Apartheid in Malaysia

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Malaysian bumiputera supremacists protesting against the elimination of racial discrimination against fellow citizens of different ethnic groups
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Apartheid in Malaysia refers to policies though the country's structural institutions which have been noted by many opposition groups, government critics, and human rights observers as being analogous to apartheid. This has been noted specifically against citizens who are of ethnic ChineseWikipedia and IndianWikipedia descent, as well as other minorities (Christians, Jews, Iranians, LGBT people, indigenous Malaysians, atheists, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists, etc).[1][2]

Such comparisons have also been extended to those who are of a religious minority.[3][4] In Malaysia, citizens who are of bumiputeraWikipedia status have numerous privileges over citizens without this status. What classifies a person as a "bumiputera" is directly linked to race and not social class, which means that no matter how successful you become, you will never be granted bumiputera status.

As of 2017, bumiputeras make up 68.8% of the Malaysian population and are further divided into Malay proper, who make up 54.66% of the Malaysian population, and other bumiputeras, who make up 14.14%, most of whom belong to various ethnic groups related to the Malays. However, non-Malay bumiputeras also face restrictions not faced by Malays, such as land ownership, being the "second-tier" in a "three-tiered" system of citizen rights.


The term "apartheid" in a Malaysian context largely refers to the analogy in comparison with apartheid in South Africa. Malaysia, since its inception in 1957 and endorsed by successive governments, especially under the Barisan NasionalWikipedia (BN) coalition as well as various splinter parties, espouses a concept of Ketuanan Melayu,Wikipedia which directly translates to "Malay supremacy." This concept is indistinguishable from apartheid-era South Africa's Baasskap,Wikipedia which is connected to the English term "white supremacy".

Bumiputera status[edit]

In Malaysia, the definition of what constitutes a citizen as a "bumiputera" per article 160 of the Constitution of MalaysiaWikipedia is as follows:[5]

  1. "The criteria for a person to be considered Malay; which is to profess Islam, habitually speak the Malay language, conform to Malay customs and be born to a Malaysian parent."
  2. "If one of the parents is Muslim Malay/Orang Asli as stated in Article 160 (2) Federal Constitution of Malaysia; thus the child is considered as a bumiputera".


Malaysia is one of the only few countries (fewer than 10) in the world not to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial DiscriminationWikipedia (ICERD) at the United Nations (UN), due to the possibility of "conflicts" with the Constitution of MalaysiaWikipedia and the "race and religious norms" that may jeopardise the special status of Malays in the country.[6] One of the core provisions of ICERD, particularly in Article 3, specifically mentions its condemnation of apartheid policies and racial segregation.

When BN lost its majority after the 2018 Malaysian general election,Wikipedia there were fears among the Malay population of eventual ratification by the Pakatan HarapanWikipedia (PH) coalition, which could possibly signal the end of bumiputera privileges and special positions of the Malays. Race relations eventually deteriorated to the point where a mass rally was held in the country's capitalWikipedia of Kuala Lumpur to pressure the government against ratification.[7] PH lost two years later in the February 2022 "Sheraton Move" 2020–21 Malaysian political crisis,Wikipedia with pro-Bumiputera parties, including BN, regaining government control.

Brain drain[edit]

These policies have caused significant rates of human capital flightWikipedia (or brain drain) from Malaysia. More than 300,000 Malaysians commute to Singapore daily via the Malaysia–Singapore borderWikipedia, including for education and work.[8] Many would move to Singapore permanently and take up Singaporean citizenship.[9][10] Other reasons include the country's proximity to Malaysia, its higher standard of living, significantly more job opportunities arising from the country's international status as an economic hub, and most notably the higher currency exchange rate of the Singapore dollarWikipedia over the Malaysian ringgitWikipedia – S$1 equals to about RM3.10 as of 2022.[11][12]

Analysts have stated that major pull factors have included better career opportunities in Singapore and abroad as well as compensation, while major push factors included corruption, social inequality, educational opportunities, and racial inequality such as the Malaysian government's bumiputera affirmative action policies. A United Nations Department of Economic and Social AffairsWikipedia showed that close to a million Malaysians were in Singapore as of 2019.[13]

According to the World BankWikipedia, human capital flight from Malaysia has also increased in pace – 305,000 Malaysians migrated overseas between March 2008 and August 2009, compared to 140,000 in 2007.[14] Non-bumiputeras, particularly Malaysian IndiansWikipedia and Malaysian ChineseWikipedia, were overrepresented in these statistics. Singapore is the foremost destination.[15] This is reported to have caused Malaysia's economic growth rate to fall to an average of 4.6% per annum in the 2000s compared to 7.2% in the 1990s.[16] In 2019, as many as 1.7 million Malaysians were employed overseas. Singapore is the most favoured country with 54% of Malaysians having moved there, followed by Australia at 15%, the United States at 10%, and the United Kingdom at 5%, with the remaining 16% being in other countries.

