The ‘Bumiputera/Immigrant’ Conceptual Trick

By Dr Kua Kia Soong, Director of SUARAM

In their moment of exuberance, the fat cats in the recent UMNO general assembly really “let the cat out of the bag” when they poked fun at each other’s immigrant backgrounds. UMNO’s biggest champion of “bumiputeraism” as we all know has mamak origins; other UMNO bigwigs who were on stage were goaded for their Bugis, Achinese and other foreign origins.

But by some conceptual trick, they are strictly “Malays” no matter where they come from (even Kerala or the Middle East) and therefore qualify as “bumiputeras” who are entitled to special “rights”.

500 Years but Still No Land Titles!

It so happened that on the same week as the 2010 UMNO general assembly, the Galas by election was in full swing and the papers highlighted the amazing fact that in the historic Kampung Pulai in the constituency, the Hakka Chinese have been living there for 500 years and they still don’t have titles to their land! Why? Because they are “immigrants” – they have not assimilated, converted to Islam and therefore are not entitled to special “rights”.

There are more than 500 Chinese New Villages in the country with a population of some two million and they all face this problem. They have existed for more than 60 years ever since the Emergency. At every election, a few households will be dished out land titles in the same way that citizenship is dished out to a handful every once in a while when THOUSANDS of Chinese and Indians face this problem.

How can there be economic transformation when the small enterprises in the New Villages do not have the security of tenure to effect investment on their land?

Are these Chinese and Indian Malaysians asking for special “rights”? No, they are only asking for that simple birth right for having been born in this country and having lived and contributed to this country for so many years.

Does everyone see the “conceptual trick”?

It is astounding that the bugbear that was thrown into the Independence struggle to put the anti-colonial forces on the defensive – viz. who are the ‘pribumi’ (indigenous people) and who are the ‘pendatang’ (immigrants) and therefore not qualified for citizenship – continues to divide our society in 2010.

I have been monitoring this rather contrived controversy since the 1970s and never fail to be bemused by the antics of UMNO leaders. On 8 November 1983, then UMNO Culture Minister Anwar Ibrahim referred to Non-Malays in Parliament as the “new immigrants” (but he has since recanted his foolish past). Dr Mahathir referred to Non-Malays as immigrants on 21 August 1985. During the rather contrived controversy between UMNO and MCA over this issue toward the end of 1986, an “eminent historian” even suggested:

“Malaysian Chinese are still considered ‘immigrants’ but can become ‘pribumis’ (indigenous people) if they are able to assimilate Malay customs and religion (Islam)”.

The eminent historian overlooked an elementary point of logic – namely, how could a ‘non-pribumi’ become a ‘pribumi’ simply by assimilating when the latter is strictly a historical category? He unwittingly exposed the fact that the ‘pribumi/non-pribumi’ distinction is rooted in political consideration and has nothing to do with historical justification!

Isn’t it amazing that with all the hype about “1Malaysia” and “Transformational This and That”, this reference to Non-Malay Malaysians as immigrants continues unabated?

The Obsession with “Race”

UMNO politicians are obsessed with race. It is not surprising when there is so much at stake for them in terms of economic largesse! Dr Mahathir’s “Malay Dilemma” is rooted in that paradigm. He can be forgiven for his inadequacy because he has not been schooled in the Social Sciences. I would be embarrassed to have these UMNO leaders in any enlightened social science faculty.

This obsession with race has little currency in the anthropology or sociology disciplines, not to speak of human rights in the international community. Dato Sir Roland Braddel, former President of the Council of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and once legal adviser to UMNO has pointed out:

“There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as the Malay race; there are Malay people, the Malay culture and the Malay language, etc.”
(The Study of Ancient Times in the Malay Peninsula and Straits of Malacca”, MBRAS, 1980:3) 

Serious scholars of history, anthropology and ethnography are not concerned with the chauvinistic question of “who was here first?” in order to please racists and communalists. They are more concerned with the humanistic and enquiring attitude. For example, R.O. Winstedt (“Malaya”, 1923:86) states the theory by Kern that the home of the Malays is Champa, Cochin ChinaCambodia. Braddell confirms this from pre-historical research. and

If one is concerned with the strict definition of “race” (“a biological group based on a community of physical characters”), Elliot Smith (“Human History”, 1930) differentiates between Indonesians and Malays racially. Malays and Jakuns are generally considered to be of the Mongoloid race, while Indonesians and Polynesians belong to the Mediterranean race. But is one is talking about “Malay culture”, then the country where the earliest written specimen of the Malay language has been found, is Sumatra.

Even so, these theories by renowned scholars are by no means conclusive because of the lack of data, inadequate anthropological and ethnographic studies. But such is the stuff of honest scholarship which put to shame the obscurantist assertions of mindless chauvinists and racists.

The racists may like to know that the concept of race used by geneticists and the like has no relevance to the political differences between people. There is no concept of dominance (ketuanan) or subordinance (kehambaan?) as far as the rights of citizens are concerned in a democratic country.

