Thousands celebrated today in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, as the country marks 50 years of nationhood. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi used an anniversary speech to urge people to unify as a nation. "We must ensure that no region or community is left behind," he said. "We will hold true to the concept of justice and fairness for all citizens." The celebrations mask a debate which is growing about what it means to be Malaysian in the ethnically diverse nation.
Ethnic Malays make up slightly more than half of the 27 million population but control less than 20 per cent of the economy. There is significant resentment of the 24 percent Chinese minority who control 40 percent of the economy. There is simmering resentment under the surface that occasionally manifests as race riots. However a now prosperous Malaysia is hoping the anniversary will usher in a new era of tolerance
The anniversary is not a true commemoration of the federation of Malaysia – that did not occur until 1963. The 1957 event was the independence of peninsular Malaysia only or Malaya as it was then known. The nation had a torrid birth occurring as it did before the Malaya Emergency had come to an end. The emergency lasted from 1948 to 1960 and was a war between an Anglo-Malay force and a Chinese backed Communist insurgency. The Communist force was made up overwhelmingly of Malaya’s Chinese population, a matter that still causes resentment today.
Despite the emergency, Britain handed over power to Kuala Lumpur on 31 August 1957 on a night of pomp and circumstance to first Prime Minister Tengku (Prince) Abdul Rahman. Amid shouts of “merdeka” (freedom) Rahman pledged to defeat the Communists. The British withdrawal proved a shrewd move as the insurgency lost much of its motivation with the colonial power out of the picture. The last serious resistance from the Communist guerrillas ended with a surrender at Telok Anson marsh in 1958. The remaining rebel forces fled to the Thai border and further east.
In 1963 the Malayan federation was renamed Malaysia with the admission of the then-British crown colonies of Singapore, Sabah (British North Borneo) and Sarawak. Brunei was also due to enter the federation but withdrew after a revolt in December 1962. The Brunei revolt caused Indonesian president Sukarno to announce his opposition and he called on the Indonesian people to adopt a policy of Konfrontasi against the proposed new state. Indonesian volunteers infiltrated Sarawak and Sabah and engaged in raids and sabotage and spread propaganda. They also attacked the Malay peninsula which was defended by the British navy. The attacks went on until 1966 when Sukarno lost power in a coup d’etat.
While Malaysia successfully held on to Sarawak and Sabah, they lost Singapore. The island state was expelled in 1965 after a heated ideological conflict between the state's government and the federal Kuala Lumpur government. The more racially diverse Singapore objected to the new Malay policy of “bumiputra” - racial discrimination in favour of the native Malays. Now constitutionally enshrined and supported by the New Economic Policy, Bumiputra means “sons of the soil” and was seen as a necessary policy of affirmative action for Malays who were supposedly disadvantaged by the heavy presence of immigrants in the Malay Archipelago during colonial rule.
The legacy of bumiputra affects Malaysia today. The government does not impose any restrictions on minority races, who are free to practice their own culture, religion and education. Nevertheless, the races that make up its multicultural population remain poles apart. They have separate friends and lead separate social lives. Most Chinese and Indians send their children to Mandarin and Tamil language schools while the Malays attend national institutions. Former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim now proposes to reform the political landscape to promote national harmony. "We need to appeal to the Malays, Chinese and the Indians and the rest that we need to go beyond race-based politics,” he said. “If you continue to harp and support this racial equation, you will never be able to overcome racial divisions”.