Institutional Racism and Religious freedom in Malaysia – I
by Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy on 10 Jan 2012 1 Comment

Institutional racism is the process by which people from ethnic minorities are systematically discriminated against by a range of public and private bodies. If the result or outcome of established laws, customs or practices is racially discriminatory, then institutional racism can be said to have occurred.

In this paper we postulate that Malaysia has all the hallmarks of a racist and religious extreme state on the following foundation;
a) The Federal Constitution basically establishes 2 classes of citizens vide Article 153, the root of the racist system
b) The State sanctions racist and religious extreme laws and policies

c) The State controls the Government Administration through one racial and religious group
d) The State channels most funds for economic/education/social development programs and licenses, permits etc., to one race
e) The State controls Religious freedom to the disadvantage of non-Muslims, imposes of Muslim religious laws on non-Muslims and extends the jurisdiction of the Syaria Courts onto non-Muslims

f) The State sponsors violence and threats of violence both directly and indirectly (outsourced) on
the citizens to create fear among the non-Malay non-Muslims

g) The State sanctions draconian, punitive laws and gives blank cheques to the Police to make arbitrary arrests of dissenters

h) The State explicitly and implicitly declares that the Malays are the masters (Malay Supremacy) and the sons of soil.

Ethnic composition of Malaysia - Malays 53.3%; Chinese 26.0%; Indigenous 11.8%; Indians 7.7%; Others 1.2%.

Religions - Islam (60.4%); Buddhism (19.2%); Christianity (9.1%); Hinduism (6.3%); Other/none (5.0%)

In the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, a Malay is defined as one who is a Muslim, speaks the Malay language and habitually practices Malay culture, customs and traditions. In reality as long as a person is a Muslim he can be a Malay, even an illegal immigrant and a foreigner who is a Muslim can be Malay.

Non-Muslims represent approximately 40 % of the population – approximately 12.5 million people and include Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and nature worshipping communities. The Indian population and other non-Malay and native races are clearly a minority community. The treatment received by the minorities in Malaysia relating to public and private bodies clearly establishes that Institutional racism is occurring in Malaysia. Malaysia is not that bubbling, bustling melting pot of races. In reality it is a country based on a subtle, pervasive and increasingly aggressive form of racism [1]

The conflict that lies just below the artificial calm, is so well concealed, that someone with not more than a cursory knowledge of Malaysia will find it hard to believe that there exists anything significant otherwise. The current discourse holds that even what is termed racism here is no more than an outcome of a failing and incompetent bureaucracy. Everything else is just affirmative action.

The various state policies have been creatively crafted and carved into a jigsaw of a reinforcing racist system. The state system operates with the protection of official secrecy and a tight hold on the various apparatus of the state that whosoever dares to cross the line runs the risk of detention and malicious prosecution. This effectively renders the phenomenon of racism in Malaysia opaque and gives racism in Malaysia its uniquely Malaysian flavor.

The Malay supremacy or Malay dominance narrative holds that the Malay people are the tuan (masters) of Malaysia and the Chinese and the Indians, who form a significant minority, are beholden to them for granting them citizenship. In return for which the special position of the Malays as set out in Article 153 of the Malaysian Constitution is freely interpreted to mean special privileges – no holds barred. The Article was initially intended to be reviewed 15 years after independence (1957), however it has become a permanent feature. In subsequent amendments to the Constitutions, Article 153 was entrenched further, which requires the consent of the Malay Rulers before it could be amended.

Article 153 is a deep-rooted racist provision in the Constitution which sanctions implementation of all racist policies in Malaysia to the disadvantage of the minority non-Malay/Muslim population. Questioning any matter, rights, status, privilege etc of Article 153 is considered a challenge to the Malay Supremacy, insulting the Royal Institution and Islam. It is also deemed a threat to National Security, an offence under the Internal Security Act which gives powers of arrest for unlimited period without trial and under the Sedition Act which provides for imprisonment between 3-5 years.

The current Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers have on previous occasions openly threatened non-Malays with violence (blood) should this provision be questioned. The rise of Malay “ultras “ who advocated a one-party government led by UMNO, and an increased emphasis on the Malays being the “definitive people” of Malaysia — i.e. only a Malay could be a true Malaysian became more apparent after the race riots in 1969. The riots caused a major change in the government's approach to racial issues, and led to the introduction of an aggressive affirmative action policy strongly favoring the Malays, the New Economic Policy (NEP).

