Najib’s 1MDB Scandal: Understanding Malaysia’s Ethnic Divide

Defaced mural in Penang, Malaysia.

The recent 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal raises critical questions about what exactly divides the Malay and Chinese communities in Malaysia. Will the country’s corruption scandal bring the two communities closer or pull them further apart?

Malaysia’s acting Prime Minister Najib Razak’s corruption scandal in the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) project has been widely reported. The 1MDB, a government investment fund, was established by Mr. Najib to promote foreign direct investment. In 2015, the Wall Street Journal alleged that money is missing from the 1MDB fund. The scandal made international news, as it implicated several foreign actors and multinational corporations. As soon as the corruption allegations broke, Malaysian citizens responded with large-scale rallies and heated discourse. But beyond the international and domestic reactions, the corruption controversy highlighted a larger issue – the ethnic divide between Malay and Chinese Malaysians.

Malay Malaysians are long known for supporting the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant political party in Malaysia which is currently led by Mr. Najib. As a result, the recent corruption scandal has sparked claims about the Malay population’s political judgment. Mahathir Mohamad, who acted as Malaysia’s Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003, said that the Malays would “blindly” support UMNO “even if the party does a huge wrong.” A Chinese Malaysian woman living in Kuala Lumpur expressed a similar sentiment in an interview with Fox and Hedgehog, claiming that “the Malays support Najib because they are senseless about numbers” and therefore the scale of Mr. Najib’s corruption. The corruption scandal appears to have become a tool for some to affirm certain stereotype about the Malay community in Malaysia.

 

UMNO’s Ethnic-based Policies

The UMNO, as Malaysia’s largest political party, has institutionalized policies favoring Malays over Chinese and Indian minorities over its 60 years of political rule. Particularly, after the tight election in 2013 and its corruption scandal, the UMNO has been launching a more vigorous campaign to appeal to Malay Malaysians in fear of losing public support. But the tension between Malay and Chinese Malaysians is much more complex than a simple ethnic divide.

The electoral system partly explains why it is so difficult to unpack overlaps between political affiliation and ethnicity in Malaysia. Most notably, constituency boundaries are divided so that the rural Malay population holds more electoral power than urban Chinese dwellers.

Because of UMNO’s deliberate manipulation of constituency boundaries, pro-UMNO electoral districts become sparsely populated, rural, and Malay regions, whereas districts that do not support the UMNO are urban, densely populated, and Chinese. Without taking the population of each district into account, the UMNO assigns an equal number electoral votes to all districts, resulting in unequal political power between the Chinese and Malay population.

 

Antagonistic Mindsets

With so much institutionalized political preference laid out for Malays, many successful Chinese Malaysians grow to believe that the Chinese are genetically more hardworking and therefore more likely to succeed economically and academically than the Malays. Terence Wang, a Chinese Malaysian living in Singapore, talked about his mother’s experience growing up in the Chinese-majority state of Penang.  He said, “she goes on all her life…being told that, in her country, because of her skin tone, she is less deserving of certain opportunities. And that’s hard on anyone. It is difficult for anyone to hear.” Exactly because Chinese Malaysians face so much institutionalized roadblock in their lives, they are more likely to attribute individual success to their (ethnic) genetic makeup or personal effort.

Likewise, having received so much of the UMNO’s racial campaign, the Malay community has internalized the fear that the Chinese community may take away the institutional benefits that the Malays have enjoyed for decades. It is the fear that the UMNO has repeatedly tried to take advantage of in order to benefit its own political agenda.

When asked about what divides the Malay and Chinese community, a Chinese Malaysian from Kuala Lumpur said that “Malay thinks [sic] that Chinese is taking a lot of power from economy, large businesses.” This sort of mindset has also been repeatedly used by UMNO to strengthen its Malay voter base.

 

Education Strengthens the Divide

The separated Chinese and Malay educational systems also exacerbates the antagonistic mentality held by both communities. Chinese and Malay communities can isolate themselves from other ethnicities quite easily, creating homogenous environments that foster the sort of animosity that undergirds both ethnic populations.

Despite strong environmental factors that consolidate the ethnic tension, many local residents who were interviewed still believe that the divide is not entirely ethnic. The interviewed Kuala Lumpur resident said that increasingly extreme Islamic practices, pushed by the government, play a larger role in dividing the predominantly Muslim Malay and non-Muslim Chinese community. He said that stricter halal regulations, such as the recent McDonald’s cake controversy, divides the communities more than the ethnic difference itself.

 

Urban-Rural Dynamics vs. Ethnic Divide

Another factor that complicates the picture is the urban-rural dynamics in Malaysia. Selangor, for instance, is Malaysia’s most populous state and has a 52% Malay population as calculated in 2015. Although it has a Malay majority, the urban state remains unsupportive of the UMNO. As many interviewees suggested, the strong urban-rural divide takes precedence over the ethnic tension. After the corruption scandal broke out, many Malays, especially those living in urban cities, spoke out against the UMNO. Most interviewed Chinese Malaysians also recognize that urban Malays do not “blindly” support the UMNO.

Yet, despite this recognition, institutionalized racial policies still seem to draw clear-cut lines between the ethnicities. Mr. Wang said, “we [Malay and Chinese Malaysians] have friends with each other, we know more or less how each other are like, we are mostly harmless people, but because of that very ingrained, very institutional kind of system, it is very hard to get rid of [the ethnic divide].”

 

Unite or Divide?
Meanwhile, the corruption scandal may pull the two ethnic communities closer in terms of their political standing, as both communities are equally dissatisfied with Mr. Najib’s alleged corruption. The UMNO, nonetheless, is also intensifying its political rhetoric to pitch the Malays against the Chinese. Pulled apart while sharing similar political angst, the Malay and Chinese communities in Malaysia have a long journey to go before resolving their deeply-rooted differences that lie in education, religion, electoral system, political affiliation, and demographics.