Historical Fact or Conceptual Trick?

The British poet laureate John Betjeman put it rather pithily when he said:

“History must not be written with bias,
 Both sides should be given,
 Even if there is only one side…”

As history is our witness and as the fat cats at the recent UMNO general assembly also know, “Malays” are also immigrants of sorts in this country, while the Orang Asli have the sole claim to the epithet “original people”. But alas, do they enjoy “Bumiputera” special “rights”?

The Non-Malays in this country are indeed sensitive to being referred to as “immigrants” or “pendatang” because their citizenship status in this country has been subject to manipulation ever since British colonialisation. Thus despite the fact that the Chinese had settled in Kampung Pulai, Kelantan and Malacca for some 500 years; in Perak, Penang, Singapore since the 19th century or longer, only 500,000 Chinese and 230,000 Indians held citizenship in 1950. (Federation of Malaya Annual Report, 1950:24)

This represented merely a fifth of the total Chinese population even though by 1947, more than three-fifths of the Chinese and one-half of the Indian population in Malaya were local born. (1947 Census, 1949:29)

A speech by Tan Cheng Lock, then senior Chinese representative on the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements on 19 October 1932 is rather revealing:

“I look in vain for any tangible sign or indication of any active interest, practical sympathy, and encouragement that has been shown by the Government of late toward…the Straits-born Chinese who have formed a continuous colony in this country for more than 500 years, and the locally-born Chinese subjects of the Protected Malay States who have made this country their home.

“On the contrary, these loyal subjects of Malaya are, practically speaking, not to be allowed in future to own and cultivate rice lands in this country of their birth though foreigners from Sumatra and Java are granted that privilege…” (R. Emerson, “Malaysia”, p.513)

At the time, according to “A Report on the 1931 Census” compiled by C.A. Vlieland:
“Only a negligible fraction of the Malay population consists of descendants of pre-19th century immigrants…more than half of it has less than 50 years’ prescriptive right to the title ‘owners of the soil’. The Malays are in fact merely immigrants of generally longer standing than the other migrant races represented in the peninsula and are in no sense an autochthonous population.”

British Neo-Colonial Compromise

After the Second World War, with the birth of the United Nations and the Declaration of Human Rights as well as the part played by the Non-Malays in the anti-Japanese resistance and the development of the country, the British proposed a five-year residential qualification for citizenship and equal rights for Non-Malays in the Malayan Union proposals of 1946. Although it would mean little of significance in terms of democratic rights while under colonial rule, it would have enabled 83 per cent of Malayan Chinese to become citizens.

UMNO’s opposition to the Malayan Union put paid to these British proposals to liberalise the citizenship rules and the British knew to whom political power would be handed upon Independence. When the Federation of Malaya proposals were subsequently drawn up, the new proposals required 15 years of residence before citizenship could be conferred.

Even so, as has been painfully emphasized by the Minister of Home Affairs recently, citizenship is a “privilege” not a right!

Victor Purcell, who served as a colonial officer, wrote:

“But up to Independence, the fact remained that Malaysians (whether Malayan born or Muslim immigrants from Indonesia) were ‘subjects of the rulers’ and automatically Malayan citizens, whereas the Chinese, Indians, etc. had to satisfy certain conditions of the law in order to become citizens.”

Nevertheless, even in 1984, it was reported that there were still over 300,000 persons with red identity cards in the country.

The World Community Outlaws Racial Discrimination

The world community reaffirmed at the World Conference against Racism and Racial Discrimination at Durban in 2001 that “nationality” is a legal relationship denoting membership of a nation or sovereign state. It implies duties of allegiance on the part of the individual as well as of protection on the part of the state. Nationality is regarded as an inalienable right of every person in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

The status of nationality and citizenship has the crucial implication that every citizen is equal in the eyes of the law. It does not matter in the least whether citizens have been recently naturalized, or that their forefathers came here centuries ago. This is provided for in our Federal Constitution (our “social contract”?) when we became independent in 1957. Further amendments to the Constitution allowing for the so-called “quota system”, such as during the state of Emergency in 1971 after May 13, 1969 cannot be considered as part of the 1957 “social contract”. This simple point of history has been subjected to gross manipulation.

This song, adapted from “Natives’ by Paul Doran says it all:

“For all our languages, we can’t communicate
For all our native tongues, we’re all natives here
Sons of their fathers dream the same dream
The sound of forbidden words become a scream
Voices in anger, victims of history
Plundered and set aside
Grown fat on swallowed pride

With promises of paradise through quotas at a price
Champions and the warriors are racists in disguise
Ministers and their mistresses, they make us wait
Inherit the earth, they scream the enticing bait
With the touch of a young child’s hand
Innocence turns to shame
The devil that dwelt within
It sleeps out in the rain

For all our languages, we can’t communicate
For all our native tongues, we’re all natives here
The scars of the past are slow to disappear
The cries of the dead are always in our ears
Only the innocent can talk of wrong and right
Of those who are forced to choose
Some will choose to fight

For all our languages, we can’t communicate…”