The Malaysian New Economic Policy (NEP or DEB for Dasar Ekonomi Baru in Malay), was a determined and divisive socio-economic restructuring affirmative action program launched by the Malaysian government in 1971 under the then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak. In practice it was a social engineering project to enrich a particular race – the Malay Muslims.

Though the NEP ended in 1990, it effectively continued as the National Development Policy in 1991. The NEP has reduced non-Malays and natives of Peninsula Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak to the status of second-class citizens through the ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacist) policies. The non-Malay/Muslim minority will never be able to call themselves Malaysians in equality and would remain a permanently colonized people.

The entire range of government administrative policies, annual budgets, economic programs, education, job opportunities in public sector, grant of land, business opportunities, permits or licenses for any business or trade are tilted to favor Malay Muslims and are meant to segregate just like the apartheid system in South Africa and In effect to implement a divide and rule policy to maintain the UMNO led political party hegemony.

This paper establishes the facts and joins the dots and hopes to clarify the reality of this institutionalized racism and religious extremism. The phenomenon will be established by laying out the experience of the minorities. In this paper we try to give as many facts and as much data as are available to us to corroborate our claims. It continues to be an uphill battle getting necessary and reliable statistics from the Government as it does not put out such statistics as this is part of their scheme to keep under wraps the numerical representation of the uncomfortable facts.

We will segment the various experience as follows:

1. Treatment in State Policies

2. Treatment by the Malaysian Police

3. Treatment in and by the State Administration

4. Treatment by the Judicial System

5. Treatment by the Media

6. Treatment in the Education system

1. Treatment in Government Policies

The New Economic Policy (NEP) of the Malaysian Government from the 1970s had the stated objective of eradicating poverty irrespective of race and of eliminating identification of race with occupation. However in reality NEP and its subsequent economic programs have seen the channeling of hundreds of billions (the exact figure remains a state secret) to enrich and uplift the Malay Muslims.

Article 153 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution states that:

153. (1) It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (the Malaysian King) 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.

The phrase special position has been interpreted to mean special privileges and the entire government policy frame has been hijacked in favor of the Malays and the innate racist tendency of the Constitution was given a fillip by Dr. Mahathir from the 1980s. This hijacking has been made possible by the muzzling of any and all dissenting views by the various draconian laws of which the Internal Security Act of 1960 is the most notorious. The Sedition Act (1969), the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, and the Official Secrets Act 1972 are some of the other acts.

The above two factors – the NEP driven by the distorted interpretation of Article 153 and the muzzling of dissension of Government policy has in effect made NEP the policy vehicle for the institutionalization of the racism. The NEP accelerated the formation of the largely Malay Administration which for its part then worked hand in glove with the dominant Malay political party – UMNO and the other key institutions and consolidated the institutionalization in the ways described above to become what it has become.

Outsource of UMNO policy implementation to NGO’s and the Para-Military underworld

Since the Democratic uprising of Indians led by Hindraf in 2007 and the subsequent loss of its 2/3 Parliamentary mandate in the March 2008 elections, UMNO has outsourced its overt racist agenda to NGOs, in particular PERKASA. This is an NGO led by a Pro UMNO Parliamentarian who promotes the Malay supremacy agenda and has the explicit support of top UMNO leadership including the former Prime Ministers, ex Army officials and ex Inspector General of Police.

PERKASA works intimately with a more militant group known as Pekida [2] and another underworld Para-military group known as 3 LINE. Together they perpetuate racial hatred and cause fear among the non-Malays.

3 LINE is believed to have existed from after the 1969 racial riots and its members pledge their loyalty to the serving UMNO Prime Minister. It is said they have sworn to protect the Malay UMNO hegemony at any cost, and are believed to be armed and work closely with the Police and Armed forces. Many Malaysians know the existence of 3 LINE but dare not speak about this underworld movement for the obvious reasons.

3 LINE members are mainly former and current members of the Royal Police force and Armed forces. They move freely and are not subjected to Law and often their threat of violence is given tacit approval by the government. We have reliable information that the 3 LINE para-military members were involved in the Kg Medan Racial attack in 2001 where hundreds of ethnic Indians were attacked unprovoked and 5 killed. All 3 groups are sanctioned to perpetuate racial / religious
hatred and fear towards the Non-Malays.

