The population of Malaysia consists of three major ethnic groups: Malays (67%), Chinese (25%) and Indians (7%). About 60% of the population (most Malays) are Muslim. Due to religious, cultural, and linguistic differences among ethnic groups, the Malaysian government has regarded making a national integration policy to be an important issue since the independence of Malaysia in 1957.
Large-scale ethnic riots broke out in 1969 in Malaysia. The National Front Coalition led by elite Malays had implemented a national policy that favored the Malays for decades. Islam was declared the state religion. The Malays were given priority in economic-social and educational matters. For instance, the New Economic Policy (1971-1990) was said to improve the living standard of the entire population, but in reality, it primarily helped the Malays. Malay became a compulsory language requirement for entering national universities and a special quota was reserved for Malay applicants.
On the other hand, the government allowed non-Malay populations to study their own languages. Ethnic Chinese and Indians were allowed to preserve their language, religion and culture. Cultural diversity was respected and Malayization was not imposed on non-Malay populations. Chinese and Tamil were allowed in some primary and secondary schools. Non-Malay groups basically do not live with the Malays and thus they could preserve their traditions.
During the two decades under the pro-Malay policy, the social and economic conditions of the Malays were improved. The gap among ethnic groups was narrowed. However, tertiary education suffered as the policy drove brilliant non-Malay students away. Many Malaysian Chinese went to study in Taiwan and few returned to Malaysia. The academic ranking of the universities in Malaysia was low. For instance, the National University of Malaya ranked only 192 in Times University Rankings. No Malaysian universities were even listed among the top 500 and top 3000 world university rankings by Shanghai Jiao Tung University and Webometrics respectively.
Enhancing national identity among all ethnic groups is now a pressing issue in Malaysia. Nowadays, the Malaysian government has loosened the pro-Malay policy. In the Vision of 2020 declared in 1991, all ethnic groups are united to build Malaysia into an advanced nation in 2020. This vision can be seen in public facilities and education.
In the speech made on Independence Day in the past few years, the current prime minister Najib Razak talked about the dream of "One Malaysia", making all ethnic groups under one country. "One Malaysia" has become a slogan, appearing often in pubic service announcements on television. In my fieldwork in several Chinese schools in Malaysia, I found that under the Malaysian flag were paintings of children wearing traditional Chinese costumes. Many institutes have been set up to implement the "One Malaysia" policy. A film about intermarriage between a Chinese man and a Malay lady was screened. Since the Millennium, families, regardless of their ethnic origin, have been encouraged to hoist the national flag to enhance a common national identity.
The Malay remains the national language but the importance of Chinese has been recognized following the rise of the Chinese economy. Interestingly enough, some non-Chinese families send their children to Chinese schools or learn Chinese. Chinese-singing non-Chinese singers have also emerged. To stop the brain drain, the government set up scholarships for non-Malay university students and abolished the admission quota based on ethnicity.
Under the Vision of 2020 and One Malaysia policies, national identity among young Malaysian Chinese has become stronger. One interviewee said: "I have the sense of being Chinese in my own country, but I introduce myself as Malaysian in foreign countries. We communicate with other ethnic groups and eat their cuisine. I think the national identity of young Malaysian Chinese is stronger than the older generation. We have multiple identities. We know we are both Malaysian and Chinese, but our older generations see themselves primarily as Chinese." Another interviewee was proud of being Malaysian: "When I travelled to Indonesia, I had no problem in communicating with the locals as I knew Muslim customs and their language. When I went to China, I could use Chinese. We can speak English in the Western World as it was a compulsory language at school. How lucky I am to be a Malaysian!" Cross-cultural and multi-lingual abilities can make young Malaysian Chinese more competitive in the globalizing world. They can serve as a bridge between Malaysia and China and are indeed an asset to the development of Malaysia.