Affirmative Action for Majority Groups

Affirmative action is generally a policy to give preferential  treatment  to  minority  groups (such as women, ethnic minorities, indigenous people, and handicapped persons) who are socially vulnerable and face structural discrimination in a society through the use of measures such as quota systems to provide for equality in employment, education, and so forth. In some countries, however, such as Malaysia, South Africa, and Fiji, there is affirmative action for majority groups that are perceived as being disadvantaged.

Malaysia has a population of around 25 million people, made up in 2000 of Malays (66 percent), Chinese (25 percent), Indians (8 per cent), and ‘‘others’’ (1 percent). The Constitution defines certain special privileges for the Malays, and the New Economic Policy gives people defined as Bumiputera (literally, ‘‘sons of the soil,’’ comprising Malays, indigenous people such as the orang asli, and ethnic minorities in Sabah and Sarawak) advantages with respect to capital ownership, employment, education, grants, licenses, and so on. These privileges are  considered ‘‘sensitive issues’’ in Malaysia, and public discussion is prohibited. During the British colonial period, Chinese came to Malaya to work in tin mines while Indians came to  work as rubber  tappers. Malays  remained  agricultural  smallholders (planting rice, rubber, and coconuts) or fishermen in coastal areas, and argue that they were excluded from the country’s economic development. When Malaya became independent in 1957, the major industries were dominated by western capital and there was a substantial  economic  imbalance  between Malays and non Malays.

Ethnic riots on May 13, 1969 showed the severity of the ethnic divide between Malays and  Chinese. A government white  paper, Toward National Harmony, blamed the ‘‘economic factor’’ for the ethnic clash, and also called for prohibition of public debate (even in Parliament) on ‘‘sensitive issues’’ such as Malay privileges, the position of Malay as the country’s national language, the status of the Sultans, citizenship for non Malays, and the use of non Malay languages.

The government announced the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1970, saying ‘‘the aims were to eradicate poverty and to restructure society so as to correct social and economic imbalances.’’ The NEP aimed to increase Bumiputera employment in modern sectors of the economy (i.e., in manufacturing and services), and to build Bumiputera corporate equity. Employment was to be restructured to reflect more closely the country’s ethnic composition.

With regard to equity ownership, the targets were Bumiputera 30 percent, other Malaysians 40 percent, and foreigners 30 percent, compared with 1970 figures for corporate equity of Bumiputera 2.4 percent, other Malaysians 32.3 per cent, and foreigners 63.3 percent. Bumiputera received preferential treatment  in  permits, grants, real estate ownership, education, and so on. The NEP remained in effect from 1971 until 1990. It was succeeded by the National Development Policy (NDP) from 1991 until 2000, and then the National Vision Policy (NVP), covering 2001 until 2010.

Special privileges for the Malay population originated during the colonial period with an enactment reserving certain lands for Malay ownership (Federated Malay States Enactment of 1913 and FMS Enactment of 1933 – Cap.142 of the consolidated legislative code). Article 89 of the current Federal Constitution makes  provision  for  Malay  reservations.

In the early twentieth century, rubber plantations were developed by western capital and the  Enactment  on Malay Reservation was aimed at protecting Malays by reserving their land.

The quota system for Malays is based on Article 153 of the Constitution, which defines the responsibility of the king (the Yang di Pertuan Agong) ‘‘to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak’’ and ‘‘to ensure the reservation’’ for them of a reasonable pro portion of ‘‘positions in the public service,’’ as well as ‘‘scholarships, exhibitions, and other similar  educational or  training  privileges’’ offered by the federal government, along with permits or licenses to operate ‘‘any trade or business’’ by federal law.

The All Malaya Malay Youth Congress in 1955 and Bumiputera Economic Congresses in 1965 and 1968 demanded improvements in the economic status of Malays by providing special allotments and facilities for Malays. The recommendations of these three congresses seemed radical and unrealistic at the time, but the May 13 riot and the fear of ethnic instability created a political basis for acceptance. It was difficult for non beneficiaries to accept this political economic policy, and the political party system, which consists of an alliance or National Front made up of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), was designed to absorb criticism and represent the interests of each ethnic group.  At  the  same time,  institutions  of state power such as the Internal Security Act, Official Secrets Act, Printing Press Act, and Publications Act helped curtail public discussion. The prime minister between 1981 and 2002, Dr. Mahathir, wrote in his book The Malay Dilemma (1970) that Malays were genetically inferior, and he later used this argument as a basis for rationalizing affirmative action for the Malays.

There have been objections to the implementation of Malay privileges on grounds that  they  benefit  only  small  groups  of Malays. Other criticism suggests that Malays should try harder to improve their economic performance rather than relying on legislated special privileges. Even Mahathir has complained that Malays take these privileges for granted.

The Republic of South Africa has a population  of  44.83 million,  comprising people defined as black (79 percent), white (9.6 per cent), and colored (8.9 percent), along with a small Indian and Asian element (2.5 percent). The apartheid policy that discriminated against black Africans was abolished in 1991, and in 1994 an election in which all races participated put a black government into power, ending 350 years of white rule.

The history of discrimination and unequal treatment in politics, economy, education, and human rights created not only segregation but also huge imbalances in income and political participation. Poor people who live on less than US$2.00 per day make up some 48 percent of the population, and most of them are black or colored. The acknowledged unemployment rate for this group is 38 percent, while the rate for whites is 4 percent, and the actual unemployment rate in black and colored residential areas is thought to be as high as 50–60 percent.

