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Bumiputera or Bumiputra is a Malay term widely used in Malaysia, embracing indigenous people of the Malay Archipelago. The term comes from the Sanskrit word bhumiputra, which can be translated literally as "son of earth" (bhumi= earth, putra=son).

In the 1970s the government implemented economic policies designed to favour bumiputras (including affirmative action in public education) to create opportunities, and to defuse inter-ethnic tensions following the extended violence against Chinese Malayasians in the May 13 Incident in 1969. These policies have succeeded in creating a significant urban Malay middle class. They have been less effective in eradicating poverty among rural communities. Some analysts have noted a backlash of resentment from excluded groups, in particular the sizable Indigenous Non-Muslim Malays Orang Asli, Chinese and Indian Malaysian minorities.



The concept of a bumiputra ethnic group in Malaysia was coined by activist Tunku Abdul Rahman. It recognized the "special position" of the Malays provided in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, in particular Article 153. But, the constitution does not use the term "bumiputra"; it defines only "Malay" and "aborigine" (Article 160(2)),[1] "natives" of Sarawak (161A(6)(a)),[2] and "natives" of Sabah (Article 161A(6)(b)).[2] Definitions of bumiputra in public use vary among different institutions, organizations, and government departments and agencies.

In the book Buku Panduan Kemasukan ke Institusi Pengajian Tinggi Awam, Program Pengajian Lepasan SPM/Setaraf Sesi Akademik 2007/2008 (Guidebook for entry into public higher learning institutions for SPM/equivalent graduates for academic year 2007/2008), the Malaysian Higher Education Ministry defined bumiputra as follows, depending on the region of origin of the individual applicant[3]:

  1. Peninsular Malaysia
    • "If one of the parents is Muslim Malay as stated in Article 160 (2) Federal Constitution of Malaysia; thus the child is considered as a Bumiputra"
  2. Sabah
    • "If a father is a Muslim Malay or indigenous native of Sabah as stated in Article 160A (6)(a) Federal Constitution of Malaysia; thus his child is considered as a Bumiputra"
  3. Sarawak
    • "If both of the parent are indigenous natives of Sarawak as stated in Article 160A (6)(b) Federal Constitution of Malaysia; thus their child is considered as a Bumiputra"

In addition to the interpretation given above, some activists have proposed a broader definition of bumiputra to include groups such as the Thai Malaysians, Muslim Indian Malaysians, Straits Chinese or Peranakan [4] and the Kristang people of Portuguese-Eurasian descent. Others favour a definition encompassing all children of Bumiputra; there have been notable cases of people with one Bumiputra parent and one non-Bumiputra parent being dismissed as non-Bumiputra.[3]


At the time of Malaya's independence from the British in 1957, the population included many first or second-generation immigrants who had come to fill colonial manpower needs as indentured labourers. Chinese entrepreneurs, who typically settled in urban areas, played a significant role in the commercial sector. The Communities Liaison Committee (CLC), comprising leading politicians from different racial backgrounds, supported the promotion of economic equality for the Malays, conditional on political equality for the non-Malays. CLC member E.E.C. Thuraisingham later said, "I and others believed that the backward Malays should be given a better deal. Malays should be assisted to attain parity with non-Malays to forge a united Malayan Nation of equals."[5]

As a result, Article 153 of the Constitution states that:

It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article.

Article 160 defines a Malay as being one who "professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay customs and is the child of at least one parent who was born within the Federation of Malaysia before independence of Malaya on the 31st of August 1957."

Article 8 of the Constitution, states that all Malaysian citizens shall be equal under the law, and "Except as expressly authorised by this Constitution, there shall be no discrimination against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment." Article 153 itself expressly forbids particular forms of discrimination; clause 5 states that "All persons of whatever race in the same grade in the service of the Federation shall, subject to the terms and conditions of their employment, be treated impartially," while clause 9 states: "Nothing in this Article shall empower Parliament to restrict business or trade solely for the purpose of reservations for Malays."

The term of the Bumiputras' special position has been disputed. The Reid Commission, which drafted the Constitution, initially proposed that Article 153 expire after 15 years unless renewed by Parliament. This qualification was struck from the final draft. After the May 13 Incident in 1969, representatives within the government argued over whether the special position of the bumiputras ought to have a sunset clause.