Government budgetary allocations

Government budgetary allocations have largely been slanted towards Malay Muslims in the following areas as a matter of unashamed policy. Various arms of the Government act in support:

1.       All Government projects are primarily given to Malay Muslim individuals and organizations. All government procurement requires involvement of or outright Malay equity participation in the supplying organization.

2.     All Government contractors have to be licensed by the Finance Ministry before being given any Government projects. The Finance ministry ensures that only Malay contractors are licensed such.

3.      Malays have been promoted in the Civil service to assure that the highest policy-making positions will be filled by Malays regardless of objective performance standards. Almost all Secretaries-General of ministries and Directors-General of professional departments are Malays. The same is true of their deputies. And it cannot escape notice that virtually all senior officials in public universities, from school deans upwards to Chancellors are Malays.

4.     Thus, the Malay to non-Malay recruitment ratio of 4:1 for the elite Malayan civil service (MCS) was instituted [3], which ensured that “at least 80 per cent of the service will be filled by Malays, far above their proportion in the total population” [4].

5.      As of June 2005, more than 85% of the Civil Servants were Malay [5]. This was an increase of close to 25% from 1971.

6.     Development programs such as Entrepreneur, Technoprenuer development programs, Land development Programs, Small and Medium Industry development Programs, Financial Aid programs, Womb to Tomb business development programs are almost entirely for the Malays.

The FELDA Scheme – Federal Land development Authority

What started as a modest land development agency in 1956 today has become a giant scheme which manages an area of 2 million acres and encompasses more than 530,000 people. FELDA's main role is to open up new land areas for agriculture and relocation of low income and landless rural inhabitants. This program has become an almost entirely Malay Muslim development program.

There is a systematic and wholesale exclusion of Non-Malays from this program. Indian plantation workers who were being actively displaced at the time of the growth of this FELDA scheme in the 1970s and 1980s were not considered part of the target group, because they were not categorized as being from the rural community. This was convenient way to exclude. An estimated 800,000 Indian plantation workers have been displaced from plantations without any alternative programs/compensation.

FELDA, FELCRA, PERDA, KEDA, KETENGAH, KESEDAR, KEJORA and a host of other development agencies use procedural techniques of one form or another such as this to entirely exclude the deserving Indians and other non-Malays from any form of participation in these schemes. What is guaranteed in the constitution is made totally inconsequential by the introduction of arbitrary rules by the administration. This is the subtlety inherent in the uniquely Malaysian form of racism.

This is very clearly basic UMNO policy. It helps it take care of its core constituency, the rural Malays. It becomes a platform for patronage that has been developed and honed and fine tuned over the last 50 plus years, and provides the necessary opportunities for accumulation of wealth for the growing appetites of the Malay elites. The 2009 results of FELDA show a total turnover of RM 11.8 Billion. The profits before tax alone are RM804 million [6] . See the scale of things – enormous.

Take this one initiative by FELDA - a RM 120 million residential school for FELDA children - a Maktab Rendah Sains Mara (MRSM) in Trolak, Perak. Compare this with the recent promise of an allocation of RM100 million by the Prime Minister for 523 Tamil schools in the country, for which there is no evidence of disbursement anyway. There are 42 MRSM schools like the one above in the country.

FELDA has launched a new generation skills training program and has put out over 24,000 Malay Muslim graduates since 2005.They have a budget of RM50 million annually for this program.

In 1980, the World Bank raised concerns over the ethnic bias in FELDA settler selection by pointing out that if the government was serious “about increasing the non-Malay share in agriculture, some increase in the non-Malay share of settlers was warranted.” It was especially concerned about Indian plantation workers who faced increasing under-employment following the estates’ conversion from rubber to oil palm and who in normal circumstances “would be good candidates for land development schemes.” [7]

The World Bank’s concerns went unheeded by UMNO.

The TEKUN Program

The Tekun Nasional scheme is a scheme to provide micro credit and to develop entrepreneurs. The
specific objectives of the scheme are:

-        Provide business funding which is easily available and quickly disbursed

Provide information on entrepreneurs and business opportunities

-       Offer training and support to entrepreneurs participating in Tekun programs

-       Create a community of Tekun entrepreneurs who will form a hard driving, innovative and progressive business network.

