Many Chinese Malaysians Abroad are Thinking About Coming Home.

May 17, 2018

Affirmative Action Drove Many Chinese Malaysians Abroad. Now They’re Thinking About Coming Home.

Mahathir Mohamad’s new ruling coalition pledges level field after decades of affirmative action for ethnic Malays

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia– Robert Leong left Malaysia about 40 years ago, first for boarding school in Northern Ireland and then to study medicine in Dublin. He went on to the U.S., where he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and works in biotechnology.

Now, political upheaval back home is making it more likely that ethnic Chinese expatriates like Mr. Leong will return to Malaysia, bringing talent and capital back with them.

The electoral collapse of the ethnic-Malay-based party that ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957 is raising expectations that the new government will soften or end a decades-old affirmative-action policy that favors the majority Muslim Malay population, often at the expense of ethnic Chinese.

“Would I return? Yes, after allowing time for the new government to settle down and begin implementing reforms,” said Mr. Leong, who is 55 years old. “There is a huge pool of talented and experienced Malaysians living overseas that this new government could tap into.”

Before it was voted out of power last week, the ruling United Malays National Organization gave quotas, handouts and other preferential assistance to Malays to help them catch up with the generally wealthier Chinese. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese Malaysians left the country to seek a fairer hand elsewhere.

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The newly elected ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad—who championed affirmative action during his earlier, 22-year stint in the post—has decried the UMNO government’s “narrow racist rhetoric” and promised to level the playing field by providing support for all Malaysians who need it.

It is a sensitive and closely followed issue both here and abroad. The pledge from the Alliance of Hope coalition offers to ensure that “Malaysians of all backgrounds will enjoy a fair share of this country’s wealth.”

Mr. Mahathir suggested on Tuesday that the best way to encourage Malaysia’s diaspora to return is to expand the economy “so there are more opportunities for people to practice as professionals, as well as invest in this country.” Speaking via video link to a Wall Street Journal conference in Tokyo, he dodged questions about whether he would seek to remove racial quotas.

Removing the affirmative-action program could be difficult, with Malays and other indigenous groups making up more than two-thirds of the country’s 32 million people.

Hundreds of ethnic Chinese were killed in race riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1969. Above, troops patrol streets in the Malaysian capital’s Chinatown.
Hundreds of ethnic Chinese were killed in race riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1969. Above, troops patrol streets in the Malaysian capital’s Chinatown. Photo: Bettmann Archive/GETTY IMAGES


The pro-Malay policy emerged after 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur in which hundreds of ethnic Chinese were killed. The government introduced an affirmative-action system that, among other things, reserves many spots in college for Malays; they also benefit from subsidized housing and equity ownership policies and dominate the public sector. The programs have helped nurture an ethnic-Malay middle class, to the extent that some Malays in Kuala Lumpur and other cities say they no longer need help.

From the start, many Chinese Malaysians, unsure of finding spots in universities or getting scholarships, began sending their children to Australia, the U.K. and America. “That’s how the exodus began,” said Jason Wong, 23. “Anyone could get the money together would send their children overseas to try to get a foothold there.”


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He should know. Mr. Wong aims to return to Australia where he previously studied to pursue a doctoral degree in ecology. If he does, he would add to a brain drain in which 1 million Malaysians left the country as of 2010, according to a World Bank study published a year later, the vast majority of them ethnic Chinese.

“Whenever I read about what happens in Malaysia, I daydream—maybe one day I would visit home and change things,” said Chin Fen Teo, 38, who also lives in the Bay Area. “I wish Malaysia is a country where racial harmony is real, not like the fake posters that are plastered all over to promote tourism,” she said.

Newly installed Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said the best way to encourage Malaysia’s diaspora to return is to expand the economy.
Newly installed Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said the best way to encourage Malaysia’s diaspora to return is to expand the economy. Photo: Ore Huiying/Bloomberg News


Half of the Chinese Malaysians surveyed last year by researchers from Oxford University said they would leave the country if they could. Malaysia’s Department of Statistics has predicted that the ethnic Chinese population could drop to 20% by 2040, down from 38% at independence and around 23% today, although higher birthrates among Malays is a contributing factor.

Mr. Wong says he would prefer to wait and see how the government tackles the affirmative action system before deciding whether to leave—noting that Mr. Mahathir is still leader of a party that segregates Malay and non-Malay membership.

“As long as his pride stops him from challenging the racial supremacism he engineered decades ago, it will continue drifting around in the Malaysian psyche,” Mr. Wong said. “But if circumstances force him to confront that racism, I suppose I’ll play along.”

Another wild card: Mr. Mahathir, who is 92 years old, has said he plans to hand power in a year or two to former rival Anwar Ibrahim, a longtime advocate of free-market economics, who was released from prison on Wednesday and pardoned for a sodomy conviction he says was politically motivated.

