An Open Letter to my Malay Friends and Anyone Who Cares Where Malaysia is Going

August 31 is Malaysia’s Independence (Merdeka) Day. On this day fifty five years ago, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time and a new country was born.

Malaysia (then called Malaya). 

She was to be a powerful narrative for multiculturalism. A place where many races – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, Orang Asli (native indigenous people) – would live together, work together, as one, to move the country beyond the shadow of colonisation.

Malaysia remains a powerful idea. It’s one I believe in. But it has gone badly wrong. That’s why today, I’m writing this open letter to my Malay family and friends. I believe Malaysia is fast reaching a crossroad; where it goes next will be determined by you, my dear Malay friends. And where Malaysia goes is important to the world – because it remains one of the more tolerant Muslim countries.

First though, I want to say a big thank you. On this Merdeka day, I want to thank you, my Malay family and friends, and all fellow-Malaysians of Malay descent, for your historic generosity. Your ancestors welcomed mine when they arrived. You have shared the land with us, and this in turn, gave us opportunities we wouldn’t have had on mainland China. You provided us safe refuge from the turmoil of China. When I learn what happened there in the past century, I am so grateful my ancestors left. And that they found shelter in the beautiful land now called Malaysia.

My Malay friends, your own ancestors came from other places. They knew what it was like to be strangers in a new country. They treated my ancestors with that gracious hospitality which I myself have experienced countless times. All this I acknowledge, and thank you for.

But now I need to move on to something else: why I left Malaysia, and why I won’t be returning any time soon.

You may already know that 2 out of 10 Malaysian graduates live outside Malaysia. This is an astonishing fact for a middle-income country like Malaysia. It was revealed in a detailed study on Malaysia’s brain drain, carried out by the World Bank.

My Malay family and friends, do you not care about this exodus of talent? This isn’t just an abstract number: in our family, half those of my generation live abroad. We are the graduates this World Bank report identifies. We compete happily in the world economy and have no need to return.

Perhaps, my Malay friends, you think the brain drain irrelevant, since most of the people who have left are of Chinese and Indian descent? Certainly, this is what many Malays think, as Nurul Izzah Anwar, daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, has alluded to. (If you haven’t heard her speak, I recommend you watch this youtube clip. The opening is in Malay; the rest in English). 

“For me,” she says, “one Malaysian regardless of race, who has left the country…is a loss to us. They should be here celebrating, to improve the economy. I detest many people trying to singularly find out whether they are Malays, Chinese or Indians.”

My sentiments entirely. This fixation on race, race, race, in Malaysia is strangling the country. Yes, 88% of the one million Malaysians estimated to be living abroad are of Chinese and Indian descent. So what? My Malay friends, I ask you: does our race matter more than the fact that we have taken our talents elsewhere?

Yet, should I expect anything else? How could any Malaysian not be fixated on race, when you, my Malay family and friends, are accorded ‘special’ rights solely because of your race and religion?

Imagine if the United States had given ‘special’ privileges to the Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers and their descendants. Special rights to land, schools, gold mines and everything else – all because they sailed first; yes, just imagine! This is exactly what your special rights equate to. If the US had adopted such a policy, do you think it would have turned into a magnet for talent and skills?

Tell anyone about a Malaysian university reserved for people with ‘special’ privileges based on race, and you will see the reaction. What? People stare in disbelief. You must be kidding!

I’m not. And there have been demonstrations against opening the institute up to other Malaysians. Yet, Malaysians are so used to these oddities that we don’t bat an eyelid. We no longer notice the strange ideas plaguing our country.

Your ‘special’ rights, my Malay family and friends, alienate me. They make me feel unwelcome, unwanted and second-class. They are why I left. They are also why I won’t be back. Rights are a zero-sum game: for you to have more rights, others must necessarily have fewer. TalentCorp (the agency set up to attract Malaysians back) completely misses the point.

And when I see the culture of entitlement your ‘special’ privileges have led to, and the increasingly racist rhetoric this culture generates, I fear for Malaysia. Outrageous remarks are now commonplace, as former US ambassador John R. Malott outlined in his Feb 8 2011 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

Malaysia has once again been called Tanah Melayu (Malay Land). Malay Land was given airtime by none other than Mahathir Mohamed, former Prime Minister and rabble-rouser extraordinaire, who is himself from a family with Indian immigrants. Malay Land is more than just a name. His is a supremacist concept: a land for Malays, where Malays will be Lords, everyone else their subjects.