When the African National Congress (ANC) came to power in South Africa in 1994, it identified black economic empowerment as a major tool for addressing the economic injustices of apartheid. Besides the quota system of public servants, affirmative action policies for employment became standard for all larger companies under an Employment Equity Act put into effect in 2000. Under the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003, ‘‘black people’’ is defined as a generic term that includes ‘‘Africans, Coloreds, and Indians.’’ According to the Act, ‘‘broad based black economic empowerment’’ – with an emphasis on ‘‘broad based’’ – refers to the economic empowerment of all black people including women, workers, youth, people with disabilities, and people living in rural areas.

Regarding ownership, the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) Commission has recommended the following quotas for black people: 30 percent of productive land, 25 percent of the shares of companies listed on the Johannes burg Stock Exchange ( JSE), 40 percent of non executive and executive directors of companies listed on the JSE, 50 percent of state owned enterprises and government procurement, 30 percent of the private sector, and 40 percent of senior and executive management in private sector companies (with more than 50 employees).

Yet, progress in extending black administration level employment and black ownership, according to a government document entitled Towards a Ten Year Review, remains slow. While the government emphasizes the need to empower the black population still further by affirmative action, there has been criticism that the policies are not helping the poorest people, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and other groups have highlighted problems arising from corruption and cronyism.

The third case is Fiji. Fiji has a population of 830,000, made up of Fijians (51 percent), Indians (44 percent), and others. The Constitution of Fiji and the country’s Social Justice Act sanction affirmative action for indigenous Fijians in matters such as education, training, land and housing, participation in business, and employment in state services.

The original Fiji Constitution drafted in London reserved privileges for indigenous Fijians. The Alliance Party, widely supported by Fijians, was in power from 1970, when the country became independent, to 1987, when the National Federation Party supported by Indians and the Fiji Labour Party won power. Two coups d’e´tat followed in 1987, and a new Constitution enacted in 1990 reserved certain privileges and positions for Fijians, including the post of prime minister. In 1997 this document was replaced by a new Constitution that moderated the Fijian privileges, among other things removing the restriction on who could become prime minister. Following the putsch of  2000,  affirmative action  policies were encapsulated in a draft 20 Year Development Plan that is to be introduced in Parliament. Post 1987 affirmative action policies were based on practices in Malaysia, where the ruler had powers to safeguard the special position of the indigenous people. The 1990 Fiji Constitution preserved quotas for the public service, stipulating that not less than 50 percent of civil service posts should be reserved for indigenous Fijians. A Nine Points Plan introduced in 1988 and a Ten Year Plan for Fijian Participation in Business recommended ways for indigenous Fijians to make financial investments and build equity. The 1997 Constitution extended the definition of the target group to ‘‘all groups or categories of persons who are disadvantaged.’’

In  2000, the Blueprint and Government’s Policy for  the  Enhancement of  Indigenous Fijians/Rotumans Participation in  Commerce and Business (the Blueprint) aimed at economic reform for creating a ‘‘multi ethnic and multi cultural society,’’ fulfilling the ‘‘aspirations of the Fijians and Rotumans,’’ and respecting ‘‘the  paramountcy  of  their  interests.’’ A Twenty Year Development  Plan (20 Y Plan) further developed the Blueprint’s proposals, setting as a goal a 50 : 50 division within the local economy between Fijians and other groups by the year 2020.

As in South Africa, Fiji viewed the Malaysian policy of affirmative action in support of a majority group as a sound model for economic development and political stability. Fiji began emulating the Malaysian affirmative action model as early as the 1980s, when the Fijian Holdings Company was conceived by the then prime minister, Ratu Sir Kamisesee Mara, a close friend of the Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad. Following the military coups in 1987, Fiji fervently embraced the Malaysian model (Ratuva 2002: 131). South Africa also had a close relation with Malaysia from 1994 and Mahathir was positive in support of South Africa under the South–South assistance.

When a country contemplates affirmative action for majority groups, it generally assumes that historical disadvantages the groups has suffered have caused discrimination and an economic gap that cannot be overcome without special measures. Yet it is difficult for non beneficiaries to consent to affirmative action for a majority element since they bear no responsibility for discrimination in the past, and the measures are imposed by a dominant group that holds political power. Moreover, such policies can give rise to reverse racism or reverse  discrimination.  Ratuva  (2002) has pointed out that affirmative action of this sort can become a form of economic nationalism if it is driven by political forces and justified by political ideology aimed at consolidating the interests of a particular ethnic group.

Affirmative action is generally understood to be a program of contingent measures that will be abolished when the pattern of opportunity and treatment in a society improves. Yet it is difficult to decide when a program has met its objectives and should be ended. It is critical to set clear goals and a timetable based on a practical system of evaluation. Also, to lift the income standards of people disadvantaged by an affirmative action program, it is vital to set up social security programs and a social safety net that will sustain the poorest households and disadvantaged people in a society on the basis of income and needs, and not according to ethnic or racial standards.


  1. Daniel, , Habib, A., & Southall, R. (Eds.) (2003) State of the Nation: South Africa, 2003 2004. HSRC Press, Cape Town.
  2. Hugo, P. (1990) Affirmative Action in the Civil Service. In: Schrire, R. (Ed.), Critical Choices for South Africa: An Agenda for the 1990s. Oxford University Press, Cape
  3. Jesudason, V. (1989) Ethnicity and the Economy: The State, Chinese Business, and Multinationals in Malaysia. Oxford University Press, Singapore.
  4. Mahathir,  (1970) Malay  Dilemma. Donald Moore Press, Singapore.
  5. Ratuva, (2002) Economic Nationalism and Communal Consolidation: Economic Affirmative Action in  Fiji,  1987 2002. Pacific Economic Bulletin 17, 1 (May): 130 7.
  6. Terreblanche, (2003) A History of Inequality in South Africa, 1652 2002. University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg.

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