In order to understand the nature of Malaysia’s current economic, political and social structure, it is essential to realize that many governmental policies that are undertaken today are partly influenced by embedded historical features. Colonialism in Malaya taught its citizens their main lesson in multiculturalism, that co-operation amongst the three main ethnic groups was in fact attainable, and ideal due to the fact that Malaya achieved its independence in 1957 through a coalition, called the Alliance, which consisted of the three main ethnic-based political parties: for the Malays, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO); for the Chinese, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA); for the Indians, the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).
With regard to the right to be elected, there is no article in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, or any law that dictates that political positions - be they Members of Parliament or Members of State Assemblies – are restricted to Malay Muslims. An example of this is the position of the Prime Minister, where the only prerequisites is that the Prime Minister must be a member of the House of Representatives and command the confidence of the majority members; citizen of Malaysia but not by naturalisation. However, while there is no legal impediment for the election of a non-Malay Muslim Prime Minister, this may still prove to be challenging due to the fact that the majority of the country’s citizens are Malays. In Malaysia, race-based politics plays an important role in the right to be elected, due to the fact that political parties are constantly attempting to garner the support of the Malay majority by propagating and/or highlighting the special position and privileges of the Malay people, as accorded in Article 153 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, which essentially institutionalizes the immutable status and dominance of the Malay population:
‘It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article.’2
There is also a perception that historically, ‘even the British recognised Malaysia as the ‘Malay States’ before it achieved independence…due to the fact that the highest rulers of the land before independence were the Malay kings who were Muslims’.3 In this regard, the position of the Prime Minister may be viewed as a special privilege, exclusively for the Bumiputras of Malaysia, in order to ensure that Malay privileges and interests are protected.