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Bumiputra (Sanskrit, translated literally, it means "sons of the Earth") or sometimes spelled as Bumiputera is an official definition widely used in Malaysia, embracing ethnic Malays as well as other indigenous ethnic groups.

In fact the term Bumiputra was probably created to address collectively the group described in article 153 of the Malaysian constitution.


In conventional sense, it is generally considered that all Malays are Bumiputras and that all Bumiputras are Malay. This is technically incorrect, as there are cases of non-Malays declared as bumiputra, and similarly of Malays (who are not Muslim) who are not considered Bumiputra. However, the definition of Bumiputra clearly excludes ethnic Chinese. Some Indians are similarly excluded.

This confusion is compounded by the fact that different ministries of the government may have different definitions themselves. What is not obscure is that legally-based preferential racial bias in favour of Bumiputras is built into the Malaysian constitution. Racial policies were a major key of Mahathir bin Mohamad's policies during his reign as Prime Minister from 1981 until 2003, as laid out in his own book The Malay Dilemma (1970).

The Malaysian Federal Constitution has clauses specifically addressing the area of Malay rights but does not explicitly protect any Bumiputra rights per se. Article 153 states that:

"the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (The King of Malaysia) shall exercise his functions... in such a manner as may be necessary to safeguard the special position of the Malays... to ensure the reservation... of such proportion... in the public service... and of scholarships... and other similar educational... privileges or special facilities given... by the Federal Government".

The Constitution defines Malays as being one who "professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom".


Certain pro-bumiputra policies known as the Bumiputra Laws exist as a means of affirmative action for bumiputras. Such policies include quotas for the following: admission to government educational institutions, qualification for public scholarships, positions in government and ownership in business. Most of them were established in the Malaysian New Economic Policy (NEP). Examples of such policies include:

  • Companies listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange (Bursa Saham Kuala Lumpur) must find Bumiputras to take up a minimum 30% of equity to satisfy listing requirements. MSC status companies listed on MESDAQ, Malaysia's latest stock exchange are not subject to this requirement.
  • A certain percentage of housing in any development has to be sold to Bumiputra owners. Housing developers are required to provide a minimum 10% discount to Bumiputra buyers of these lots. Fulfillment of this quota is often by ear-marking less desirable properties as "bumiputra lots".
  • A basket of government guaranteed and run mutual funds are available for purchase by Bumiputra buyers only.
  • Many government tendered projects require that companies submitting tenders be bumiputra owned. This requirement has led to non-Bumiputras teaming up with Bumiputra companies to obtain projects in a practice known as "Ali Baba" where Ali (the Bumiputra) exists solely to satisfy this requirement and Baba (the non Bumiputra) gives Ali a certain sum in exchange.
  • Projects were earmarked for Malay contractors to gain expertise in various fields. Often these projects would be sold as the bidders were not interested in the work, only in the gains that could be made from winning such a tender. Ultimately the resulting work was sub-standard.
  • Approved Permits (APs) for automobiles allow Bumiputra to import vehicles. Automotive companies wishing to bring in cars need to have an AP to do so. APs were originally created to allow Bumiputra participation in the automotive industry since they were issued to companies with at least 70% Bumiputra ownership. In 2004, the Edge (a business newspaper) estimated that APs were worth approximately RM 35,000 a piece. They also estimated that Nasimuddin Amin, chariman of the Naza group received 6,387 for 2003, making him the largest recepient of APs. 12,234 APs were issued in 2003. In addition to APs, foreign car marquees are required to pay between 140% to 300% as an import duty.

Most of these advantages only exist in public policy. Private sector implementation is often to satisfy legal requirements and results in tokenism.

Legitimacy of special rights

Bumiputra privileges and quotas are based on article 153 of the constitution which states that : 'It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article'. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy hence the responsibilities of the YDP are regarded as the responsibilities of the state.

