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How the Malay elite hijacked Malaysia

By Murray Hunter - posted Wednesday, 15 December 2021

With the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO back in political power with a firm and dominating position to the other Malay-centric political parties, kleptocratic practices are on the rise once again. The myth that UMNO is the defender of the marginalized Malays is clearly tarnished for all to see. The New Economic Policy (NEP), its derivatives, and the ideology of Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay supremacy have been exposed for what they really are.

The Malay polity and their cohorts once again control government administration and are clearly looking after their own. The rest of Malaysia’s citizens have been largely left to fend for themselves. Suffered greatly during the Covid crisis, the establishment have been getting richer. Corruption, enrichment, favouritism, and blatant disregard to the process of law is the signature of this government.

The Ismail Sabri government appears to represent patriarchal elite Malay society. At the centre are long established political families who have been involved in the forefront of political and government, since independence. They have appeased the royal families, which provide symbolic authority to give legitimacy.


This elite is supported by a nexus of political warlords spreading down to the village level across the Malay peninsula. These warlords operate under patronage and in-turn provide a powerbase to the leaders of political families. Then comes a large group of the country’s civil servants whose loyalty is to the Malay agenda rather than the government of the day. A professional class running the nation’s banks, GLC’s, and government agencies have strong vested interests with those of the ruling elites. Finally, the nation’s elites have made a pact with the Islamic clerics to create religious legitimacy.

A diverse feudal-like grouping

The Malay establishment is not a unified group. Its an umbrella of different institutions and organizations with varying missions and objectives. Most are in competition with each other for power and influence. Nevertheless, they are politically interconnected, and fall in and out of alliances with each other. Most often, the most powerful interconnections are informal and based on personal relationships rather than ideologies.

The Malay establishment is best seen as being a group of smaller empires that have their own sectional interests. Some of these institutions and organizations include, the Conference of Rulers, individual royal households, the prime minister, Malay-centric political parties, the Department of Islamic Development or JAKIM, the ministry of education, ministry of home affairs, ministry of finance, the civil service, some of the larger GLCs, the armed forces, and the police (special branch). Some more covert organizations like the Alumni, a group of Salafi-leaning Malay professionals entrenched within government and commerce also exercise considerable influence.

This all blends in to form the Malay establishment. The dynamics, interrelationships, and alliances continually change. For example, there is currently some friction between a number of royal households and JAKIM over the scope and jurisdiction of the later at state level. Relationships appear to be more transactional, than based upon any common visions about the future of Malaysia. Other organizations such as the judiciary, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), immigration, and local government are most often tools of the establishment. Any organization or individual outside these groupings is considered outsiders.   

UMNO is back as patriarchal head of the Malay establishment once again as it controls the government, GLCs, many of the state governments, and has good relationships with most of the royal houses.


The biggest assets: no accountability, no transparency

The Malay establishment is able to make decisions, implement policies, undertake business, and carry out corrupt practices without scrutiny from the public. Only brave journalists and news portals, most of who have been persecuted and prosecuted were able to expose a number of corruption scandals over the decades in Malaysia. These include Bumiputera Malaysia Finance scandal of 1982, Bank Negara Malaysia’s RM32 billion foreign exchange losses during the 1980s and 90s, the French Scorpene-class submarine scandal of 2002, the National Feedlot scandal of 2012, the 1MDB scandal going back to 2012, the Wang Kelian scandal of 2017, and the meat substitution scandal at the end of last year.

These are only the top of the iceberg. There are many other scandals the public doesn’t even know about hidden away within ministries, agencies and state government agencies, and GLCs. Most don’t come to light because of the harsh treatment of whistle-blowers, and the use of the Official Secrets Act (OSA) to cover up exclusive contracts given to favoured companies.

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This article was first published on Murray Hunter.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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