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Are we not all bumiputera?

All Malaysians should retain a primary ethnic and religious identity as they so choose but be entitled to full rights as citizens

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In this newsletter, I would like to share my thoughts on the term bumiputera.

In an important op-ed in Malaysiakini, Lim Teck Ghee argued for why we should discard the bumiputera/non-bumiputera distinction as it leads Malaysia into a “race and identity cul-de-sac”.  

He adds that the dichotomy has not been seriously examined or critiqued by researchers, even though it has been the basis of practically all major national policies for the past half century of Malaysia’s existence. 

The bumiputera construct has no legal basis. When the Tunku was questioned in 1965 about it in Parliament, soon after Singapore had left Malaysia, he responded that the term “has no legal meaning except in so far as to denote the natives of the mainland of Malaya and the natives of the Borneo States” (Sharon Sadique and Leo Suryadinata, Bumiputra and Pribumi: Economic Nationalism (Indiginism) in Malaysia and Indonesia, Pacific Affairs, Vol 54(4), 1981-82).  

As to who officially qualifies to be bumiputera in Malaysia, read this.

Not in the Constitution

Not only does the term bumiputera have no legal standing, it is actually not found in the Malaysian Constitution. It received wide usage after the Bumiputera Economic Congress in June 1965 and, as pointed out by Lim, first appeared in Parliament when the “Majlis Amanah Ra’ayat” (Mara) Bill was tabled in August 1965 to replace the Rural and Industrial Development Authority Ordinance 1953.

Since the promulgation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1970, the term bumiputera has become institutionalised. Bumiputera has been used as a convenient term to exclude certain Malaysians from policies stipulated by the NEP while including the indigenous population of the Borneo states.

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It is a no-brainer that when Malaysia was formed and affirmative action was to be extended to groups other than Malays, the term bumiputera (sons of the soil)was coined.

From one perspective, this was a progressive development as the term covered a large swathe of the indigenous population who deserved affirmative action. In practice, the NEP has gone way beyond its progressive aspects to tackle ethnic and equity imbalances. Nonetheless, the policy deserves praise for the highly impressive reduction of hardcore poverty.

In my view, national policies should never be ethnically driven or defined by ethnic categories. Citizenship is all one needs as the criteria for various government policies. There is a crying need for national policies to be needs-based and aimed at target groups such as the hardcore poor, the aged, people with disabilities, and the working class.  

Jus soli – the right of soil

The current use of the bumiputera construct has clouded a proper understanding of the notion of Malaysian citizenship. Citizenship should be based solely on the principle of jus soli (right of soil) not jus sanguinis (right of blood). 

Let me explain this briefly. A person would usually qualify as a citizen if he or she is born on a particular soil or state. Often, the requirement is that one parent is a citizen or the person becomes a naturalised citizen on that soil after fulfilling certain nationally stipulated conditions.

The jus sanguinis principle is the direct opposite of jus soli and is rarely practised. There are two prime examples of this. Anyone with Chinese blood can in theory choose to be a Taiwanese and hold a Taiwanese passport. If one is a Jew, by virtue of Israel’s Law of Return, one could become a citizen of that country.  

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By most accounts, jus sanguinis is considered unprogressive. Taiwan was competing with the People’s Republic of China to gain citizens. And Israel was created out of citizens of other countries, depriving Palestinians of a state in their homeland.

Using the bumiputera word in the current manner to determine national policy is patently unfair to all Malaysians. It confers a ‘manufactured majority’ to the largest socially constructed group in the country and victimises genuine minorities. Malays actually formed only 46.5% in 1970 at the inception of the NEP, but using the category bumiputra made this group a majority of 56%. Today, bumiputera are about 65% of the population. Thus, 35% of Malaysians are deprived of benefits that ensued from certain national policies.

We are minorities

As a matter of fact, Malaysia may be just a conglomerate of minority groups if we break them down to different ethnically or regionally bounded categories. For example, if Malays were further divided among those of Javanese, Arab, Indian, Bugis, Sumatran, Pattani, Cham and other origins, we will indeed have a host of interesting minority groups even among Malaysia’s so-called largest indigenous community.

This would also be the case if we chose to deconstruct the Chinese Malaysians into their multiple dialect groups or the so-called Malaysian “Indians”, who are just a conglomerate of different ethnic minorities from the Indian Subcontinent, including Tamils and Singhalese from Sri Lanka.

If one added to the above rendition of peninsular ethnic diversity, some 27 ethnic groups of Sarawak and some 30 ethnicities of Sabah, then it won’t be difficult at all to show that Malaysia today is in fact a nation of myriad minorities!

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In time, Malaysia’s ethnic make-up will probably change even more radically given the current presence of some seven million migrant workers.

In contemporary thinking about race relations, the term super-diversity has come to be used because of global mobility and migration.

We are all bumiputera

It is undeniable that Malaysia is a multicultural nation-state. We must therefore accept the notion of multicultural citizenship, that all Malaysians should retain a primary ethnic and religious identity as they so choose but be entitled to full rights as citizens.

A Malaysian by such a definition would be a “son or daughter of the soil” either by birth or naturalisation – a bumiputera, period! The term is nothing more than another word for Malaysian citizenship!

With Vision 2020, the term “Bangsa Malaysia” was proposed. I now propose that we go further step – let us all be Bumiputera.

Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
8 March 2021

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