Accounting for Change in Diverse Societies

Majority Affirmative Action in Malaysia:
Imperatives, Compromises and Challenges

Publication Date: March 2017

Hwok-Aun Lee

Hwok-Aun Lee is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Development Studies at the University of Malaya. His research interests include affirmative action, inequality, labour, social policy, discrimination, and education. His recent works have been published in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, Journal of the Asia Pacific Economy, Journal of Asian and African Studies. He has served as a member of the Technical Committee of the National Wage Consultative Council, and national consultant to the inaugural Malaysian Human Development Report, published in 2014. He has maintained newspaper columns from time to time, and regularly contributes commentary and opinion pieces to public spheres, especially online media.

At the end of British colonial rule in Malaysia, indigenous Malays comprised a majority but were often economically disadvantaged compared to Chinese and Indian migrants who had arrived prior to independence. In response, the Malay-majority government used its political dominance to introduce affirmative action policies to recognize the special position of “Bumiputera” peoples (Malays and other indigenous groups) and improve their economic standing. Introduced as a constitutional commitment, affirmative action has shaped Malaysian citizenship and democracy. What lessons can be drawn from this experience about the effectiveness of affirmative action as a policy remedy for horizontal inequalities? How has this choice affected pluralism in Malaysia?

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