A study by Standford UniversityWikipedia highlighted that among the main factors behind the Malaysian brain drain are the "less attractive salary and benefits" offered in the country, the lack of career prospects, and the unavailability of opportunities in certain fields. "A majority of Malaysia’s economy is based on production and manufacturing instead of research and development, making it a magnet for semi-skilled labour but resulting in the lack of skilled job opportunities," it stated. Another factor that contributed to the Malaysian brain drain is social injustice. It is inferred that the emigration of non-bumiputera Malaysians from the country is driven by discriminatory policies that appear to favour Malays/Bumiputeras—such as providing exclusive additional assistance in starting businesses and educational opportunities.[17]


The analogy has been debated by various government politicians, critics, and human rights activists. Supporters of retaining the policies argue that the laws were "agreed" to as part of a "trade off"Wikipedia to grant non-bumiputeras Malaysian citizenship, known as the social contractWikipedia.[18]

In 2009, Democratic Action PartyWikipedia (DAP) politician Boo Cheng Hau,Wikipedia the opposition leader in the Malaysian state of Johor, compared "bumiputeraism" with state apartheid. In response, Boo faced intense criticism and death threats by the United Malays National OrganisationWikipedia (UMNO), which is a part of the BN coalition. Nik Aziz Nik MatWikipedia of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic PartyWikipedia (PAS) subsequently added that the term bumiputera is itself "racist" and the that the policy prevented other races from receiving government aid.[3]

In 2015, human rights activist Shafiqah Othman Hamzah also noted that the practice of apartheid policies against different religionsWikipedia in Malaysia is institutionalised and widespread, adding that "What we are living in Malaysia is almost no different from apartheid."[4]

Gender apartheid[edit]

Some human rights activists have also added that Malaysia's policies also extend to gender apartheid.Wikipedia In 2006, human rights activist Marina Mahathir,Wikipedia the daughter of Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad,Wikipedia described the status of Muslim women in Malaysia as similar to that of apartheid-era South Africa.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Jonathan Kent (11 March 2006). "Malaysia 'apartheid' row deepens". BBC. 
  2. Nair, Chandran (20 March 2022). "Time to end the educational apartheid facing Malaysia’s ethnic minority groups" (in en). 
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Nik Aziz says 'bumiputera' term is racist". The Malaysian Insider. 1 March 2009. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Hamzah, Shafiqah Othman. "Are we headed for a Malaysian apartheid? | Malay Mail" (in en). 
  5. Harding, Andrew (27 July 2012). "Chapter 8 - Religion and the Constitution". The Constitution of Malaysia: A Contextual Analysis. Hart Publishing. ISBN 9781847319838. 
  6. Norshahril Saat (16 December 2018). "Commentary: Malaysia's anti-ICERD rally a reality check for Pakatan Harapan". Channel NewsAsia. 
  7. "PAS and Umno to hold anti-Icerd rally in KL on Dec 8 - Malaysiakini". Malaysiakini. Retrieved 17 November 2021. 
  8. Jenner, Alison (23 March 2022). "Singapore, Malaysia agree to work towards fully resuming air, land travel for vaccinated people: Ong Ye Kung" (in en). "Before border restrictions were implemented in March 2020, around 300,000 Malaysians would commute across the border daily for work." 
  9. Jamie Koh, Stephanie Ho (2009). Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9780313351167. 
  10. "Flourishing ties rooted in shared history". The Straits Times. August 9, 2015. "Many Singaporeans and Malaysians had friends and family on the other side of the Causeway." 
  11. "SMEs: Locals prefer to work in Singapore". The Star. April 29, 2019. "Many preferred to work over there due to the exchange rate." 
  12. "Young Malaysians Tell Us The Honest Truth About What It's Like To Work In Singapore". Says. January 17, 2017. "it's relatively close to Malaysia compared to other places around the world." 
  13. Lim, Ida (19 January 2020). "UN data shows Malaysians make up biggest migrant group in Singapore at 44pc" (in en). 
  14. "Malaysia's Brain". Asia Sentinel. 18 February 2010. 
  15. "Malaysia's brain drain getting worse, says World Bank". Malaysian Insider. 28 April 2011. 
  16. "Social injustice main cause of country's brain drain". Malaysian Insider. 28 April 2011. 
  17. "Putting the Malaysian diaspora into perspective". Stanford University. 
  18. Chung, Clarissa; Zainal, Fatimah (24 May 2019). "Experts: ‘Social contract’ never in the Constitution" (in en).