Ismail Abdul Rahman argued that "the question be left to the Malays themselves because ... as more and more Malays became educated and gained self-confidence, they themselves would do away with this 'special position'." Ismail believed the special position was "a slur on the ability of the Malays."[6] In 1970, however, one member of the Cabinet said that Malay special rights would remain for "hundreds of years to come."[7]

In the 1970s, the government implemented the New Economic Policy (NEP), designed to be a more aggressive form of affirmative action for the Bumiputra than Article 153. Article 153 provides specifically for the use of quotas in the granting of scholarships, positions in the civil service, and business licences, as well as native reservations of land. Policies under the rubric of the NEP include subsidies for real estate purchases, quotas for public equity shares, and general subsidies to Bumiputra businesses.

Former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and his predecessor Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad have both suggested that Malays should depend less on government assistance. Many observers believe full abolition of bumiputra privileges is unlikely, especially in view of the constitutional issues involved, although successive administrations since Mahathir have attempted to reform the system of government aid for the bumiputra. Some bumiputra groups believe further affirmative action is necessary.

Parliament began to use the term bumiputra in 1965. Following debate of the act to create the Majlis Amanah Rakyat (MARA), the government founded an agency to preserve bumiputra interests.[8]


Some institutes of higher learning, such as the Open University Malaysia, have enacted admission policies favouring bumiputra students.

Certain pro-bumiputra policies exist as affirmative action for bumiputras. Such policies include quotas for the following: admission to government educational institutions, qualification for public scholarships, positions in government, and ownership of businesses. Most of the policies were established in the Malaysian New Economic Policy (NEP) period. Many policies focus on trying to achieve a bumiputra share of corporate equity, comprising at least 30% of the total. Ismail Abdul Rahman proposed this target after the government was unable to agree on a suitable policy goal.[6]

Examples of such policies include:

  • Companies listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange (Bursa Saham Kuala Lumpur) must have 30% bumiputra ownership of equity to satisfy listing requirements. Foreign companies that operate in Malaysia also must adhere to this requirement.
  • For a limited period, a certain percentage of new housing in any development has to be sold to bumiputra owners. Housing developers are required to provide a minimum 7% discount to bumiputra buyers of these lots. This is required regardless of the income level of the potential buyer. Remaining unsold houses after a given time period are allowed to be sold to non-bumi if the developer proves attempts have been made to fulfill the requirement. There is no bumiputra discount on existing housing.
  • A basket of government-run (and profit-guaranteed) mutual funds are available for purchase by bumiputra buyers only. The Amanah Saham Nasional (ASN) has return rates approximately 3 to 5 times that of local commercial banks.
  • Many government-tendered projects require that companies submitting tenders be bumiputra owned. This requirement has led to non-bumiputras teaming up with bumiputra companies to obtain projects, in a practice known as "Ali Baba". Ali, the bumiputra, is included solely to satisfy this requirement, and Baba (the non-bumiputra) pays Ali a certain sum in exchange.
  • Projects were earmarked for Malay contractors to enable them to gain expertise in various fields.
  • Approved Permits (APs) for automobiles preferentially allow bumiputra to import vehicles. Automotive companies wishing to bring in cars need to have an AP to do so. APs were originally created to allow bumiputra participation in the automotive industry, since they were issued to companies with at least 70% bumiputra ownership. In 2004, The Edge (a business newspaper) estimated that APs were worth approximately RM 35,000 each. They also estimated that the late Nasimuddin Amin, the former chairman of the Naza group, received 6,387 in 2003, making him the largest single recipient of APs. More than 12,200 APs were issued in 2003. In addition to APs, foreign car marquees are required to pay between 140% to 300% import duty.

As a result of these policies, many bumiputera with good connections quickly became millionaires. According to Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, former Minister of Trade and Industry, the policy was to create "Towering Malays". In 2005 she gave a speech that stated: "If there are young Malay entrepreneurs whose companies are successful, then we appreciate their success, we want Towering Malays of glokal (global and local) standard". She also said that the policy of Approved Permits (APs) had produced many bumiputera entrepreneurs in the automotive industry.[9]

Bumiputras previously received certain privileges in public tertiary education, such as ethnic quotas. In 2004, Dr. Shafie Salleh, the newly appointed Higher Education Minister, stated that he "will ensure the quota of Malay students' entry into universities is always higher." Non-bumiputra students who perform well on the STPM have often been denied admission to their first choice of study in public universities, while bumiputra students with lesser grades were admitted.

Since 2000, the Government has discussed phasing out certain affirmative action programs and reinstating "meritocracy". In 2003 it began the system of "Malaysian model meritocracy" for university admission. Admission to public universities was not based upon a common examination such as the SAT or A-Levels, but rather upon two parallel systems of a one-year matriculation course and a two-year STPM (Malaysian Higher School Certificate) programme. Bumiputras compose an overwhelming majority of entrants to the matriculation programme. Critics say that the public university entry requirements are easier for matriculation students.

