily.

In 1970, 63.3% of corporate equity in Malaysia was owned by foreigners, 2.4% by Bumiputras and the remaining 34.3% by non-Bumiputra Malaysians (ie Chinese, Indians etc). The NEP set a restructuring target of 30% ownership by Bumiputras, 40% by other Malaysians and 30% by foreigners by 1990. Essentially, ownership would be taken from foreigners and given primarily to Bumiputras. The National Development Policy that succeeded the NEP also adopted a pro-Bumiputra focus.

These preferential policies were largely a result of poverty alleviation efforts – the Bumiputras represented the largest portion of the poor and so would make up the majority of the beneficiaries of the NEP. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that the non-Bumiputra poor were inadvertently overlooked under the NEP.

BN’s previous education policies also reflected preferential treatment of Malays. In the past, places in public universities were allocated based on racial quotas instead of meritocratic standards. This quota system was abolished in 2002, in a move seen as a step in the right direction. However, ethnic minorities feel entry to university is still not a level playing field. Chinese students in particular have complained that they were not offered entrance into any course despite achieving perfect scores on examinations. In contrast, Malay students who achieved less than perfect scores were admitted to competitive courses.

In an interview by BBC, then Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) Youth Chief Chong Sin Woon added that the marking systems in pre-university courses disadvantage Chinese and Indian students. He did not specifically elaborate what the discrepancies were, but stated that “it’s already an unfair platform even before you apply for university.” Despite being part of the ruling BN coalition, the MCA and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) have not been able to ensure that the interests of ethnic minorities have been held in equal esteem to the Malay majority.

 Under the current BN government, Malaysia’s Islamic Development Department (Jakim) also announced a RM1billion (approximately US$233 million) budget in 2016. There is no other government department overseeing the interests of other religious groups. Even Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Ismail asked “why do they need a RM1 billion budget?

 Looking up: Moving towards greater synergy among races

 Looking at voter demographics, it is clear that Malay voters prefer the BN while non-Malay voters support the Opposition. New York University Professor Dr. Joshua Tucker analysed the 2013 Malaysian Election results and concluded that “it is very easy to predict BN vote shares using just the percentage of the electoral district’s population which is Malay”. The higher the Malay population in an electoral district, the more BN votes that district recorded. Conversely, districts with smaller Malay populations correlate with less support for the BN and greater support for the Opposition. It is clear ethnic minorities do not perceive the BN to be a party committed to their interests – even UMNO hardliner Mohd Ali Rustam inadvertently acknowledged this.

Indeed, it is acknowledged that BN is currently still largely by Malays and for Malays. According to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in his comments on multiracialism in BN, BN has yet to arrive at “the stage where [it] can set aside race and come under one party.” The situation is perhaps not as bleak as it seems though, with individual parties like the Gerakan in the BN representing specific non-Malay communities like the Chinese. It may still take some time before Malaysia sees Najib’s 1Malaysia dream become a reality. But till then, we will continue to see a gradually strengthening synergy among various BN component parties standing for different races in a unique sharing relationship both of power and of wealth.