Some people say Mahathir no longer matters, but actually he does. I feel less welcome now in Malaysia than at any time in the past. The attitudes of Malay Land are creeping in, and Malay Land is completely the opposite of Malaysia. Malay Land excludes, while Malaysia embraces and includes – a country for all races.

My Malay family and friends, which is it you want: Malay Land, or Malaysia? You cannot have both; you must choose.

On this Merdeka Day, I urge you to think about that choice. Because you, my dear Malay friends, are the only people who can truly change the direction Malaysia takes. Know that we, your fellow-Malaysians who have voted with our feet, are rooting for Malaysia. We are no traitors. 68% of the Malaysians abroad who were surveyed by the World Bank expressed a strong sense of patriotism/attachment to Malaysia. I am among this 68%. I may have been away for thirty three years, but Malaysia continues to be in my dreams. I left with regret, and I stay away with sadness. I hope Malaysia will prevail. Assalamualaikum.

The above blog-post was published in its entirety, but without video or links, on Malaysia Kini on August 31 2012 (


Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia

33 responses to “An Open Letter to my Malay Friends and Anyone Who Cares Where Malaysia is Going

  1. Sadly, Russia is going similar direction…not race quotas, but intolerance of ethnic majority to the rest, Russia for Russians (white Slavic citizens)…I wish Malaysia to move to 21st century and be mature democracy valueing each citizen on merits.

  2. Chin Yew Gaik

    Well expressed, you speak for us who are non bumiputras.
    Y.G Chin

    • Thank you. I very much hope it is taken by my Malay friends in the spirit in which it was written – that of loving dissent. If I have made even one person think, I would be happy.

  3. TS Yuen Yuet Leng

    A very, very good article which all Malaysians irrespective of race or political divide should read and think seriously about. I am so proud of you and even more so, that we vibrate on the same wave-length for nation. Your introductory part is in consonance with the Malay part of the Malaysian in me and for impending independent nation my generation of Chinese, Malays and Indians were willing to die for, as many did die, during the 1st Emergency.
    Special rights and racial supremacy were never the legal provisions of our constitution. Ensuring and assuring the Malay position was so that the Malay community would not ever be marginalised in once Tanah Melayu and the qualified needy Malay could justly be assisted when pertinent without prejudice to other needy Malaysians – especially now when the once somewhat grudgingly tolerated racially weighted NEP had since more than successfully upraised the parity of the Malay community and in certain areas of nation and national activity gone into extremes in the name of distorted race and contentious religion. This ironic reversal of imbalances is one dilemma we have to address.
    Tan Sri Yuen Yuet Leng

  4. dennis chua

    well said, selina. but i’d equate ‘malay’ with apache, navajo, cherokee, etc. in the USA.

    true, there is also orang asli (the indonesian or austronesian element of which is called dayak in east malaysia and orang laut in west malaysia and the other element is the australian or melanesian also called senoi and found in camerons) that can be equated with the above, but malay is a catch-all label that refers to those orang asli offspring who formed the indianised entities called the rajdoms or sultanates – the initial three were kedah, selangor and kelantan (the rest sprang from the feet of these three).

    initially malay only referred to the tribe of selangor.

    later during british rule it encompassed every native of indonesian (not the country but the people, aka austronesian) stock inhabiting malaya.

    and then, also during the union jack, it encompassed only those among them of muslim faith.

    and such is the status quo.

    supposing this is the usa and the cherokee, apache and co are entitled to limited privileges. the us would not be the super power it is. and the part-native american hillary rodham, bill gates and ted turner would not have become world class leaders.

  5. Foo Khong Yee

    This is a timely appeal from one affected Malaysian who feels that money alone would not be able to lure talented malaysians back home. Talent Corp will only have very limited success or perhaps even be doomed to failure. It is also interesting that 12% of presumably Malays who prefer to live/work abroad made this choice despite the special status accorded them. This says a lot about the system in Malaysia.

  6. Sheema

    This is a nice letter and I agree with the spirit and message, but I feel that it generalises a bit too much. Some of us Malays have not received any special privileges or handouts from the government, so it’s by no means a blanket thing. Being Malay doesn’t automatically entitle one to a life of privilege. Plus, Malays are subjected to Sharia law, which is a different kind of discrimination, especially if you’re a woman, and most especially if you don’t even believe in religion. I do believe though that one of the first steps towards eradicating racial thinking is to stop treating a particular ethnic group as one homogenous stereotyped entity 🙂

    • Dear Sheema,

      Thank you very much for reading my blog and for your thoughtful comments. I’m glad the spirit in which I intended the communication to be received has come through.

