Launch New CPI

Many observers see it as the biggest obstacle to national solidarity and unity. But nothing much  has been done to review its role and significance in national policy making and implementation.

Should this political and policy construct that defines and regulates the lives of the majority of Malaysians in many ways continue?  What is its relevance more than half a century after its formulation? What are alternative and better constructs that can address more effectively the challenges that we face in nation building? 

These questions should have been asked a long time ago. But they have until now been repressed or suppressed. Today they are emerging more forcefully in the open space of social media.  

Discussions on the bumiputera/non-Bumiputera divide and dichotomy have been handicapped by a lacuna in research and studies on how the term “bumiputera” has emerged to assume its centre stage in the nation’s life. No official declaration or account exists to explain the genesis of the term, and why and how it needs to be maintained as the key driving force in national policy making. 

This article into the when, who, how and why of the bumiputera/non-Bumiputera issue is intended to open up a discourse that can help our leaders in the rebooting exercise to move the nation out of the race and identity cul-de-sac that we are trapped in.  


Origins of Bumiputraism

It is necessary to note that the term “bumiputera” is of relatively recent coinage. Examination of the key constitutional and official documentation leading to the nation’s independence and the establishment of Malaysia in 1963 has found no mention of the term.

Neither the Reid Commission nor the Cobbold Commission proceedings and voluminous documentation use the term or refer to the need to differentiate between bumiputera and non-bumiputera in establishing the status and rights of the individuals and communities.  

What was found instead are the references to the special position of the Malays in Peninsular Malaya and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of Article 153.

Further,  Article 160 defines a Malay as being one who "professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay customs and is the child of at least one parent who was born within the Federation of Malaysia before independence of Malaya on 31 August 1957, or the issue (off-spring) of such a person."

The first official use of the term  can be traced back to the first Bumiputera Economic Congress held in June 1965. Following it the term first appeared in Parliament when the “Majlis Amanah Ra'ayat” [MARA] Bill was tabled in August 1965 to replace the Rural and Industrial Development Authority [RIDA;1953] as proposed by the said Congress. 

The next occasion when the term was raised was in Parliament in the same year. This following account is excerpted from the proceedings:

 Dr Lim Chong Eu (Tanjong) asks the Prime Minister to state whether there is a legal and constitutional definition of the term "BUMIPUTERA", and whether children of Malaysian citizens who were born after August 31st, 1963, will also be entitled to all the rights of BUMIPUTERA. 

The Prime Minister: [Tunku Abdul Rahman]

Mr Speaker, Sir, the term "Bumiputera" for that matter has no legal meaning except in so far as to denote the natives of the mainland of Malaya and the natives of the Borneo States; or, in other words, the indigenous people of Malaya such as the Malays, the aborigines and the people of Sabah and Sarawak such as the Iban, the Muruts, the Melanaus and all these other people, who are indigenous to these territories.

Since it has no legal meaning, anyone is entitled to call himself "bumiputera" for that matter.

I would say that even an Eurasian of Portuguese descent could very well call himself "bumiputera" of this country; or, for that matter again, the Eurasians, who are of British descent; so long as they do not refer to Britain as their home, and again for that matter, those Chinese and Indians who have been 'Born here for several generations, are ·entitled to call themselves "bumiputera" so long as they do not describe themselves as Chinese, or call themselves as Chinese, and so it follows, except of course, under Section 153 of the Constitution, it provides that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall safeguard the position of the Malays and the natives of the Borneo States, that means Sabah and Sarawak. [Refer Hansard 13 November 1965; Columns 2567 -2476 for full debate]


Equally importantly during that period, a motion by a PAS MP on 11 August 1965 ‘to amend the Constitution to guarantee the rights of the Bumiputera in the fields of politics, economy, education and culture’ was debated at length but rejected by the Government.  A full reproduction of this and earlier debates would be useful to share with our present generation of parliamentarians and other political leaders.

  • The second part will examine how the Bumiputera term and Bumiputera/Non-Bumiputera dichotomy changed from being a political construct to become a policy construct and discuss some of its consequences.