Quotas also exist for Public Services Department (JPA) scholarships, full scholarships offered to students to study in leading universities worldwide. These scholarships are given on the basis of SPM (Malaysian Education Certificate, the equivalent of O-Levels) results, ethnic group, and certain quotas. The JPA scholars are sent to selected pre-university programmes offered by the government — from there, they apply to universities.



Early debate

In the 1965 session of Parliament, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (who was also a Member of that Parliament) questioned the implementation of Malay rights as proposed. Lee asked, "How does the Malay in the kampung find his way out into this modernised civil society? By becoming servants of the 0.3 per cent who would have the money to hire them to clean their shoe, open their motorcar doors?" and "How does telling a Malay bus driver that he should support the party of his Malay director (UMNO) and the Chinese bus conductor to join another party of his Chinese director (MCA) — how does that improve the standards of the Malay bus driver and the Chinese bus conductor who are both workers in the same company?"

Lee closed with "Meanwhile, whenever there is a failure of economic, social and educational policies, you come back and say, oh, these wicked Chinese, Indian and others opposing Malay rights. They don't oppose Malay rights. They, the Malay, have the right as Malaysian citizens to go up to the level of training and education that the more competitive societies, the non-Malay society, has produced. That is what must be done, isn't it? Not to feed them with this obscurantist doctrine that all they have got to do is to get Malay rights for the few special Malays and their problem has been resolved."

It soon became clear that the PAP's campaign for a Malaysian Malaysia under the Malaysian Solidarity Convention as an indirect challenge against the racial policies was not well received by the ruling Alliance, led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Amidst the escalating communal issues in the state of Singapore, and the problems regarding the racial tensions created by the PAP, Tunku Abdul Rahman announced Singapore's expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia on 9 August 1965, hours after the Malaysian Prime Minister made a similar announcement in the Malaysian Parliament.

Present debate

The Bumiputra laws stand out as an unusual public policy where preferential actions benefit the majority race of a country, and some argue that the advantages afforded to Bumiputras are unfair and border on outright racism. Others argue that the Malaysian situation at the time the policy was introduced — where a minority ethnic group widely regarded as non-native controlled most of the locally-owned sector of the economy, due in no small part to colonial legacies which had assisted Chinese migrants to become dominant in the business sector to the point that Malays were largely excluded from economic life, other than as subsistence farmers, small-scale fishermen, and laborers — was an unusual and deeply unstable situation. The government also argues that the legal and economic advantages are necessary for Malaysia to reduce ethnic conflict. The NEP, in particular, was spurred by large racial riots on May 13, 1969.

At the 2004 annual general assembly of the United Malays National Organisation, which is the largest member of the governing coalition, deputy chair Badruddin Amiruldin cautioned against questioning the Bumiputras' special rights, which met with approval from the delegates: "Let no one from the other races ever question the rights of Malays on this land. Don’t question the religion because this is my right on this land."[10] In 2004, Mohd. Johari Baharum, parliamentary secretary of the Prime Minister's Department, stated that the PSD scholarships would remain quota based. He added that there were no plans to convert this to a merit based system, and that the total value of the PSD scholarship since 1996 was 2.4 billion Ringgit.[11] There have been reported cases of students who failed to get PSD scholarships, but were later admitted to leading universities.

In former Malaysian journalist Rehman Rashid's autobiographical book, A Malaysian Journey, first published in the early 1990s, he claimed teachers are pressured in universities to give favourable grades to Bumiputra students, even if unwarranted. He also suggested that many grants given by private corporations to students could be unofficially earmarked for the Bumiputra.

Another controversial aspect is that the Orang Asli of peninsular Malaysia are not considered Bumiputra under the Federal constitution. As their settlement predates that of the Malays, this is considered unfair by many, especially as they are also much worse off than the Malays. As such, various groups including SUHAKAM, the Malaysian Commission of Human Rights have called for the government to recognise Orang Asli as Bumiputra[12] Others argue that the Orang Asli are in fact considered Bumiputra.[13]

Recently, members of the Indian community have also been vocal in demonstrating for Hindu rights and protesting that their community has long been worse off than the Malay community, a situation compounded by unfavorable treatment as non-Bumiputras. Several members of the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) are currently in detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

On the 1st of March 2009, Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the spiritual leader of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party stated that the term “bumiputera” is racist and the policy prevented other races from receiving government aid. Nik Aziz’s remarks were made in response to the criticisms and threats made by UMNO against Democratic Action Party’s Dr Boo Cheng Hau, the opposition leader in Johor when Dr Boo was reported to have compared “bumiputeraism” with state apartheid[14].