      Malaysia is a complicated country, and I had to simplify in order to keep the blog-post to a reasonable length. I apologise therefore, if I’ve given the mistake impression that Malays are all the same and all have received hand-outs. I have bumiputera cousins who have not received a sen of government money, so I know this is not the case.

      However, I stand by my main point: I believe that as long as a particular group is favoured politically based on race, race will continue to poison political discourse and be a divisive factor in Malaysia. It doesn’t matter whether you and my cousins have directly benefited from handouts, because Article 153 doesn’t make that distinction – it simply gives you a ‘special’ position based on your race.

      I wrote this letter because I care about Malaysia. I’m worried about where it’s going. And every time I look into the why and where and how, I come to the same conclusion: I cannot see how the country can progress unless the issue of Malay ‘special’ rights can be discussed.

      You raise an excellent point which I hadn’t intended to address: who has actually benefited from the NEP? Alas, the answer opens a whole new can of worms and would require a mini-series for non-Malaysians to understand! The fact that there are many Malays who have not benefited despite 40 years of the NEP is even more reason to rethink it.

      I totally sympathise with your comment about the difficulties of being a Muslim woman in Malaysia. As a non-Muslim though, this is not something I feel able to talk about. I will have to leave that to my Muslim sisters. The very best wishes to you.

      • Sheema

        Hi Chin Yoke,

        Thanks for your response and explanation. As I said, I agree with the spirit and message, so I certainly don’t disagree with your point about how Malaysia will never progress as long as it implements racial policies.

        However, as I said, my point is I don’t think a good way to address it is to generalise, the way you have done in this open letter by addressing it to all Malays in general. By doing so you fall into the same trap of being fixated on race, and as I saw from some of the comments on Malaysiakini, by putting us all into the same basket you risk alienating the more progressive and enlightened individuals. It is my belief that this kind of thing cannot and should not be simplified in such a way, as there are some of us who DON’T agree with the policy and therefore don’t appreciate being lumped together with those who do, and tarred with the same brush.

        Appreciate your heartfelt thoughts and arguments though. No disagreement there.

      • Dear Sheema,

        Thanks for your frankness and candour. Thank you also for saying that you disagree with the bumiputera policy; I very much appreciate that. I take your point on over-simplification and will reflect on that for the future.

        One thing you say disturbs me a lot. You write: “…we are trapped in a legal system that we can never get out of.” That sounds very depressing. I am sorry you have been vilified for daring to speak up. The impression I have is that not many moderate Malays have as much courage as you. is that a fair impression?

        I also want to ask what you think non-Muslims can do, if anything, to help create more space for loving dissent. If you are vilified, we would be even more so! Yet, the way you describe being intimidated into submission affects us too. We may not be subject to shariah law, but non-Muslims have to live in the environment poisoned by oppression. Hence my question to you. Thank you for your time.

      • Sheema

        Dear Chin Yoke,

        Thank you for your thoughtful response and questions. For what it’s worth, ever since I reached adulthood and learned about the NEP and what it was all about (as a kid, at least in the 80s and early 90s, nobody really explains it to you), I have made a conscious effort to avoid partaking of any special rights, privileges or benefits that are offered to me (funnily enough it’s my non-Malay friends who tell me I’m crazy and silly and that I should just make use of what’s already accorded to me).

        Regarding ‘moderate’ Malays, well – if you mean those who wish to be free of religion (like me), or at least those who believe in reforming their religion, I used to think the same thing too. Sometimes I still do. Being villified is one extreme, but the other extreme is simply being ignored or shunned. But now and again I will come across comments in the alternative mainstream media – both readers and writers – who echo my exact same thoughts and arguments, and I start to believe that there are more of us out there, and that all hope is not lost yet. There have been quite a few opinion pieces by Malay journalists who are brave enough to disagree and speak out against the establishment. There are even a few Muslim intellectuals and organisations in the country who inspire me and give me hope. But we still have a long way to go, and the battle will be ugly.

        The problem of Sharia law and Malays being denied freedom of religion – well, it’s such a systemic, institutionalised problem that I honestly don’t know what can be done. I appreciate your concern and desire to help though. I guess the best I can tell you for now is, never let Muslims (or Malays) bully you into shutting up or scaring you away from speaking out against clear injustice. Jacqueline Ann Surin is a fantastic example of this – she writes about Muslim issues with such in-depth knowledge and understanding that she puts most Muslims to shame. People are constantly trying to shut her up with the tired old refrain “Non-Muslims shouldn’t speak about Islam, leave it to the Muslims”. But she keeps going, because just like you, she points out that non-Muslims ARE affected by these issues.

