The Politics of Ethnicity in the Malay World


Malaysia is a classic example of a plural society, with a diverse population consisting of the indigenous peoples, collectively called bumiputera, and the descendants of immigrant populations from southern China, South Asia, the Middle East and Europe. In this multi-ethnic context, the question of identity, notably of Malay identity, has remained elusive and open to varying interpretations.

Joining Dr Natali Pearson on SSEAC Stories, Professor Tom Pepinsky contends that identity is not set in stone, but is emergent, situational and contingent. Focusing on the concept of ethnic identity in Malaysia, he argues that in contemporary Malaysia, the Malay identity is a socially constructed identity. To put it in simple terms, Malays did not make Malaysia; Malaysia made Malays.

About Tom Pepinsky:

Tom Pepinsky is the Walter F. LaFeber Professor of Government and Public Policy at Cornell, and also the Director of the Cornell Southeast Asia Program and Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He studies comparative politics and political economy, with a special focus on Indonesia and Malaysia. His current research looks at the political economy of ethnicity in the Malay world. He is the co-author of Piety and Public Opinion: Understanding Indonesian Islam (Oxford University Press, 2018) and the co-editor of Beyond Oligarchy: Wealth, Power, and Contemporary Indonesian Politics (Cornell University Press 2014).

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Natali Pearson

Dr Natali Pearson is Curriculum Coordinator at the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, a university-wide multidisciplinary center at the University of Sydney, Australia. Her research focuses on the protection, management and interpretation of underwater cultural heritage in Southeast Asia.

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