“Malays are the Real Immigrants”: On Malaysia’s Political Taboo

The past several days have seen a growing debate in Malaysia about ethnicity and indigeneity. The proximate trigger is a speech delivered by M. Kulasegaran, Malaysia’s Minister of Human Resources and a Malaysian of Tamil heritage. The Malay-language newspaper Utusan Malaysia reported that the speech—delivered in Tamil—contained the following statement:

Kebanyakan orang telah lupa, orang Hindu mula jejak negara ini 2,500 tahun dulu. Apa buktinya? Sekiranya anda pergi ke Lembah Bujang, keĀ­semua bukti terdapat di sana. Terdapat banyak kuil lama yang ditemui di sana.

Apabila kitalah yang berada di negara ini terlebih dahulu, maka, merekalah (Melayu) yang sebenarnya pendatang! Kita dan Melayu adalah setaraf. Ini tanah air kita!

Most people forget, Hindus first forged the trail of this country 2500 years ago. The proof? Head to Lembah Bujang, the evidence is all there. There are many temples that have long been there.

If we were in this country earlier, then they [the Malays] are the real immigrants. We and the Malays are the same [EDIT: a better translation might be “the same level”]. This is our homeland.

Kula has vigorously contested Utusan‘s coverage, arguing instead that he was merely pointing out the long history of Indians in peninsular Malaysia, subsequently clarifying that he meant to apply the term to those who stir up racial hatreds, and finally apologizing and offering to withdraw the statement.

Whatever the facts of these particular comments are, Kula’s interpreted comments touch on core issues in Malaysian politics that are almost taboo in public discussion. Most of the online commentary and reaction focuses on the question of whether or not the fact that Hindus from the subcontinent were in Malaya for thousands of years somehow challenges Malay supremacy. But the taboo is not that: the taboo is suggesting that Malays themselves are immigrants, which is what pendatang [= immigrant] precisely means.

How could Malays, Malaysia’s titular ethnic group and one of the country’s “sons of the soil,” be immigrants? The answer is to realize that the term Malay has several uses: as a crude term for the “race” of people of island Southeast Asia; as a term that covers the ethnic group speaking one of the variants of the Malay language found in peninsular Malaysia, parts of Sumatra, and in parts of Borneo; and as a political category referring to the ethnic group living in peninsular Malaysia that is neither Chinese, nor Indian, nor “other” (Portuguese, Thai, orang asli, etc). These categories of usage overlap, and Malaysian politics has worked to elide the second and third understandings in particular. But the definition of Malay enshrined in the country’s constitution specifically does not mention land or territory, rather language and custom and religion.*

The question of why the constitution would not refer to land or place in defining what a Malay is requires further discussion, but the consequence is that the political category of Malay may legitimately encompasses the descendants of many peoples, not just those with “ancestral ties” to the Malay peninsula. The tension that follows is clear: “Malay supremacy” evokes and is justified by a relationship between people and place, but “Malay” as a political category does not require it.

That Malays today have a plural heritage is not a secret, nor is it politically problematic in and of itself.** But raising the issue of Malays as pendatang means questioning the indigeneity of the political category “Malay”, and with it the logic of enshrining Malay special rights on behalf of community whose members may have only lived in the country for a generation or two. Enshrining Malay special rights in the constitution is an act of politics—it was a political choice. And even talking about it tangentially is taboo precisely because since independence, Malaysian politics has attempted to erase the history of choice and the politics around it.


* See Judith Nagata’s classic constructivist account of Malayness for more (PDF).
** Here, for example is Dzulkifli Abdul Razak raising this point in an opinion piece just yesterday.

Three Highlights from Recently Declassified Materials on Soeharto’s Last Year

The Indonesia Documentation Project yesterday released a wealth of recently declassified documents on Soeharto’s last year in office and the collapse of the New Order regime. As always, these documents are a treasure trove of information, but this release is of particular interest to me because they cover the Asian Financial Crisis, economic reform, the fall of Soeharto, and key personalities in Indonesian politics today like Prabowo Subianto.

Here are my three top highlights.

Prabowo on Politics, and the Military, and Soeharto

This document contains a report of a meeting between Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth and Prabowo Subianto, who was then Soeharto’s son-in-law and a rising power in the Indonesian military. He recently ran for president, coming in second, and will run again in 2019. At this meeting, Roth and Prabowo discussed the future of Indonesian politics and the military’s role in it, and Prabowo took it upon himself to represent a moderate reformist position.

