More than 60 ethnic or culturally differentiated groups can be found in Malaysia’s population of just under 20 million, but the most crucial population division is that between Bumiputera and non-Bumiputera people. The Bumiputeras are those with cultural affinities indigenous to Peninsular and Bornean Malaysia and the immediate region. Malays constitute the principal Bumiputera group and account for around 55 per cent of Malaysia’s population. Non-Bumiputeras are people whose cultural affinities lie outside Malaysia and its region – principally people of Chinese and Indian descent. Chinese constitute about 32 per cent of Malaysia’s population and Indians about 8 per cent.
The Malays have a long history and, since the 15th century, an Islamic culture in which they take pride. In the colonial era, however, their cultural world – extending across the Malay Peninsula and Indonesian Archipelago – was divided by Western colonial powers. In British Malaya and northern Borneo Malays were relegated to minor social roles and virtually excluded from the foreign-financed modernising economy, which utilised immigrant labour. Malaysia’s history since World War II has been primarily the story of the reassertion of Malay primacy without precipitating serious racial discord.
Malaysia’s stability has enabled vast economic growth, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. The stability has been at the expense, however, of some elements of the democratic system with which Malaysia began as an independent nation. Malay advancement has also had an ironic political consequence – nowadays rifts and rivalries within the Malay community need as much adroit political management as the differences between Malaysia’s ethnic groups.