Ethnicity and Inequality in Malaysia: A Retrospect and a Rethinking.


This paper examines the role of Malaysia's New Economic Policy (NEP) in contributing to the absence of widespread inter-ethnic violence in the country since 1969. The paper begins by discussing dominant approaches to understanding the impact of the NEP. It argues that these suffer from two interlinked shortcomings. Firstly, they have all given a central role to the state in explaining ethnic relations, although more recent scholarship is starting to build on the innovations of scholars beyond Malaysia to develop more society-focused accounts. Secondly, it is argued that this state-centric approach has failed to address issues of intra-group contestations over issues such as the precise definition of what is required to be classified as Bumiputera, the main group that benefited from the NEP. While inter-ethnic stability in Malaysia has often been attributed to the NEP, the paper provides an alternative explanation. The paper argues that a series of 'extraneous political factors' account for this stability, including the success of the campaign of Malay 'language nationalism'; the Islamic revivalism of the 1970s and 1980s; the development of a system of political patronage; and the populist policies of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (1981-2003). The paper concludes by identifying newly emergent sources of inequality that are usurping the old Malay-Chinese dichotomy and threatening ethnic stability, including the increasing divide between West and East Malaysia and the new articulation of Malay-Indian tensions.


CRISE Working Paper 9, 31 pp.

Ethnicity and Inequality in Malaysia: A Retrospect and a Rethinking.

Published 1 January 2005