Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia: What’s In a Name?

Mahathir Mohamad roared back into Malaysian politics in 2016 as part of a movement against former Prime Minister Najib Razak. Together with other disgruntled former members of the United Malays National Organisation, Mahathir launched the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia [= Malaysian United Indigenous Party], known in short form as Bersatu [= United].

One issue that has always lingered in the back of my mind is why Bersatu employs the term pribumi rather than bumiputera. As part of a discussion with a graduate student studying the orang asli communities in peninsular Malaysia, this issue returned again.

Both of these terms are used colloquially to refer to the “indigenous” ethnic groups of Indonesia and Malaysia. Bumiputera is a Malay word of Sanskrit etymology that means “sons of the soil.” Pribumi appears to be a direct translation of the Dutch word Inlander, which was contrasted to vreemde Oosterlingen [= foreign Easterners]. They both refer to the same thing: a citizen of Indonesia (pribumi) or Malaysia (bumiputera) who is not of Chinese or Indian extraction. Indigeneity here refers to the people of the Malay/Indonesian archipelago.*

Now, for Malaysians, the word bumiputera has always been the politically relevant term. The New Economic Policy, for example, set targets for bumiputera equity ownership rather than Malay equity ownership. Because UMNO was the largest party in the country, and because the majority of bumiputeras are Malays, this policy effectively targeted Malays but did expand the policy coalition more broadly to include the politically important indigenous parties of East Malaysia.**

That is why it is so curious in Bersatu uses the term pribumi rather than bumiputera. This choice has never been explained to me to my satisfaction. Pribumi clearly has meaning to Malay speakers, or the term would never have been chosen, but this does not explain the choice not to use the far more common and politically relevant term bumiputera. I would be very interested to know more about that choice and what it signifies.


* There are some odd complications in Malaysia. Members of the Malaccan Portuguese community are for legal purposes understood to be bumiputeras, as are Thais living in the northern part of the peninsula.

** It also includes the orang asli of peninsular Malaysia, who are not particularly important politically, but who do represent an alternative understanding of the indigenous people of the Malay peninsula that can be unsettling for advocates of ketuanan Melayu [= Malay dominance].