-       Nurture a culture of entrepreneurship within the Malaysian people

-       Encourage and foster a culture of prudence in the Tekun community

To give you an idea of the scale of discrimination:

This was statement from Datuk Abdul Rahman Hassan, the Managing Director of Tekun from 1998 till 31 December 2007. TEKUN Nasional has disbursed loans totaling RM 772.0 million to 139,000 entrepreneurs. For the year 2008 alone TEKUN Nasional has provided RM 182 million as loans to 19,000 entrepreneurs. [8] That is close to RM1 Billion - not to mention almost all those loans went to Malay Muslim entrepreneurs. Participation in the Tekun program of Indians is miniscule - a total of 93 Indian entrepreneurs received loans amounting to RM761,000 on July 24, 2009 in a ceremony. [9] That is less than 0.1% of that disbursed to the Malay Muslim entrepreneurs.

The collusion of the various arms of the Government to keep dissent in check

Various arms of the Government work in tandem to operationalize the racist agenda of the Government Policies

Some of the key ones are:

1. Government Linked Companies

2. Government Investment Companies

3. Economic Planning Unit

4. The Federal Cabinet of Ministers

5. The various Ministries

6. The Royal Malaysian Police

7. The Attorney general’s Office

8. The Judiciary

9. The Government Administrative Services

10. The Government owned Banks

11. The Government controlled media

The repressive laws that facilitate the development of racism

The Government has used suppressive laws like the Internal Security Act, the Official Secrets Act, Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Seditions Act during this period to implement these terribly racially lopsided development plans while allowing the racist system to grow. This very clearly reminds one of similar laws employed by Apartheid South Africa.

The ISA took effect on August 1, 1960 with the solemn promise that it would only be used “solely against communists”. Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, the former Prime Minister who had tabled the Bill, had also assured the House during heated debates that the law was for two purposes — to counter subversion and to enable measures to be taken to counter terrorism. Despite their promises the Alliance government and its successor BN have over the years been using the oppressive act for political reasons — to silence dissenting voices that criticized the government and to prevent the people from exercising their right to free speech. Since the ISA was enacted in 1960, some 10,670 people have experienced what it is like to be imprisoned on mere suspicion without given the right to a trial.

Just in September 2011, the Prime minister who has been under tremendous pressure on these counts, announced that the ISA would be repealed. This has however to be passed in Parliament before it will take effect.

a. Treatment by the Malaysian Police

Given the need to maintain a racist regime, the Police have become a primary instrument of control for the majority Malay party in Government – UMNO. Police violence, abuse of power and human rights abuses occur very regularly.

Cases of death in custody, partial handling of criminal disturbances, violent dispersal of peaceful protestors and other form of human rights violation continue. This has created a climate of impunity and normalization of violence, abuse of power and violation of human rights in Malaysia.

The socio-economic marginalization of the Indian minority has resulted in the formation of a significant underclass among the Indians. The numbers of Indians involved in crime has risen alarmingly. The number of individuals detained just under preventive laws for crime of violence at the Simpang Renggam Rehabilitation Centre in Johor in 2003 is 702, of which 316 are Indians compared to 111 Chinese and 111 Malays. [10] This is about half of total inmates. For a population which makes up less than 10% of the total population, the percentage of Indian inmates is disproportionately high. More than 45% of the crimes reported in Malaysia are committed by Indians [11].

This fact coupled with the impunity of the police force has resulted in the brutal treatment of Indians in custody. This convergence of unbridled police power, a regime based on racism and the politically and economically weak Indian community has resulted in some of the worst forms of Human Rights violations in Malaysia.

Death in custody

Further the treatment meted out to Indians remanded by the police or in its unofficial shoot to kill policy clearly indicates a systematic institutional intent to physically hurt, and to psychologically damage and is invariably harsh. The testimony to that are the rampant cases of death of Indian suspects beaten to death.

Occasionally we get a glimpse of this in the public. Kugan’s death while in custody on the 20th of Jan 2009 is a very well known example of Police Brutality against Indian crime suspects. In the October 2003 parliamentary sitting, Deputy Home Minister Zainal Abidin Zin revealed the numbers of alleged criminals shot to death by the police. (This is a rare occasion when the government Minister comes out with some statistics like this)

2000 - 33 deaths;

2001 - 14 deaths;

2002 - 54 deaths;

2003 to date - 27 deaths [12]

In another written parliamentary reply to Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj (PSM-Sungai Siput) on 28 June 2010, Home Minister Hishammuddin revealed that police shot dead 82 suspects in 2008 and 88 in 2009.

