Mahathir is looking to stir up the pot yet again. The outspoken former Prime Minister still carries a strong voice in Malaysia and has made numerous bombasted remarks in recent months. His most recent comments, however, might draw a harsh back lash.

Mahathir Mohamad

Mahathir claims that the Malay community, which is comprised of Muslim individuals who immigrated from the Malay archipelago several hundred years, has a stronger claim to the country than the Orang Asli. The Orang Asli are the aboriginal people of Malaysia and have inhabited the peninsula and Malaysian islands long before the Malay community.

The Orang Asli currently make up only .5% of the Malaysian population. Generally speaking, they are considered a part of the special-status bumiputera, or sons of the soil. As “sons of the soil”, the Orang Alsi are supposed to be afforded a special status, along with Malays. In practice, most affirmative action benefits tend to go to the Malay community.

Mahathir’s words

Mahathir claims that the Orang Asli do not have a stronger claim to Malaysia because they did not set up governments or their own states. Mahathir also cited the fact that when the British and Japanese came to Malaysia, they dealt with Malay governments. This glosses over the fact that the Orang Asli were forced to flee to isolation in the interior of the country after Malay sultanates began selling them into slavery.

Mahathir also noted that being Malay is more of a cultural, rather than racial identification. According to Malaysia’s constitution, being a Malay means speaking Malay regularly, practicing Malay traditions, and being of the Islamic faith. Malays and Orang Asli are both generally afforded special affirmative action status, though many perceive that Malays enjoy more rights.

Mahathir also pointed out that deferring to the Orang Asli would be like given Native Americans, or Australian Aboriginals control of the United States or Australia.

Interestingly, Mahathir himself shares Indian ancestry, though he has always identified himself with the Malay community.

Conflicting viewpoints?

Mahathir’s statements seem to conflict with the claims of the Malay community itself. Hard lined Malays often claim that they have a stronger claim to rule Malaysia because they were in the country first. Indian and Chinese settlers only came later. If the Malay community should enjoy a special status since they arrived first, shouldn’t the Orang Asli be afforded an even stronger claim?

Further, if the right to rule is simply afforded to the rule of the strongest, as Mahathir seems to suggest in dismissing the Orang Alsi, then why weren’t Chinese given control of the government when the British left? The Chinese, then and now, control most of the Malaysian economy. Meanwhile, Indians and Sri Lankans were very prominent in the British controlled government.

Perhaps it is time to move past the race-based claims all-together. The Malaysian government has heavily favored the Malay community for the last 50 years, and this may, if anything, be constraining the country. Mahathir himself has admitted that many of his affirmative action programs have held back the emergence of a strong, entrepreneurial Malay community.

Malay extremism on the rise

Hard-lined Malays, including Mahathir, have been increasingly vocal in recent months. When Malaysia was first granted independence, riots actually broke out between the Chinese and Malay communities, but tensions were eased and the country moved forward.

In recent months, however, tensions have begun to rise, raising fears that a breakdown in racial harmony could occur. Malays make up only about 50% of the population, with Chinese, Indians, and numerous other smaller groups making up the rest. This 50-50 split could create a dangerous situation for a country struggling to maintain economic growth.