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Southeast Asian Affairs 2005 Affirmative Action in Malaysia Lee Hock Guan Introduction The prevailing practice of affirmative action typically involves introducing measures to raise the participation of members of an economically disadvantaged group in the areas of education, employment and business, where they had been historically excluded orunderrepresented. Measures taken are generally in the form ofpreferential policies toward members ofa designated group, based on criteria such as a particular ethnicity, gender, or religion. Precisely because affirmative action measures entail bestowing preferential treatment on members of a designated group, they invariably will generate controversy; in particular preferential treatment on the basis ofethnicity and gender has generated intense, passionate debate. While affirmative action policies vary substantially across countries in terms of the beneficiary groups, nevertheless, in nearly all countries the beneficiaries are groups which are economically and socially disadvantaged and politically subordinate.1 Malaysia's affirmative action policy differs from those ofother countries in one crucial respect — it is "the politically dominant majority group which introduces preferential policies to raise its economic status as against that of an economically more advanced minorities".2 The majority ethnic group that has the power to legislate the affirmative action policies and receive the benefits from those policies in Malaysia are the Malays.3 Conversely, it is the Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities, the most advanced economic groups, who have felt most victimized by the affirmative action policies. Another unique feature of Malaysian affirmative action is that preferential treatment for the Malays and other indigenous groups was written into the Malaysian Constitution, under Article 153. In other words, affirmative action in Malaysia is a consitutionally sanctioned and exclusively ethnic-based policy where only the Malays and other native groups are entitled to receive preferential treatment. Besides being written into the Constitution, the wording ofArticle 153 links the ethnic preferential Lee Hock Guan is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. 212Lee Hock Guan treatment to the safeguarding of the "special position" of the Malay community. This has given rise to the prevalent and prevailing Malay popular opinion that views preferential treatment as part oftheir "special rights" andthus not open to negotiation.4 It would be incorrect to think that affirmative action was implemented in Malaysia only after 1971. During the colonial period, the British had already put into practice preferential treatment of sorts in the selection and training of Malays for the elite administrative service. In 1948, an article in the Federation of Malaya Agreement stipulated the Malay Ruler to safeguard the special position of the Malays and to ensure the reservation for Malays of such proportion as he may deem reasonable of positions in the public service and of scholarships, exhibitions and other similar educational or training privileges ... and, ... of [business] permits and licenses. This later became part ofArticle 153 of the Malaysian Constitution. What changed after 1971 was that a Malay-dominated state formulated and systematically implemented a comprehensive ethnic preferential policy to benefit the Malay community. The ethnic preferential policy has invariably generated intense controversy in Malaysian society, with the majority of Malays, Chinese, and Indians, taking diametrically opposing views. This inflammatory public issue and the emotionally charged debate it has generated, however, has not deteriorated into outright ethnic violence as had happened earlier in 1969. A combination of punitive laws (such as Internal Security Act [ISA] and the Sedition Act) and coercive actions were used throughout the 1970s and 1980s to stifle debate. However, because the state was suppressing the discussion, the quality of reasoned arguments for and against affirmative action also stagnated. Since the late 1990s, however, a number of factors and developments have contributed to opening up the public space for Malaysian citizens to debate the country's ethnic preferential policy. Perhaps the single most important development is that of the emergence from within the Malay community of voices that are sceptical and critical of the policy. Even from within the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), doubts and anxieties have plagued certain leaders regarding the negative impacts of affirmative action on the Malays, individually and as a community. This article will first examine the extent to which affirmative action has assisted in expanding Malay participation in the...