|Minorities within a majority: Non-bumiputera relations with the state in Malaysia|
|This paper examines the dynamics of identity formation and mobilization among the non-Malay bumiputera in Malaysia with particular focus on their relation with the state.
The formation of Malaysia in 1963 brought together Malay-dominated Malaya (now known as West Malaysia), independent since 1957, with the British protectorates of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo, home to a wide range indigenous groups with varying degrees of religious and cultural affinity to the West Malaysian Malays. Both Malaya and the Borneo states were also home to substantial immigrant communities, notably Chinese and Indian, which had gained domestic economic dominance through the British colonial policy of benign neglect towards indigenous groups. It was the assumption of the Malay elites in Kuala Lumpur that the Borneo indigenes would coalesce with the Malays into a broader identity group, dubbed ‘bumiputera’ (literally Sons of the Soil), which would act as a counter-balance to the Chinese economic dominance. This, however, has largely failed to emerge, despite their inclusion in the wide-ranging affirmative action policies instituted following ethnic riots in 1969, the New Economic Policy (NEP).
In this paper, we trace the dynamics of non-Malay bumiputera identity mobilization, paying particular attention to the state of Sabah. Methodologically, we take an inter-disciplinary approach, drawing on historical and archival sources, statistical sources, key informant interviews and a survey of perceptions towards ethnicity conducted in August 2006.
We argue that identity mobilization was largely factored by differing experiences of the state and, in particular, the clientalistic nature of local development. While non-Muslim bumiputera were nominally entitled to the benefits of the NEP, their receipt of local development funds was in practice largely contingent on conversion to Islam, seen by the state as an important step towards assimilation into a broader Malay (rather than bumiputera) identity. This policy drove a bifurcation of non-Malay bumiputera, between those who chose conversion and those who rejected it. Groups that rejected conversion, however, experienced a double sense of marginalization and social exclusion, being denied not only the ‘normal’ developmental experience, but also the particular ‘perks’ of those who had converted. These groups, however, remained internally diverse and attempts to mobilize politically around an compound identity of ‘Kadazan-dusun’, while initially successful, faltered on two fronts. Firstly, it was seen by many smaller groups as privileging the ‘Kadazan’ side of the identity compound. Secondly, it failed to grapple successfully with the issue of religion – aspiring to speak for all cultural ‘Kadazan-dusun’ but finding support predominantly among the non-Muslim sectors. This has resulted in an increasing religious bifurcation in identity mobilization in Sabah and the now virtually unchallenged dominance of Muslim bumiputera in the state. Non-Muslim bumiputera have become marginalized minorities within a nominal majority, lacking the benefits to which they are supposedly entitled, but also lacking the political capacity to mobilize in their defence.|