Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Across Kuala Lumpur, ‘1Malaysia’ flags flap in the tropical breeze – evidence of the impending election on May 5.
1Malaysia is a government initiative under Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, standing for a belief in national unity – irrespective of race or religion.
Health clinics, student book voucher schemes, and housing programmes for workers earning less than RM6,000 ($1,977) are some of the policies that have been implemented under the scheme.
But critics claim that the government, which has been in power in one form or another since 1957, has played the race card for its own advantage. Changing society to a truly “united Malaysia”, detractors say, is all too slow.
“The time is long overdue for politics beyond race,” said Jerald Joseph, a human rights activist on the board for the NGO Pusat Komos.
Malays, or Bumiputera, make up some 67.4 percent of Malaysian citizens. Chinese-descent citizens account for another 24.6 percent, with 7.3 percent Indian and “Others” making up 0.7 percent, according to the 2010 census [PDF].
Malay. Indian. Chinese. Other. From signing government forms to buying cars or mobile phones, Malaysians are all too familiar with stating their ethnicity in tick boxes.
Most political parties, on both sides of the divide, are structured on race grounds – evident in their names: The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) are but three such examples.
“Everyday experience confirms racism exists,” Joseph told Al Jazeera.
“In the small stalls on the roadside, you see tables of people, usually in their own ethnic groups. In universities, schools, people are separated. In public service, almost 95 percent of the civil service is Malay.”
Since 1971, the issue of race has been at the forefront of the political agenda. The Malaysian New Economic Policy (NEP) was then introduced to provide affirmative action for the Bumiputera who felt marginalised, politically by the British and economically by the Chinese.
The policy sought to redistribute the Bumiputera share of the national wealth from 2.4 percent to 30 percent. The NEP went on to provide affirmative action for the Bumiputera, granting them preferential treatment for jobs, bank credit, public sector contracts, government grants and licenses for business.
Although the NEP officially ended in 1990, many of the benefits are ongoing.
“Affirmative action has to have an expiry date,” said Joseph. “Any litigation that continues in perpetuity, like in Malaysia, breeds racism.”
The “May 13 incident” in 1969 marked a nadir in race relations – nearly 200 people died in post-election clashes between Malays and Chinese residents.
However, “there is no way” riots like this would happen again in Malaysia, said Mansor Mohd Noor, a professor at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Ethnic Studies – despite current heated discussions on both sides of the political divide.
Noor said that economic development in Malaysia had moved the country beyond a purely racial paradigm.
“The concept of 1Malaysia is very valid,” he told Al Jazeera.
The media and politicians chasing votes along ethnic lines overplay the “race-card”, he said.
“The people are not voting on that basis. They’re asking: ‘Who can take care of my food, my future, my children, my education, and my cost of living?” Politicians simplify this perception of society.”
A new voting trend?
Voters’ main concerns going into this election appear like those in many other countries. The economy, crime and social problems top the list of voter issues, reported to a December poll of more than 1,000 voters in Peninsular Malaysia by the Merdeka Centre.
But the same poll revealed that it was ethnicity that was the most divisive factor when it came to answering whether “things in this country are going in the right direction”.
Just 16 percent of residents of Chinese descent believed the country was going in right direction, compared with 70 percent of Malay respondents and 57 percent of those who identified as Indian.
According to the Merdeka Centre’s Director, Ibrahim Suffian, there remains a strong racial dimension to voting.
“The race factor in Malaysia is about political power,” he said. “Political power access means access to wealth and resources.”
The results of the 2008 general election show the electorate is beginning to move away from ethnic based voting, especially in urban areas, he said.
The rise of social media, alternative web-based sources of information and a younger electorate appear to be driving the trend.
“They are increasingly aware of the rule of law, good governance and transparency,” said Suffian. “These elements are in many ways balancing out the race-based politics.”
Back in April 2009, Najib announced the dismantling of some racially discriminatory policies, including the removal of the requirement for public listed companies to have at least 30 percent Bumiputera ownership.
Saifuddin Abdullah, deputy minister for higher education, told Al Jazeera that some changes from a race-based system to a merit-based system had been made and that this came “better late than never”.
Abdullah said ID cards no longer require a statement of race; entry to public university is now based on merit, as are overseas scholarship opportunities.
Like the opposition, the government is now talking about “needs-based” rather than “race-based” policies.
“What is interesting about [this year’s general election] is that both sides, the BN and Pakatan [Rakyat] are going centrist,” Abdullah said. “I think this is good for the country.”
“I am not saying that there will be a day where we no longer talk about the rights of the Bumiputera. But more often than not nowadays, when it comes to policies and programmes, we no longer talk about [those] rights.”
Needs based approach
Sivarasa Rasiah is a prominent lawyer, human rights activist and vice-president of the opposition People’s Justice Party. He told Al Jazeera that the racial paradigm has done Malaysia “a major disservice” in the past 20-30 years.
“What UMNO and BN have done is to play on the fears of the Malay majority,” he said. “By appearing to be [their] champions, in reality, the social and political programme has been hijacked to serve an elite few.”
Allegations of cronyism and corruption have been a constant feature in Malaysian politics.
“For us, affirmative action is not a bad word – it is necessary. But based on equalising opportunity, handing out micro-credit to the poor, [providing] extra business opportunities etc,” added Rasiah.
“The system that UMNO is based on is institutionalized discrimination. Today we have about a million Malaysians who have left the country because of discrimination.”
Racial brain drain
According to a 2011 Word Bank Report, Malaysia economic monitor: brain drain, it is the non-Bumiputeras who make up the bulk of the diaspora.
While the lure of a better life entices people, the report also said a lack of inclusiveness is a “push factor” for many Malaysians. The report said that Malaysia was “facing a new reality”.
“Inequality is no longer what it was four decades ago,” reads the report. “Nowadays, over 90 percent of the level of inequality is explained by differences within ethnic groups rather than differences between these groups. Individual socio-economic characteristics, such as activity status, sector of employment, urban versus rural stratum, and educational attainment are now the capital explanatory factors, no longer ethnicity.”
The majority of migrants surveyed by the World Bank said a “change in thinking on affirmative action to a needs-based approach” was critical to bring them back to Malaysia.
Yong Huiyoong is a Malaysian woman of Chinese descent, who studied and worked abroad in Australia. She moved back to Kuala Lumpur in 2011, as she was “curious to work in KL to see if I would survive”.
Her time abroad helped her get some perspective on the race issue facing her country.
“Because I was in a Chinese school growing up, I really only made my first Malay friend when I went to Sydney,” the 26-year-old told Al Jazeera. “I guess going overseas I saw myself as ‘Malaysian’, not ‘Chinese’.
“I think our politics is very racially driven. I’m not political at all; for me it’s the lesser of two evils. But the thing is, it shouldn’t be ‘1Malaysia’. It should just be ‘Malaysia’.”
Follow Phillippa Stewart on Twitter: @PStewart_