Malaysia’s racially divisive elections are fanning resentment among minorities, and risk escalating a “brain drain” of disillusioned ethnic Chinese and Indians in an exodus experts say is hurting the nation’s economic ambitions.
About 60 percent of Malaysia’s 32 million people are Muslim Malays but the country is also home to large minorities, with about a quarter of the population ethnic Chinese and a substantial number ethnic Indian.
The Barisan Nasional coalition, which has been in power since independence from Britain in 1957, has long promoted affirmative-action policies that confer Malays and other indigenous groups with many advantages, including access to cheaper housing and priority in government jobs.
The programme, introduced in the 1970s after deadly race riots, was aimed at helping the poorer Malays catch up with the wealthier, more business-savvy Chinese and has been credited with creating a Muslim middle class and maintaining racial harmony.
But it has also been blamed for fuelling resentment among ethnic minority groups and encouraging their better-educated members to move abroad.
Some young members of the Chinese and Indian communities say they feel like second-class citizens in their own country, and that staying in Malaysia would likely limit their career opportunities as they hit ethnic glass ceilings.
Gabey Goh, a 34-year-old marketing executive, is one of many Malaysian Chinese who have headed to neighbouring Singapore, which is predominantly ethnic Chinese, more affluent, and which she regards as having a more merit-based culture.
“I was never very comfortable, and I never agreed and I don’t agree, with the affirmative action policy,” said Goh, who left Malaysia more than three years ago.
“There’s too much anger, too much of a divide.”
In the run-up to Wednesday’s general election, Prime Minister Najib Razak has been accused of amplifying racial tensions as he scrambles to shore up his Malay voter base with moves that may further alienate minorities.
Analysts say electoral boundaries have been redrawn along racial lines, creating constituencies dominated by Malays.
Najib has also warned that an opposition victory would be a “nightmare” for the country’s Muslims.
Speaking in December at the annual assembly of his ruling party, he said that if the opposition wins, “the bumiputras will be cast aside, insulted and damned, and left destitute in our own country”.
“Bumiputra”, or “sons of the soil”, is the term for Malays and other indigenous groups.
While Najib is expected to win at the polls, he faces a tough opponent in veteran politician Mahathir Mohamad, a staunch Malay nationalist who led the country for 22 years and has come out of retirement to join forces with the opposition.
A scandal surrounding state fund 1MDB — founded by Najib and allegedly looted by senior fund officials and their associates — and the challenge from Mahathir has only pushed the premier to further focus on his Muslim base.
Tian Chua, vice-president of opposition group the People’s Justice Party, said Najib’s approach would worsen relations among Malaysia’s different ethnic groups.
“It is not helping people to feel they are part of larger society,” he told AFP.
The World Bank has estimated that at least one million Malaysians have left to live abroad since independence, threatening the country’s competitiveness.
“The migration of talent across borders touches the core of Malaysia’s aspiration to become a high-income nation. Human capital is the bedrock of the high-income economy,” it said in a 2011 report.
“Brain drain does not appear to square with this objective: Malaysia needs talent, but talent seems to be leaving,” said study which is still seen as the most authoritative on the subject.
In such a toxic atmosphere, Neeta Ravi — originally from Malaysia’s ethnic Indian community — is glad she is not around for the election. She left her homeland in the 1990s and settled in Canada.
“We felt that while we had the opportunity, we would go somewhere where we were treated on the same level,” the 63-year-old told AFP, using a pseudonym as she still has family in Malaysia.
She said her family preferred a place “with no first-class, or second-class citizens” while back at home her son would have needed better grades to get into the same university course as a Malay boy.
There is little sign the situation is improving. Goh said that inquiries from friends about life in Singapore have only increased in the past year.
And many of those who have left say they will not return while affirmative action remains in place.
“If Malaysia becomes a more just and equitable and fair country, we will pack our bags tomorrow and go back,” said Ravi.