Call for bumiputera tag for Indian Muslims stirs debate

Malaysia's Bumiputeras are not just Malays, as there are more than 50 Bumiputera ethnic groups in Sabah and Sarawak.
Malaysia's Bumiputeras are not just Malays, as there are more than 50 Bumiputera ethnic groups in Sabah and Sarawak. PHOTO: BERNAMA

Some question what it means to be 'sons of the soil' in Malaysia

Malaysian lawyer Fareez Zahir considers himself a self-made man.

An Indian Muslim by birth, he did not receive the special privileges given to those with bumiputera status, and does not see how changing the laws would improve his life drastically.

"Houses would be cheaper, signing onto the bumiputera unit trust scheme would be nice," the 35-year-old said. "But other than that, I'm not very affected".

But some of the elders in Malaysia's Indian Muslim community think otherwise.

Prime Minister Najib Razak recently said that the government would study a proposal by an Indian Muslim umbrella organisation to recognise the ethnic group as bumiputera, which means "sons of the soil". "We are a minority community, so we need government assistance," said Mr Dhajudeen Shahul Hameed, president of the Federation of Malaysian Indian Muslim Associations.

Mr Dhajudeen said the bumiputera tag would help the community to climb the economic ladder and gain opportunities in education.

With elections looming closer, Datuk Seri Najib's response is seen as a move to shore up support from all communities, including the one-million-strong Indian Muslim community, a figure mentioned by Mr Dhajudeen. Others question why this is an issue, as there are prominent politicians and civil servants who are clearly of Indian Muslim heritage but are known as Malays to most people.

Supporters of the scheme said it is still needed as the bumiputera are still lagging, economically and educationally. To its critics, the scheme is being abused today by some Malay politicians to enrich themselves and their friends, and Malaysia should instead adopt a policy to help the poor, regardless of ethnicity.

Still, the federation's request and Mr Najib's response have stirred fresh debate about what it means to be a bumiputera in multiracial Malaysia.

Said sociopolitical analyst Eddin Khoo: "If the bumiputera status is extended to them by the fact that they lived here for generations, then it can be extended to everybody."

Introduced in 1971 by Mr Najib's father, then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, the term bumiputera was used to classify those who would benefit from affirmative action as part of the New Economic Policy (NEP).

The NEP was introduced after the deadly race riots in 1969, and was geared towards eliminating poverty among Malays and other indigenous races.

It was also meant to engineer socio-economic restructuring by raising the wealth of the bumiputera, one of the poorest communities at that time.

Under the NEP, the bumiputera are given a generous quota to enter public universities, are entitled to housing discounts, and get many government facilities to aid businesses with loans catered to them.

Supporters of the scheme said it is still needed as the bumiputera are still lagging, economically and educationally.

To its critics, the scheme is being abused today by some Malay politicians to enrich themselves and their friends, and Malaysia should instead adopt a policy to help the poor, regardless of ethnicity.

To critics of the NEP, the policy's biggest beneficiary has been the Malays aided by Malaysia's largest political party, Umno.

This is despite the fact that the bumiputera status applies too to the indigenous Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia and the dozens of native tribes in Sabah and Sarawak.

To be sure, the NEP scheme has grown the Malay middle class greatly. Many were educated overseas and hold executive posts, helped by the affirmative action policy. In debating the bumiputera issues, some have pointed out that curiously enough, the term is not found in Malaysia's Constitution.

Article 160 of the Federal Constitution only defines criteria for persons to be considered a Malay - someone who practises Islam, habitually speaks Malay, conforms to the Malay customs and is born to a Malaysian parent. In asking for Indian Muslims to be considered bumiputera, Mr Dhajudeen says the community is "in no way changing our identity or race".

Still, without a definition of bumiputera in the Constitution, lawyer and politician Murugesan Sinnandavar wrote in an opinion piece that the current understanding of who is one should remain - Malays, the Orang Asli, and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak.

"It is apparent that Indian Muslims don't qualify under any one of the above categories," he wrote.

To Mr Fareez, these discussions do not matter. He said: "I've always managed to thrive without bumiputera privileges".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 03, 2017, with the headline 'Call for bumiputera tag for Indian Muslims stirs debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe