The Malaysian elite, trained in overseas universities, is highly cosmopolitan and continues to grow in dominance as Malaysia's middle class expands. Even with the substantial stratification of society by ethnicity, similar class experiences in business and lifestyle are bridging old barriers. Symbols of Social Stratification. In Malaysia's market economy, consumption provides the primary symbols of stratification. Newly wealthy Malaysians learn how to consume by following the lead of the Malay royalty and the prosperous business families of Chinese descent.
A mobile phone, gold jewelry, and fashionable clothing all indicate one's high rank in the Malaysian social order.
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Given the striking mobility of Malaysian society, one's vehicle marks class position even more than home ownership. Most Malaysians can distinguish the difference between makes of cars, and access to at least a motor scooter is a requirement for participation in contemporary Malaysian social life. Kuala Lumpur has more motor vehicles than people.
Skin color, often indicative of less or more time working in the hot tropical sun, further marks class position. Distinct class differences also appear in speech. Knowledge of English is vital to elevated class status, and a person's fluency in that language indexes their social background.
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Malaysia's government is nominally headed by the king whose position rotates among the nine hereditary Malay rulers every five years. The king selects the prime minister from the leading coalition in parliament, a body which is further Beginning in the s, the government has attempted to increase the number of Malays living in urban areas like Kuala Lumpur above. Since independence Malaysian national elections have been won by a coalition of ethnic-based political parties. UMNO rule is aided by the gerrymandered parliamentary districts that over-represent rural Malay constituencies.
The UMNO president has always become Malaysia's prime minister, so the two thousand delegates at the biannual UMNO General Assembly are the real electoral force in the country, choosing the party leadership that in turn leads the country. Leadership and Political Officials. Malaysian political leaders demand a great deal of deference from the public.
The Malay term for government, kerajaan, refers to the raja who ruled from the precolonial courts. High-ranking politicians are referred to as yang berhormat he who is honored , and sustain remarkable resiliency in office. Their longevity is due to the fact that successful politicians are great patrons, with considerable influence over the allocation of social benefits such as scholarships, tenders, and permits. Clients, in return, show deference and give appropriate electoral support.
The mainstream press are also among the most consistent and most important boosters of the ruling coalition's politicians. Even with the substantial power of the political elite, corruption remains informal, and one can negotiate the lower levels of the state bureaucracy without paying bribes. However, endless stories circulate of how appropriate payments can oil a sometimes creaky process. Social Problems and Control.
Through its colonial history, British Malaya had one of the largest per capita police forces of all British colonies.
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Police power increased during the communist rebellion the "Emergency" begun in , which was fought primarily as a police action. The Emergency also expanded the influence of the police Special Branch intelligence division. Malaysia retains aspects of a police state.
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Emergency regulations for such things as detention without trial called the Internal Security Act remain in use; the police are a federal rather than local institution; and police quarters especially in more isolated rural areas still have the bunker-like design necessary for confronting an armed insurgency. Even in urban areas police carry considerable firepower. Officers with Ms are not a rarity and guards at jewelry shops often have long-barrel shotguns. Criminals tend to be audacious given the fact that possession of an illegal firearm carries a mandatory death sentence.
Since the police focus more on protecting commercial than residential property, people in housing estates and rural areas will sometimes apprehend criminals themselves. The most elaborate crime network is composed of Chinese triads who extend back in lineage to the colonial period. Malaysia is close to the opium producing areas of the "Golden Triangle" where Burma, Thailand, and Laos meet. Drug possession carries a mandatory death sentence. Military Activity. The Malaysian military's most striking characteristic is that, unlike its neighbors, there has never been a military coup in the country.
One reason is the important social function of the military to insure Malay political dominance. The highest ranks of the military are composed of ethnic Malays, as are a majority of those who serve under them. The military's controversial role in establishing order following the May urban rebellion further emphasizes the political function of the institution as one supporting the Malay-dominated ruling coalition.
The Malaysian armed forces, though small in number, have been very active in United Nations peace-keeping, including the Congo, Namibia, Somalia, and Bosnia. The Malaysian government has promoted rapid social change to integrate a national society from its ethnic divisions. Since poverty eradication was an aim of the NEP a considerable amount of energy has gone to social welfare efforts.
The consequences of these programs disseminate across the social landscape: home mortgages feature two rates, a lower one for Malays and a higher one for others; university admissions promote Malay enrollment; mundane government functions such as allocating hawker licenses have an ethnic component. But the government has also tried to ethnically integrate Malaysia's wealthy class; therefore many NEP-inspired ethnic preferences have allowed prosperous Malays to accrue even greater wealth. The dream of creating an affluent Malaysia continues in the government's plan of Vision , which projects that the country will be "fully developed" by the year This new vision places faith in high technology, including the creation of a "Multi-Media Super Corridor" outside of Kuala Lumpur, as the means for Malaysia to join the ranks of wealthy industrialized countries, and to develop a more unified society.
Through its welfare policies the government jealously guards its stewardship over social issues, and nongovernmental organizations NGOs work under its close surveillance.
The state requires that all associations be registered, and failure to register can effectively cripple an organization. NGO life is especially active in urban areas, addressing problems peripheral to the state's priorities of ethnic redistribution and rapid industrialization. Many prominent NGOs are affiliated with religious organizations, and others congregate around issues of the environment, gender and sexuality, worker's rights, and consumers' interests.
Division of Labor by Gender. Malaysia's affluence has changed the gender divide in the public sphere of work while maintaining the gendered division Young people are instructed at an early age to socialize primarily with kin. Most conspicuous among the new developments are the burgeoning factories that employ legions of women workers on the assembly lines.
Domestic labor is a different matter, with cooking and cleaning still deemed to be female responsibilities. In wealthier families where both men and women work outside the home there has been an increase in hiring domestic servants. Since Malaysian women have other opportunities, nearly all of this domestic work goes to female foreign maids. The Relative Status of Women and Men.
Generally men have more power than women in Malaysian society. Male dominance is codified in laws over such things as the guardianship of children. The top politicians, business leaders, and religious practitioners are predominately male. Yet Malaysian society shows considerable suppleness in its gender divisions with prominent women emerging in many different fields.
Most of the major political parties have an active women's wing which provides access to political power. Though opportunities for men and women differ by ethnic group and social class, strict gender segregation has not been a part of modern Malaysian life. Even with significant changes in marriage practices, weddings reveal the sharp differences in Malaysian society. There are two ways to marry: registering the union with the government; and joining in marriage before a religious authority.
Christian Malaysians may marry Buddhists or Hindus answering only to their families and beliefs; Muslim Malaysians who marry non-Muslims risk government sanction unless their partner converts to Islam. Marriage practices emphasize Malaysia's separate ethnic customs. Indians and Chinese undertake divination rites in search of compatibility and auspicious dates, while Malays have elaborate gift exchanges.
Malay wedding feasts are often held in the home, and feature a large banquet with several dishes eaten over rice prepared in oil to say one is going to eat oiled rice means that a wedding is imminent. Many Chinese weddings feature a multiple-course meal in a restaurant or public hall, and most Indian ceremonies include intricate rituals.
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Since married partners join families as well as individuals, the meeting between prospective in-laws is crucial to the success of the union. For most Malaysians marriage is a crucial step toward adulthood. Although the average age for marriage continues to increase, being single into one's thirties generates concern for families and individuals alike.
The social importance of the institution makes interethnic marriage an issue of considerable stress. Domestic Unit. Malaysian households have undergone a tremendous transformation following the changes in the economy. The shift from agricultural commodities to industrial production has made it difficult for extended families to live together. Yet as family mobility expands, as a result of modern schedules, efforts to maintain kin ties also increase.
Improved telecommunications keep distant kin in contact, as does the efficient transportation network. A dramatic example of this occurs on the major holidays when millions return to hometowns for kin reunions. The critical issue of inheritance is land. With the importance Malays place on land ownership, it is rarely viewed as a commodity for sale, and the numerous empty houses that dot the Malaysian landscape are testament to their absentee-owners unwillingness to sell. Gold is also a valuable inheritance; Malaysians from all groups readily turn extra cash into gold as a form of insurance for the future.
Kin Groups. The crucial kin distinctions in Malaysian culture are between ethnic groups, which tend to limit intermarriage. Among the majority of Malays, kin groups are more horizontal than vertical, meaning that siblings are more important than ancestors. Those considered Malay make appropriate marriage partners; non-Malays do not.