Present condition of the Bumiputra

Former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohammad has bemoaned the extreme reliance of Bumiputras on their privileges: "We have tried to tell them if you depend on subsidies, you are going to be very weak. But they don’t seem to understand. We tell them if you use crutches, you will not be able to stand up. Throw away the crutches, stand up straight because you still have the capacity. I have talked about this thing and as a doctor I know very well the meaning of crutches but somehow or rather they want the easy way out. If I get an AP [car import permit] and I sell it and make some money, it’s all right, they say."

Mahathir (who was also education minister previously) also said in 2004 that Malay graduates tend to have low employment rates because "the Chinese graduates choose the right subjects so they are employable. We find that the Malay graduates, especially those from the Malay stream, can’t speak English at all. No matter how much value you put on a certificate, the fact remains that an employer wants somebody with whom he can communicate. The employer is not Malay, he is a foreigner. And if he’s not going to be able to communicate with you, he will not take you."

Furthermore, the Malay students, with Government-issued scholarships and study loans, tend to take up subjects like Syariah Law, Islamic History and other Islam-related subjects. Instead of choosing to learn English and taking up subjects that are of more secular tangible benefits (e.g. Engineering, Medicine, etc.) some have gone to great lengths to further their studies in Middle Eastern countries, learning Arabic in the process. Even so, this has not always been to the benefit of the students. In June 2006, it was revealed that a batch of 169 students sent to the Al-Azhar University in Cairo had difficulties with the Arabic language, resulting in only 5 students making it through their course.[15] The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, had strongly criticized this trend among Malay students to choose "simple subjects" which are worthless in the job market.

In 2006, the then Minister of Higher Education, Mustapa Mohamad, has stated that that he wants public universities to recruit more non-bumiputra academic staff in order to "strive for world-class institutions", which may signal a move toward less racial profiling in academia.

However, as of 2007, Chinese Malaysians dominate the professions of accountants, architects and engineers while Indian Malaysians dominate the professions of veterinarians, doctors, lawyers and dentists well exceeding their respective population ratios compared to Bumiputra.[2][3]

It should be noted that the manufacturing sector is exempted from the Foreign Investment Committee (FIC) Guidelines. The 30% Bumiputera equity and restrictions in market entry have been removed for all sub-sectors.(pdf)

The state of Penang has announced that it will no longer favour Bumiputras in state sector employment, following the 2008 elections in which the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition was defeated in that state.

In April 2009 Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak (also President of UMNO) liberalised 27 minor sub-sectors from the 30% equity exempting them from Bumiputra equity. This however was widely viewed as an attempt to salvage the general malaise and severe corruption that had affected the Malaysian political scene. While UMNO itself has been affected by severe corruption and money politics, members in major coalition partners such as MCA, MIC, and PPP have lost much support from the minority populace who have been demanding equal treatment as elucidated in the Human Rights Charter Article 1 via the removal of constitutional clauses that have institutionalized Special Malay Privileges into a form of economic apartheid and cultural suppression. Opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat has in turn gained large groundswell of support in addressing the apartheid issue and has better consultation with the citizenry so far, though not without internal friction within its coalition partners.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ "Part XII: General and Miscellaneous, Constitution of Malaysia (Articles 152 - 160)", Accessed May 30, 2007
  2. ^ a b Part XIIA: Additional Protections for States of Sabah and Sarawak, Constitution of Malaysia (Articles 161 - 161h), helplinelaw. Accessed May 30, 2007
  3. ^ a b "Being 'mixed' is no privilege". Borneo Post. 2009-10-29. Retrieved 2009-10-29.  
  4. ^ "Malaysia: The People of Malaysia", TripAdvisor
  5. ^ Ongkili, James P. (1985). Nation-building in Malaysia 1946–1974, pp. 82–84. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-582681-7.
  6. ^ a b "Snag in policy implementation", New Straits Times, 31 Dec 2006, pp. 8–9
  7. ^ Lim, Kit Siang (1978). Time Bombs in Malaysia, p. 218 (2nd ed.). Democratic Action Party. No ISBN available.
  8. ^ Tan, Chee Koon & Vasil, Raj (ed., 1984). Without Fear or Favour, p. 10. Eastern Universities Press. ISBN 967-908-051-X.
  9. ^ [1], Web 5
  10. ^ Gatsiounis, Ioannis (2004-10-02). "Abdullah stirs a hornets' nest". Asia Times. Retrieved 2009-11-08.  
  11. ^
  12. ^ (PDF)
  13. ^
  14. ^ "Nik Aziz says ‘bumiputera’ term is racist". The Malaysian Insider. 2009-03-01. Retrieved 2009-03-01.  
  15. ^ Only Five Students Complete Course. Bernama. June 5 2006.


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