        So don’t let them intimidate you into silence. Find out the truth for yourself rather than accept the bigoted worldview that they try to impose on you. But I guess you knew that already 🙂

      • Dear Sheema,

        I didn’t know about Jacqueline Ann Surin; will now look out for her.

        I wanted to tell you about Irshad Manji, in case you haven’t heard of her. She is a practising Muslim who questions her religion. Both her books have been translated into Malay, and both are banned in Malaysia (though not in Indonesia).

        I’ve read The Trouble with Islam Today and I found it both readable and informative. She is someone who writes lovingly about Islam, and it amazes me that her books are banned anywhere. I don’t know how bans can be enforced in this age, unless you’re a regime like North Korea or you monitor every piece of Internet traffic like China. For instance, Irshad Manji’s books can be downloaded for free in Malay from her website: Her Moral Courage project is one I think is important.

        Thank you once again for your time. Peace to you.

      • Sheema

        Dear Chin Yoke, I’m glad you know about Irshad Manji – she’s the one who posted your blogpost on her Facebook page, where I came across it! I have both her books and also met her when she came to Malaysia. She’s a fantastic person and writer, and I admire her courage so much, though I don’t agree with everything she says and I do think her vision of Islam is sometimes a tad idealistic. Ultimately though, we need more believing Muslims from within Malaysia who can be like that too. Here’s some links to recent articles written by Malaysians on the whole hudud/Islamic law issue:

        By the way, I’ve just read the rest of your blogposts, and I can’t wait to read your book when it comes out!!! Have you read Tash Aw’s books?

      • Dear Sheema,

        Thanks for the links and yes, I’ve read Tash Aw and also Preeta Samasaran.

        If you’ve enjoyed my blog-posts, please subscribe! That way, you’ll be kept posted on the progress of my novel. I’ve very much enjoyed your comments. And do tell your friends! As you already know, you don’t have to agree with me: it’s a blog 🙂 Neither do they; the only requirement is civility in discussion.

        I have been invited to read at Seksan in Bangsar and will do that on my next visit next year. If you live in KL or PJ, I hope to meet you then.

  7. Sheema

    Also, I added in that point about Muslims in Malaysia because I think it’s very important for non-Muslims to realise that being a Malay in Malaysia isn’t all about privilege, either – for those of us who don’t agree with the policies, and don’t agree with the mainstream way of doing things, we are trapped in a legal system that we can never get out of. And we can’t even speak out about it, because we would simply be villified (believe me, I’ve tried). So it’s good to try and see the other side of things too.

  8. Sheema

    Whoops sorry – just realised I wrote “alternative mainstream media” – what I actually meant to say was the alternative online media!

  9. TheLostSon

    Interesting !… And something i can relate to from my heart… Being a Malaysian Eurasian descent , I too have grown tired and fed-up of all that is happening at home. And like what you say , Most of us are still very malaysian at heart!! I stand proud and cried even though Dato Lee Chong Wei was 2nd best at the Olympics in badminton. Proud as well , recently when Shila Amzah won an Asian Wave singing competition , surrounded by mainly Chinese competitors, but still the fact i see an a Malaysian winning and doing us proud .. my fellow country men or country women in this case. It’s our diversity and multi-cultural identity that makes us unique and stand our of the crowd.

    Sadly , we’re still stuck in system associated with “Ketuanan Melayu ” , bla bla bla ,, I’ve grown tired of mentioning all of them .. I’m currently plying my trade in neighbouring Singapore , but still holding on to my Malaysian passport which give me one reason to hold on to….. To exercise my right vote to make a change!!.. Come this coming election, I’ll be coming home to the polls..To make a difference…. It’ll might be a last attempt for me , depending the outcome of this GE13 I hope I won’t give up hope now …or not the anthem will change from ” Negaraku” to “Majulah Singapura” for me.

    • Dear Lost Son,

      Thank you for your comments. I too, hope you won’t give up! It’s good you are close enough to go home to vote for change. There isn’t much hope of the Electoral Commission moving fast enough to allow those of us further away our democratic right.

      Best wishes to you.