Clause 5 of article 153 specifically reaffirms article 136 of the consitution which states: 'All persons of whatever race in the same grade in the service of the Federation shall, subject to the terms and conditions of their employment, be treated impartially.'

Clause 9 of article 153 states 'Nothing in this Article shall empower Parliament to restrict business or trade solely for the purpose of reservations for Malays.'

Article 89 of the consitution (clause 2) states: '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 in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.'


The Bumiputra laws stand out as an unusual public policy where preferential actions benefit the majority race of a country, and some argue that the advantages afforded to bumiputras border on outright racism. The government, however, argues that the legal and economic advantages are necessary for Malaysia to reduce ethnic conflict. The NEP, in particular, was spurred by large racial riots on May 13, 1969.

Since 2000, the Government has discussed phasing out these advantages, and reinstating a "meritocracy". Any meritocracy implemented, it was declared, would be based upon the "Malaysian model".

In 2003, the government began the system of "Malaysian model meritocracy". In the actual implementation, admission to public universities was not based upon a common examination like the SAT or A-Levels but rather upon two parallel systems of a one-year matriculation course and a two-year STPM (literally translated as "Malaysian High (School) Education Certificate") programme. Bumiputras compose an overwhelming majority of entrants to the matriculation programme, leading to some complaints from the public, as the public university entry requirements are perceived to be easier for matriculation students. In 2004, Non-Bumiputra students who scored 5As in the STPM (the highest possible grade) were denied admission to their first choice of study in public universities. Bumiputra students with lesser grades were nonetheless admitted.

Quotas exist for Public Services Department scholarships. In 2004 Mohd Johari Baharum parliamentary secretary of the Prime Minister's Department stated that PSD (Public Services Department) scholarships would remain quota based. He added that there were no plans to convert this to a merit based system. He stated that the total value of the PSD scholarship since 1996 was 2.4 billion Ringgit.

Quotas also exist for entry into public education. In 2004, Dr. Amir Shafie, the newly appointed Higher Education Minister, stated that he "will ensure the quota of Malay students' entry into universities is always higher".

Present condition of the Bumiputra

  • The Bumiputra has come to be dependant on government subsidies as mentioned by 4th Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad:

"We have tried to tell them if you depend on subsidies, you are going to be very weak. But they don't seem to understand. We tell them if you use crutches, you will not be able to stand up. Throw away the crutches, stand up straight because you still have the capacity. I have talked about this thing and as a doctor I know very well the meaning of crutches but somehow or rather they want the easy way out. If I get an AP and I sell it and make some money, it's all right, they say."

He spoke of the government project to build school computer labs which were awarded to Bumiputra contractors:

"The great debacle was the computer labs. We tried to help as many people as possible because we were accused of giving things to only a selected few. But every one of them sold their contracts. Sold and sold and sold until finally the last man could not sell and had to do the work. He then found he would make terrible losses and so he tried to cut corners, used bad materials and the labs collapsed. They know it, they see it right before their eyes but they learn nothing. Next time they will do it again."

  • Increased emphasis on the Malay Language in education have led to Bumiputras becoming less employable. Mahathir (who was also education minister previously) said in 2004:

"Why is this only happening to Malay graduates and not Chinese graduates? The reason is probably the Chinese graduates choose the right subjects so they are employable. We find that the Malay graduates, especially those from the Malay stream, can't speak English at all. No matter how much value you put on a certificate, the fact remains that an employer wants somebody with whom he can communicate. The employer is not Malay, he is a foreigner. And if he's not going to be able to communicate with you, he will not take you."

  • Preferential hiring in the civil service has led to less non-Bumiputras applying, yet proportionally more non-Bumiputras are accepted. As reported by the Public Services Commision - of 350,000 applicants annually for civil services jobs, less than 5% were from non-Bumiputras. The PSC employs 40% of the 1.2 million civil servants in the country. Despite the low application rate, non-Malay applicants make up around 13% of the civil service. For the Chinese community in particular, 2% of the applicants are Chinese but they obtain around 8% of the positions in the civil services.

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