Malaysia's 1996 Education Act: The Impact of a Multiculturalism-Type Approach on National Integration

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Since gaining independence in 1957, Malaysia's government has been experimenting with various ways of creating a national identity that would unite Malaysians of different ethnic and cultural background. In a speech made on 29 April 1997, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed (1997b) reiterated that imbuing Malaysians with a sense of common and shared destiny via initiatives such as Vision 2020 promulgated in 1991, (1) was one of the nation's most critical objectives. Current Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has also noted the importance of enhancing national unity through analysing existing strategies and approaches (New Straits Times 4 October 2004).

Until the end of the 1980s, the thrust of Malaysian socio-cultural policies was assimilative in orientation. Over time, Malay identity had advanced as the prescribed centre for Malaysia's national identity, and indeed, the 1971 National Culture Policy was based on Malay culture and Islam. (2) However, Chinese resistance to the policy's assimilative character was strong, and a substantively national culture had not been formed. The government did expect strong non-Malay resistance, and while it continued to promote Malay-centrism, it nevertheless acknowledged to an extent the cultural autonomy of ethnic minorities. For example, not only Malay but also Chinese and Tamil are recognized as languages of instruction in primary education within the National Education System despite Section 20 of the Rahman Talib Report of 1960 that noted that "it is not possible, within the framework of a policy which is truly national, to satisfy completely all the individual demands of each cultural and language group in the country". Policies implemented before the end of the 1980s can therefore be placed somewhere between neutral and assimilationism on the given dimension (Figure 1). These may also be understood to seek assertive integration (using an assimilationism-type approach) in contradistinction to assimilation.


In the beginning of the 1990s, the government expanded the level of cultural autonomy enjoyed by ethnic minorities on account of certain factors: the government's assertive integration policies came to a standstill; the human rights movement on the international stage was gaining in prominence; the loss in Chinese votes in the 1990 general election had to be recouped; and the growing significance of the economy in China had to be accommodated. In line with Vision 2020, which affirmed that "Malaysians of all colours and creeds are free to practise and profess their customs, cultures and religious beliefs and yet feeling that they belong to one nation" (Mahathir 1997a, p. 405), socio-cultural policies appeared to shift towards multiculturalism in orientation. Mahathir also mentioned the need for such a shift (Mahathir 1996, p. 31).

In practice, however, the governments has not managed to fully recognize the cultural autonomy of minorities and signs of policy movement towards multiculturalism have been few. The government's policies cannot therefore be described as multiculturalist, but are best placed between neutral and multiculturalism (Figure 1) and defined as being accommodative integration (using a multiculturalism-type approach) in contradistinction to multiculturalism.

When accommodative integration policies are compared to assertive integration ones, it is possible to observe a shift in the degree to which Malay-centrism or the cultural autonomy of minorities played a role in policymaking. In short, it can be argued that the government indicated incipient ideological shifts towards national integration in the early 1990s.

Some policies were apparently well received by the Chinese, as argued by Ong (2004, p. 192) who claimed that Vision 2020 provided non-Malays with hope that they would in time be treated as full citizens, and their cultural autonomy would be fully recognized. …