  10. dennis

    i like irshad manji but i think she’s a little bit too anti-palestine and pro-israel, and believes that some verses of the Quran are abominable.

    i actually learnt about feminism, tolerance, love, peace, non-violence, multi-racialism and environmentalism, from devout Muslims who read the Quran and believe in the traditions of Muhammad!

    • dennis

      shirin ebadi, amina wadud muhsin, fatima mernissi my favourite islamic feminists. also zainah anwar of malaysia and of course, yasmin ahmad and faridah merican, two first ladies of malaysian showbiz (yasmin is sadly gone but not forgotten).

  11. dennis

    i actually learnt about non-violence, forgiveness and … yes, feminism … from muslims.

  12. it’s really quite depressing to read Lost Sonny Boy’s piece on his disenchantment , dissatisfaction and disappointment of the Body Politics currently practiced by BN and The Progress and Supremacy of only the Malay Race aka Ketuanaan Melayu ! So what’s the constitutional provisions for multi-racial ,cultural , and spiritual people of all races, gender as well as what really is in the final analysis the Ruku. Negara .
    Ketuanaan Siapa Ruku Negara Kita ? Gerry

  13. A country torn apart by race won’t be a successful country. I don’t claim to know much about Malaysia. i have met many bright and energetic Malaysians living overseas. They are Chinese or Indian of ancestry. In malyasia, when I do business with the private sector, I met a lot of highly respected professionals, mainly Chinese. May be because I am chinese of descent, albeit living in the USA. When i visit the universities, government offices and other non-money making institutions, the staff are all Malays. I came across Indians in KL and elsewhere who came up to me knowing that I am a US citizen, asked me to help their children to study overseas and never return home. What country.

    • Dear Frankie,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I completely agree with your sentiments. Malaysia must move forward differently. But we have yet to see whether that will happen. Best wishes to you.

  14. Amir Arif Bin Abdul Latip

    “My Malay friends, your own ancestors came from OTHER places. They knew what it was like to be strangers in a new country.”

    So what are those “other places”?

  15. Amir Arif Bin Abdul Latip

    The huge Malay race have been living in various parts of Souutheast Asia for thousands of years. There are Malays in places known TODAY as Vietnam, Philippines, Sumatra, Borneo, and of course the MALAY Peninsula. Malaysia, the modern country wasn’t created until the year 1963 which was only 50 years ago.

    So, I’m asking you politely: What “other places” do you actually refer to? And you even added “They knew what it was like to be strangers in a new country”. Strangers? Do you mean our ancestors were strangers to Orang Asli?

    • Hello Amir,

      You put it well, and in the same way, we have also had other races (notably the Indians and Chinese) living in various parts of Southeast Asia, including the Malaysian peninsula, for at least hundreds of years.

      What I meant was that we have all been migratory at some point or another and during their travels, our own ancestors would have known the adventure of exploration as well as what it was like to come to new lands. The result is a country in which many have mixed heritage, not all of which we can trace but which we know is there. That should be one of Malaysia’s strength.

  16. Sheema

    The ancestry of many Malays in Malaysia today can be traced back to other places outside the country such as Riau, Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, even India, China, and the Middle East, to name a few. Many of these migrants and settlers mercilessly persecuted and enslaved the Orang Asli, who were around much earlier.

    The modern Malay language and culture that we know today in Malaysia has roots in Sumatra. The use of the term ‘Malay race’ is subjective, problematic and controversial, and its meaning depends on different interpretations. Indeed, most anthropologists today reject the term and concept of ‘race’, as it has no genetic basis. If Malaysia wants to move beyond racialism and racism, the first step is to reject the false notion of ‘race’.

    I highly recommend finding out more here:

  17. dennis chua eow seong

    a good man named Lat (datuk mat noor khalid), the national icon cartoonist, and his equally jovial kid brother, the talented satire film maker mamat khalid, both gopeng men, who grew up in ipoh, are very knowledgeable in malaysian and malay history. from them, i’ve learnt that the term “malay” began with the selangor rajahdom. it was big, it covered selangor (including the federally-administered cities putrajaya and KL) of malaysia, and the medan, pekanbaru and jambi provinces in indonesian sumatra. in the republic of indonesia, “malay” refers to precisely the selangorian indonesian, also known in indonesian terminology as the Mainland Riau Indonesian. the other rajahdoms / sultanates of malaysia have their origins in the Orang Laut (Orang Asli Indonesians) chiefdoms of Perak, Negeri Sembilan, Johor, Pahang, Trengganu and Kedah, and last but not least, the Champa Vietnamese rajahdom of Kelantan.

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