He heads the most avowedly multiracial party in the new coalition. Meanwhile, Mr. Mahathir is focusing his attention on building a case against former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who he accuses of receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd., or 1MDB.

Mr. Najib denies any wrongdoing and has been barred from leaving the country. Police searched Mr. Najib’s residence for several hours overnight Wednesday into Thursday for evidence, taking away several boxes of personal items, one of his lawyers told reporters.

The issue of Malay supremacy will likely linger on in rural or semirural areas, where the idea that Malays serve as the bedrock of the nation and deserve preferential treatment has taken a deep hold, said Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst at the polling company Merdeka Center

“It’s not going to go away,” he said. “The idea of Malay rights will still be a big part of the political landscape.”

Write to James Hookway at

Malaysia’s Ruling Party Sacks Defectors as Election Fight Heats Up

May 6, 2018


Malaysia’s Ruling Party Sacks Defectors as Election Fight Heats Up

Prime Minister Najib Razak is fighting to stay in power, dogged by the continuing 1MDB scandal

By Yantoultra Ngui

Malaysia’s ruling party said on Saturday that it expelled two of its best-known members and began investigating a third for backing the opposition in Wednesday’s Wednesday’s national election, a fresh sign that Prime Minister Najib Razak might be facing a tougher-than-expected battle to stay in power.

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Former UMNO Ministers–Daim Zainuddin, Rafidah Aziz and Rais Yatim

The two politicians expelled from the United Malays National Organization or UMNO, Daim Zainuddin and Rafidah Aziz, as well as Rais Yatim, who is under investigation, are closely associated with Mahathir Mohamad. The former prime minister came out of retirement to lead an opposition coalition that aims to unseat Mr. Najib, his former protégé.

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Now 92, Dr. Mahathir has blasted Mr. Najib for his management of the country, and particularly his handling of state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd, or 1MDB. Dr. Mahathir and many others accuse Mr. Najib of skimming hundreds of millions of dollars from the debt-laden fund, which is the subject of several international investigations. Mr. Najib and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing.

 Dr. Mahathir’s emergence at the head of the opposition has reinvigorated that movement and put UMNO on the defensive. Opinion polls suggest, however, that the party will be able to form a government, even if it loses the popular vote, as did in 2013.

Mr. Daim, Ms. Rafidah and Mr. Rais, all former ministers, have been openly critical of Mr. Najib in the election run-up and joined Dr. Mahathir at a huge rally Friday. Ms. Rafidah, who was Malaysia’s emblematic trade minister under Dr. Mahathir’s long premiership, urged the crowd to give him a “new contract.” She and Messrs. Daim and Rais didn’t respond to requests for comment Saturday.

UMNO officials said Saturday that they would take action against members breaking ranks, but the defections underscore divisions in the party feeding into uncertainty in formerly rock-solid strongholds. It comes at a time of increasing authoritarianism in Southeast Asia amid challenges on trade and security as the U.S. and China contest for influence in the strategically important region.

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A prime example is on Sabah, an oil-and-gas-rich state on the northern tip of Borneo island on the South China Sea, lying near the troubled southern Philippines. Islamic militants from the Philippines have occasionally staged attacks in Sabah or tried to use it as a safe rear area.

The state delivers the third-most seats in Parliament and has long resembled a “fixed deposit,” as Mr. Najib put it, of support for the Front. In 2013, 22 of its 25 seats went to the governing coalition. Parliament has a total of 222 seats.

This time, the opposition in Sabah is being led by a former UMNO Vice President, Shafie Apdal, who quit the party in 2016 after Mr. Najib suspended him for being critical of the 1MDB scandals. Mr. Shafie later formed an opposition party in Sabah with opposition lawmaker Darell Leiking.

The opposition rallies in Sabah are heavily attended, including with younger voters who have increasingly been deserting UMNO. Supporters say they are looking for more autonomy for the state.

“I thank God I left UMNO. It was divine intervention,” Mr. Shafie said in an interview. “I have been observing the body language of people. It is very positive for us as the numbers coming out are very good.”

UMNO has been at the center of every Malaysian government since 1957, but it lost the popular vote in the 2013 elections to a resurgent opposition and allied parties in the long-ruling National Front coalition were reduced to insignificance. As the 1MDB scandal gained steam in recent years, Mr. Najib purged challengers and opponents.

James Chin, a Malaysian academic who heads the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said that the most recent defection of former UMNO ministers who served under Dr. Mahathir showed that “more and more senior UMNO people are willing to challenge Najib at the polls.”

“On the other hand, the fact that all these people were in Mahathir’s cabinet gives the impression that May 9 is a fight between the old UMNO elite and the new UMNO elite,” Mr. Chin said.

—James Hookway contributed to this article.

Write to Yantoultra Ngui at