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The struggle to revive multi-culturalism: the lost Malaysian dream

By Murray Hunter - posted Tuesday, 12 April 2022

The Tourism Malaysian highlights Malaysia’s ethnic diversity as a unique strength. The website proudly espouses Malaysia as the only “one place where all the colours, flavours and sights of Asia come together.”  Yet the dominating Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) narrative advocates a Malaysian mono-culture, where anything non-Malay is a portrayed as a threat to the existence of the Malays and their way of life.

This paradox in what is espoused and what is the political reality on the ground is very quickly turning the concept of Malaysia as a multi-cultural nation into a myth. Multi-culturalism existed long ago, and is only remembered by the Merdeka generation today.

Their Malaya was a nation that had struggled to pull together a sense of mission about what Malaya, and later Malaysia would stand for.


It is far too simplistic to argue that the Chinese at the time did not see Malaya as their home. Many within the Chinese population had a strong anti-colonial sentiment and wanted to see an independent Malayan nation. At the same time, many of the parents of today’s Bumiputeras had only just migrated to Malaya from Indonesia over the last couple of generations.

As Dr. Lim Teck Ghee pointed out in his recent article “Muda, younger generation should start with our real history”, the Reid Commission, which had the responsibility of drawing up the Malayan constitution didn’t see a two-tier system of citizenship for the new nation. The commission in Section 165 of their report saw the need for certain Malay privileges for a period of time, so as their position within the new nation doesn’t fall behind other races or communities. This was a safety net rather than an ideology.

In Section 168, the Yang di-Pertuan Besar should have the special responsibility of safeguarding the special position of the Malays.

The first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman ruled the country supported by a coalition comprising the major races. The cabinet was made up of Malays, Chinese, and Indians, even though UMNO could have governed on their own, winning 34 out of 52 seats in the 1955 general election.

After Merdeka, the old colonial restrictions upon Chinese business were eased. This allowed ethnic Chinese to enter most fields of business, especially those previously dominated by the British. Chinese businesses and conglomerates played a major role in the economic development of Malaysia throughout the 20th Century. Foreign direct investment was also buoyant between the 70-90s in what was then seen as a promising multi-cultural Malaysia.

At this time, Malaysia had the potential to become one of the leading powerhouse economies in the region. However, development became a very top-down initiative. There were often other agendas sewn into development plans, leading to massive financial scandals that are now symbolized by 1MDB. GLCs were pushed into the front of the economy, dominating equity holdings in the KLSE. Massive corruption, which has been estimated by some to cause in excess of 30% leakage from government spending has been covered up, through cash-cows like Petronas that supplement government revenue.


Although Malaysia developed a massive middle class, which is now stuck in the middle-income trap, a super wealthy elite class also developed. The governments they controlled set down discriminatory regulation, quotas, and restrictive licensing. This has played a major role in creating a poorly diverse rent-seeking orientated economy.

It has long been argued whether the New Economic Policy (NEP) actually did what it was designed to do. One major spinoff flowing on from the policy, was the manifestation of the old ketuanan Melayu ideology into what it is today. This became the foundation of public policy for decades to come, where the civil service became the custodian of the mythical ‘Malay agenda.”

The push towards Islamization and the education system over a number of generations has undermined the concept of multi-culturalism.

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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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