Malaysia: A Divided Society

A divided society

Then the time came for me to enter a high school. I had to make a decision whether to go into a Malay high school or a Chinese high school. If I were an Indian, I could also consider going into a Tamil high school. This was a major decision, since it would determine if I could go into a university, and it would also affect the type of university I could enter later on.

Going into a tertiary institution has always been my dream. My dream university is a place, where people are on equal standings to create, to nurture and to pursue their own ambitions. There, people want to learn not because of societal pressures, but because of passions. There, people become really civilized, so that nobody will be treated unfairly by anyone. There, people find a passage to the rest of the world and employ the skills they have learned to make the world a better and a fairer living place. These people are willing not only to challenge the world, but also to be challenged by the world. (Ok, I admit that it takes many years for me to realize that a bully sometimes also stays in the university, and some people who haven’t received a proper university education can still advance the human society in a way that other university students or lecturers cannot. Anyway, it is the motivation, the process and the outcome of learning that count. To me, a university is still a good starting point to acquire the essential learning skills.)

For all these reasons, I was determined to get myself into a university. And for this, I had to go through my secondary education. The question was: Should I enter a Malay or a Chinese high school?

If it is a Malay high school, Malay will be the sole instructional language, except in the language courses like English or Chinese. The parents will not need to worry about the school fees, because it will be funded by the state. And theoretically the students will only need to pass through some high school exams, then they can get into a public university in Malaysia. Therefore, a lot of Chinese students choose to get into a Malay school, speaking only Malay or English, trying very hard to integrate and to assimilate into the culture fostered by the government.

As it turns out, there is a quota system that restricts university entry of the non-Malays (I read that only about 10% is for non-Malays). If you are a non-Malay, a non-bumiputera (Bumiputera, which literarily means princes of the earth, is a Malay term to denote all the Malays and other indigenous groups in Malaysia), even if you pass the high school exams with a flying colour, you cannot easily enter a public university in Malaysia. Imagine this following conversation happening to your friends, sons, daughters, etc:

“You passed your high school exams with all As?”
“You were born in Malaysia?”
“Your parents were born in Malaysia?”
“Your grandparents came to Malaysia even before the independence of Malaysia?”
“Sorry you cannot come into our university right now. You have to prepare for other exams.”
“Because you are a non-Malay, and we have a quota for non-Malays.”

I really want to understand the reason behind this kind of treatment reserved for the non-Malays. As the history books tell us, in the 19th century CE, when some colonists set foot on the land to gain economic benefits, they needed labour force, so the Chinese and the Indians were brought in. By the time of 1957, Malaya consisted of just under 50 per cent Malays (3,126,706), about 37 per cent Chinese (2,332,936), 12 per cent Indians (695,985) and about 0.2 per cent “Others” (123,136). There were serious economic and educational inequalities among different ethnic groups. Employment opportunities were closely linked to educational levels. Back then, the educational opportunities were concentrated in the hands of the non-Malays, who often congregated at the urban centres, where teaching facilities were better equipped. The Malays often lived in the rural regions, where the quality of education was low. Even after the Independence in 1967, nearly three-fourths of the university enrolment consisted of Chinese students while the Malays only made up one-fourth. Reasonably, the Malaysian government was eager to address the inequality, and it was a problem that should not have happened in any country. Probably in light of this, when the Malays and the non-Malays fought for their independence in 1957, the non-Malays were willing to make a concession to enshrine the “Special Position of the Malays” in Article 153 of the Constitution. This was supposed to give the Malays a head start who were economically, socially and educationally disadvantaged.

I do think that the people with a firmer income and standing do have the responsibility to help the less advantaged people. To a certain extent, I can empathize with some of the rural people, because both of my parents were from the rural areas in Malaysia. My late grandparents on my father side were hard-working labourers in one rubber plantation. They were once very poor, so that they could only afford one son to go into a secondary school. My great uncle was so generous that he was willing to give that education opportunity away to my father. As a result, being the second out of the eight sons, my father went on to study in a high school and subsequently in a university in Malaysia, and later in a theological seminary in Singapore. My mother was also from a village where the inhabitants were mainly pig farmers. A gambler, who happened to be the biological mother of my mum, sold my mum to a Christian when she was still a baby (Yes, I just wrote “sold.” If I were my mum, I’d never forgive the person who traded her baby for money. But my mum insisted on forgiveness, and took the initiative to visit that gambler, who happened to live in the same village. She even tried to share her faith with her. I still don’t know how she was able to do that, but I admire her for that). My mum later met and fell in love with my father in the same theological seminary in Singapore. Every year, during the holidays, my family visited our grandparents and other relatives in the countryside and I loved the complacent calm of these places, and I loved having fun with my cousins. The people there seemed more down-to-earth, more straightforward and less materialistic. But sometimes, having listened to the stories about the schooling conditions in these areas, I did think that my life would have followed a very different path if I had not gained access to the educational resources in the city areas. What I want to say is that there has been an uneven distribution of educational resources that should ideally not happen at all. Anyway, why should education be reserved only to those who are born rich and powerful, or those who have greater access to the urban facilities?

But why should then Article 153 that affirms the special position of the Malays be used to restrict the education of the Chinese and the Indians? Why should the benefits for one gained at the expense of another group? Why are they banned to pursue the education of their choices after their high school studies? And so I heard about some of my brother’s childhood friends who had to take another more difficult exam to get into a public university, while the bumiputera could follow an easier path to the university. Even after this extra exam, the non-bumiputera could not be guaranteed a place in the public university, since there was still a quota system that had to be dealt with. And so I heard about the non-Malay friends who were forced to spend an obscene amount of money to get expensive education overseas or in private education centres. Despite the adverse conditions, there are still some non-Malays working together with some kind-hearted Malays, who are willing to stay in this part of the world, because they firmly believe that they can still make an effort to change their birth country. Hat tip to these people.

Recently, I’ve met a Malaysian Chinese graduated from a Malay secondary school who speaks Malay and English more fluently than Chinese and who now studies in Göttingen. “How’s life in Malaysia?” I asked randomly. Then I heard him complain about job opportunities and other sorts of strange treatments to the non-Malays in Malaysia. I left that country a long time ago. Despite all the rumours I had heard from time to time, I never took them too seriously. I thought that things could not be too bad for that country. At that time, I was unable to believe that great injustice was happening more and more severely in that country, and so I challenged him: “How do you know that they are not going to treat you fairly? They don’t write it in black and white that you can’t apply for this or that study, right? So just apply for that!” He didn’t shout, cry or laugh at my naivety, he just replied quietly: “You don’t have to read the injustice in black and white, you can just feel it.”


  • If you are interested in the pathway to a Malaysian public university, you can check out the link here. This website is set up by a group of Malaysian students. It does not seem to be politically oriented, so it does not discuss the right or wrong of the quota system (except for the anonymous comments at the bottom of the website). I just find it terrifying that the quota system seems to be treated as a norm in Malaysia.
  • This article here discusses the quota system in relation to Article 153 of the Constitution. It is written by one member of a non-profit opposition group in Malaysia.
  • This article here is about a strange resignation of a professor recently.
  • You see, not all Malays are discrimating the non-Malays. This blog article here looks really kind and friendly.
  • All the above cited statistics are taken from Cheah Boon Kheng, Malaysia: The Making of a Nation, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 2002, 79, 86.

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