Making ethnic citizens: The politics and practice of education in Malaysia

Graham K Brown

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65 Citations (SciVal)


This paper examines the politics and practice of education in Malaysia within the context of ethnicity and nation building. Public education in Malaysia—particularly, but not exclusively, at the pre-university level—is promoted as a nation-building tool, seeking to inculcate a sense of Malaysian-ness and patriotism. Simultaneously, however, public education—particularly, but not exclusively, at the university level—is used as a tool for the promotion of ethnic Malay interests. These two objectives are not necessarily contradictory; indeed the assertion that a vital ingredient in the creation of a ‘Malaysian nation’ is the eradication of inter-ethnic economic disparities has been at the heart of the Malaysian regime's discourse on nation building since the ethnic riots of May 1969. Hence, in this view, preferential policies for the economically disadvantaged but numerically dominant Malays are a necessary component of the nation-building project. Nonetheless, there are at least clear tensions between these two functions of education—tensions, which, I shall argue, help explain both the particularly sensitive politics of education in Malaysia, and the discursive stance the Malaysian regime has adopted within the educational field. Through an analysis of the dynamics of the politics of education, I argue that non-Malay educationalist activism has been characterised by a broad acceptance of the regime's strategic objectives, whilst simultaneously seeking to ensure that educational opportunities for non-Malays do not suffer as a result of these policies. I argue that whilst the expansion of private tertiary education during the 1990s has largely ameliorated non-Malay concerns on this level, pre-university schooling remains a politically sensitive issue on all fronts that continues to threaten precisely the inter-ethnic harmony it seeks to promote. Here, I argue that the Malaysian regime has sought to resolve the tensions between nation-building and ethnicity through a didactic and pedagogical approach to educational development, which promotes a concept of nationhood that, rather than transcending ethnic alligiances, is explicitly based on ethnic stratification. I argue that these ‘ethnic citizens’ are encouraged to participate in the Malaysian nation uncritically through the virtual worship of development symbols and unquestioning deference to political leadership.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)318-330
Number of pages13
JournalInternational Journal of Educational Development
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - May 2007


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