We know from newspaper reports alone that there were 11 police caused killings in 2009 and 10 out of those were Indians. Most of those killed thus are of Indian origin. Reliable statistics are difficult to come by to corroborate. 

Here is an example of a typical occurrence quoted from the Suaram Report of 2003

V. Viknes, 19-year-old school boy was fatally gunned down by the police in October 2002. Viknes parents disputed the police’s claim that their son was a wanted criminal and “marksman and weapons expert.”

The account presented by police was disputed by Viknes's family, who claimed that the youth was nothing more than an innocent schoolboy who still lives with his family. They raised suspicion of foul play. “Where are the witnesses? Where are the police cars that should be riddled with shots? Where are the wounded policemen?” asked his distraught father G. Vesvanathan at a press conference. He also accused Federal Criminal Investigation Department director Salleh Mat Som of being a “liar” for claiming that his son was a “marksman and weapons expert.” Vikines’s uncle, Silva Govindasamy, questioned the police’s claim that his nephew was involved in about 20 criminal cases.

“If he was a suspect in so many cases, why didn’t the police approach the school or family? The boy has never been arrested, never harassed, he doesn’t even have a (criminal) record!” The family also alleged that the police instructed the Tengku Ampuan Rahimah Hospital in Klang not to conduct a second post-mortem on Vikines’s body nor cooperate with them.

Selective enforcement of the law and intervention by the Police

On the 28th of August 2009 a protest march was held by a group of Malay Muslims in the township of Petaling jaya against the location of a Hindu temple in the vicinity of their residence. The protestors carried a severed cow’s head to rub salt into their overt disregard for the sensitivity of the Indian Hindus. Ten days after the incident the Police took no action against the Malay Muslim offenders. Yet 16 Indian Hindus were arrested for holding a peaceful candle light march at Dataran Merdeka to protest the desecration of a sacred Hindu symbol.

For 15 days from the 8th of March 2001 to the 23rd of March 2001 killings and slashing of Indians in Kampung Medan were allowed to occur under the very nose of the Police.

5 Indians were killed and more than 100 Indians were seriously wounded in these racially motivated criminal acts. The Police were “unable to control the situation” in spite of the fact that all these incidents happened within an area of 10 sq. kilometers and a Police cordon of the area. In spite of loud calls by several members of civil society there has been no impartial inquiry into this incident nor any move to bring to book the perpetrators of this crime.



1. John R. Mallot, US Ambassador to Malaysia from 1995-1998. Feb 8th 2011 - The Wall Street Journal, , “The Price of Malaysia's Racism”

2. Malaysia Today, January 15th 2011 -October 1987 revisited

3.Khoo Boo Teik : December 2005 “Ethnic Structure, Inequality and Governance in the Public Sector, Malaysian Experiences, , Democracy, Governance and Human Rights” Programme Paper Number 20, pp29, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

4. Puthucheary, Mavis. 1978. The Politics of Administration: The Malaysian Experience. Pp58. Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur.

5. Norman Fernandez: Jul 5, 2011 “Media whitewash on non-Malays in civil service” -

6. Felda official website 5 Year Financial Highlight, Group Performance 2005-2009 (year ended December 31)

7. World Bank Report, 1980, pg 70-71: David Glover and Lim Teck Ghee – Contract Farming In Southeast Asia, 1992 Pg 84.

8. Welcoming speech by the Managing Director and CEO of Tekun from the official Portal of tekun

9. Bernama Nationa News Agency - 24 July 2009

10. ACP Amar Singh Sidhu: “The Rise of Crime in Malaysia: An academic and statistical analysis” -
Journal of the Kuala Lumpur Royal Malaysia Police College, No. 4, 2005

11. Deputy President of MIC, S Subramanian, April 26th 2011, Tamil Nesan

12. SUARAM monitoring


The author is a Malaysian lawyer of Tamil origin who is currently a member of the HINDRAF campaign to fight discrimination against Malaysian Hindus

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