Bumiputera status: To be or not to be

Murugesan-Sinnandavar-malaysianBy Murugesan Sinnandavar

My initial reaction when I read the news report on the prime minister’s remark that the government will study in depth the request from the Indian Muslim community to be recognised as Bumiputera was to ignore it.

As someone who was in politics, I know sometimes requests will be made to a politician at a function and the safest way to deal with it is to say “I will consider it”. That way, you won’t offend anyone and it will give you time to think about the request. It’s a safe answer for a politician.

On a practical level, granting Bumiputera status to Indian Muslims will have very little impact on the country as a whole, given that they are a minority within a minority.

However, on a principle level, I have trouble reconciling the proposal with the justification for the original creation of Bumiputera status.

This article is written purely for the purposes of discussing the principles involved and not to offend anyone, least of all the Malaysian Indian Muslim community. They are hardworking, disciplined and united as a community. Some of the best scholars of the Tamil language come from this community and I have great respect for them.

This article is also not a debate on the benefits and disadvantages of affirmative action which is known as the New Economic Policy (NEP) in Malaysia, or the existence of the Bumiputera status itself.

Who is a Bumiputera?

The term “Bumiputera” is a Sanskrit word which was later absorbed into Malay and can be literally translated as “son of the land” or “son of the soil”.

The term “Bumiputera” cannot be found in our constitution. The closest we come to it is in Article 153 where reference is made to “Malays” and “natives”.

Article 153:
“(1) It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article.”

The term “Bumiputera” was first introduced by the father of our prime minister, Abdul Razak, when he formulated the NEP. The NEP recognised the “special position” of the Malays provided in the Constitution of Malaysia, in particular Article 153.

In the “Buku Panduan Kemasukan ke Institusi Pengajian Tinggi Awam, Program Pengajian Lepasan SPM/Setaraf Sesi Akademik 2007/2008” (Guidebook for entry into public higher learning institutions for SPM/equivalent graduates for academic year 2007/2008), the higher education ministry defined “bumiputera” as follows, depending on the region of origin of the individual applicant:

Peninsular Malaysia
“If one of the parents is Muslim Malay/Orang Asli as stated in Article 160 (2) Federal Constitution of Malaysia; thus the child is considered as a Bumiputera.”

Sabah
“If the child was born in Sabah or the father was domiciled in Sabah at the time of birth, and one of the parents is an indigenous native of Sabah as stated in Article 161A (6)(b) of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia; thus his child is considered as a Bumiputera.”

Sarawak
“If both of the parents are indigenous natives of Sarawak as stated in Article 161A (6)(a) of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia; thus their child is considered as a Bumiputera.”

The above definitions more or less reflect what most of us commonly understand as Bumiputera. In a nutshell, it grants Bumiputera status to indigenous people or children of either parent who is indigenous. There is no mention of religion here.

It is apparent that Indian Muslims don’t qualify under any one of the above categories.

There are other minorities such as Peranakan and the Portuguese-Eurasian community in Melaka which are also considered Bumiputeras. Most of these constitute communities were established prior to the arrival of the British colonialists.

The question is, under which category is the government to consider granting Bumiputera status to Indian Muslims?

Is it because they originated from India? Obviously not! If that’s the case, then all Malaysian Indians will be considered Bumiputeras, leaving the Chinese to fend for themselves.

Is it because they are Muslims? Now this gets a little more complicated.

Bumiputera status is not granted based on religion. If it was, it would run foul of Article 8 of our constitution which states that all Malaysian citizens shall be equal under the law, and “except as expressly authorised by this Constitution, there shall be no discrimination against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth”.

If an Indian Muslim is granted Bumiputera status because he is a Muslim, then the question arises on the status of a Hindu or Christian Indian who converts to Islam. What happens to him and his children? If that’s the case, won’t this then be seen as an inducement towards conversion to Islam?

What about Chinese Muslims, then? Don’t they deserve equal treatment as the Indian Muslims?

Should the Indian Muslims be granted Bumiputera status because they are disadvantaged socio-economically? This too can’t be the case. If it was, then the Malaysian Indian community as a whole deserves Bumiputera status.

I don’t have any statistics to support this, but any Malaysian observer will tell you that the average Indian Muslim is better off economically then the average Malaysian Indian.

It is noteworthy that the Melaka Chittys, who have been in this country for more then 500 years, are yet to be granted Bumiputera status. They speak only Malay and have forgotten to speak even their mother tongue, Tamil. They are a very small group and are struggling socio-economically. What about them?

These are some of the square pegs that don’t fit into round holes.

It is therefore heartening that the prime minister has given an assurance that the government will study the request first. Whatever the final decision, it must be based on merit and be fair to everyone. It must not be due to political pressure. After all, we are all citizens of this country and love this country.

As I stated at the outset of this article, the practical implication in terms of the economic pie of the nation might be small, but the message of such a decision will be loud and clear to all Malaysians. Think about it.

Murugesan Sinnandavar is former MIC secretary-general.

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