Background: Malaysia in Brief

Carol McAllister

MALAYSIA IS A complex society composed primarily of people from three distinct ethnic groups Malays, Chinese, and Indians. The population of the eleven states of Peninsular Malaysia (excluding the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak) is approximately 12.5 million, a little over half of whom (55%) are of Malay descent The rest of the Peninsula’s population is made up of people who are descendants of immigrants from China (34%) and hum India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (10%).

The Malays, who are considered the indigenous population of Malaysia, were an almost completely rural people until the most recent generation. British colonialism not only left the Malays on the land but to a large extent relegated them to the economic role of food producers for the rest of the society. Although Malays are now being drawn in large numbers into industrial wage-work, they are still concentrated in rural villages in the rice growing regions of the Peninsula.

In contrast, the Chinese population is overwhelming urban, while Indians are heavily represented both among urban shopkeepers and civil servants and among the poorest of the rural laborers. The bulk of the Chinese and Indian populations originally came to Malaysia to work in British-owned enterprises, the Chinese in tin mines and the Indians in rubber plantations. The Chinese also developed into a local trader class, whose activities today range from control of some of the largest businesses to bare survival through street vending.

Malays have dominated the post-colonial government and state structures, a situation which has allowed them to limit the access of the other ethnic groups to land as well as to gain some control over new enterprises developed with international aid money without, however, being able to dislodge the Chinese from their preeminent place in local commerce. Today there is also the influx of new migrants into Malaysia, especially from Indonesia and the Philippines.

This report focuses on the experiences of women of the Malay ethnic group during the last twenty or twenty-five years as their society has undergone a process of extensive capitalist development and incorporation into the world capitalist economy. The analysis is based in part on the author’s own anthropological field research in several Malay villages in the late 1970s in the traditionally matrilineal area of Malaysia known as Negeri Sembilan. This material is updated and supplemented by reports pub-lished by other researchers during the 1980s and early 1990s.

While some of the analysis is specific to Negeri Sembilan, especially the persistence of particular forms of property and family organization related to the matrilineal culture of that area, much is relevant to the lives of Malay women as a whole. This includes women’s growing involvement in factory work and other forms of wage labor, their continued practice of subsistence production, the role of such production in subsidizing the capitalist sector, and their involvement in spirit possession and in Islamic revival as vehicles of protest against new forms of exploitation brought by the capitalist transformation.

November-December 1993, ATC 47