The recent spate of attacks on churches in Malaysia, following a court ruling allowing Christians to use the word ‘Allah’ for their god, has surprised many outsiders who thought the country was relatively tolerant. But for decades, even as Malaysia’s government portrayed the country as a racially harmonious society, non-Malays have quietly chafed at discrimination against them. Following race riots in 1969, the government launched an affirmative action initiative known as the New Economic Policy. It was intended to redistribute wealth from ethnic Chinese, who make up about 25 per cent of the population but historically ran much of the country’s business, to ethnic Malays, who comprise about 65 per cent. Most of the rest of the population are ethnic Indians.
The NEP created a Malay elite that got used to sitting on corporate boards, easily getting into university, having plum jobs reserved for them, and other sinecures. Meanwhile, many ethnic Chinese and more entrepreneurial Malays left the country, decamping to Australia, Singapore, Canada or the UK. Those who stayed had few outlets for their grievances, since the largest ethnic Chinese party had been co-opted by the government, and state control of the media, along with a fear of a repeat of the riots of 1969, prevented any open discussion of issues of race and ethnicity.
Until now. Pressed by a more vocal and united opposition, which for the first time in Malaysian history threatens the ruling coalition’s stranglehold, the government has made a fateful decision to more or less allow the race card out in public. It has pushed the idea of Malay dominance – ketuanan Melayu – by supporting a creeping Islamicisation, with religion standing in for race: nearly all the Muslims in the country are ethnic Malays, and most non-Malays are Christian, Buddhist or Hindu. The government normally cracks down hard on any political gathering of more than five people, but it’s shown a notably light hand on Malay protests against non-Muslims. Police have begun taking a tougher line enforcing Islamic morals, arresting people for drinking and unmarried couples for sharing hotel rooms.
The strategy is probably an attempt to win back ethnic Malay voters, who are beginning to defect to the opposition coalition, which includes the Islamic PAS party. (The opposition has already made significant inroads into the ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.) The growth of new, freer media outlets, the passing of time since the 1960s and the breaking of a taboo on discussing the NEP have also led to a more confrontational political environment. This isn’t necessarily in the government’s interests: the Islamicisation could well backfire.