Prabowo’s generation of ABRI [Indonesian armed forces] leaders want to follow the examples of South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. “I hate politics. I want the military out of politics,” he said.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide what is the most ridiculous thing in that passage. But it is important because it establishes how Prabowo was maneuvering himself to succeed Soeharto. Here is a summary of Prabowo on Soeharto from the same meeting:

Soeharto’s background was as a soldier. He had no foreign training and little formal education, but he is extremely intelligent and has a photographic memory. However, the president does not always understand world concerns and pressures. From Prabowo’s perspective, it would be better of Soeharto stepped down in March 1998.

In the event, Prabowo got closer to Soeharto after March 1998, when he was appointed to head of the Army’s strategic reserve command. Right after Soeharto resigned, Prabowo was removed. As I’ve argued elsewhere, using Prabowo as an example, mixing family and politics can be quite dangerous because it insulates leaders from information that they might need about their popularity and the effectiveness in office. Here’s a summary of Prabowo again:

Below the surface, there are already intrigues underway by people who know they are not strong enough to challenge the president directly.


Also fascinating is how Prabowo invokes the contemporaneous example of the breakup of Yugoslavia as a possible future for Indonesia. The idea is to paint the country as vulnerable, and in need of some sort of stabilizing force to accompany the transition. We often forget that many very reasonable people worried at the time that Indonesia would split apart in the event of a transition.


This document details a phone call between Soeharto and President Bill Clinton, on January 9, 1998, during which they talked about economic reform during the Asian Financial Crisis as well as the challenges the Soeharto faced in implementing these reforms. Clinton represents an orthodox view that holds that the only way to fight massive currency depreciation is to keep interest rates high. He also emphasizes how important signaling is—implementing tough but unpopular reforms can communicate that the Indonesian government is serious about reform (as I’ve observed elsewhere, Soeharto’s government did implement those reforms that were unpopular with most Indonesians, he just didn’t implement those that put him at risk of alienating key supporters or his rotten children).

But that is not the interesting bit in this document. Much more interesting is how much of Soeharto’s commentary remains censored. I don’t know why this would be, but I am incredibly intrigued by what he could have been saying. We can infer from President Clinton’s responses that Soeharto is talking about speculators and about trying to raise private funds from local sources. This would be at the exact same time that Indonesia launched the “Love the Rupiah movement” and also just a couple days before we started hearing reports about “rats” who were betraying the Indonesian economy. Perhaps it is customary for declassified reports to not include the remarks of foreign leaders. Or maybe he was talking about the Riady family! Any rate, there is plenty of fodder here for a creative conspiracy theorist.


This document details another phone call, this time on February 13. Here, the two presidents discuss the idea of a currency board as a way to address the continued deterioration of the rupiah. This conversation comes right after the dramatic spike in the IDR/USD exchange rate in late January 1998.

The currency board idea was very controversial at the time, and was ultimately never implemented because it would have meant sacrificing all monetary policy autonomy at a time that the government desperately wanted some tool to expand the economy. But President Clinton didn’t focus on that, rather he focused on the problem of defending the country’s shaky reserve position. This quote is particularly pithy:

If the rupiah falls, you will lose your reserves. And if the currency board is caught short and falls, you will lose the reserves as well, just quicker.

It’s not clear to me whether this comment made much of a difference in Soeharto’s thinking, but what follows from President Clinton is quite direct:

I want to go back to the G-7 and the IMF and talk to them about alternatives. I want this to work out and am worried the currency board will be an open target. I am worried about collapse.

What does Clinton mean with “this”? Indonesian economic reform, probably. What does he mean with “collapse”? Probably not the exchange rate. And also, probably, not the New Order regime. I think this has to be read as a statement about the collapse of Indonesia itself, and I suspect that Soeharto heard it that way. He responds

Thank you for your pledge. We need to make a decision soon as the people are demanding that their President do something to fix the situation and save the country.

Save the country, not just save the exchange rate. At about this time, in a parallel development, the “Love the Rupiah” movement was being rebranded the “Love Indonesia” movement, a delicious instance of international political economy synecdoche.

There is lots of other interesting information in yesterday’s release, including real-time reactions to the deteriorating situation of May 1998 and some fascinating (if oddly superficial and late-to-the-game) research on the political, economic, and social positions of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minority. We owe the Indonesia Documentation Project a debt a gratitude for this outstanding archival research.