A Malaysian girl carries a national flag during an Independence Day parade rehearsals in Kuala Lumpur.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia CNN  — 

Sixty years after winning independence from the British, and with an election looming on the horizon, two questions still bedevil Malaysia – Does this multi-ethnic country of 32 million people have a singular national identity? And did it ever have one in the first place?

The question of identity has been central to the country since three race-based political parties banded together to win independence on August 31, 1957.

But it has become an even more sensitive issue over the past decade or so as the nation grapples with a Malay-Muslim majority largely determined to maintain the status quo, and minorities equally determined to assert their rights.

At the heart of the issue are government policies that heavily favor the Malay majority, often to the exclusion of minorities.

A man opens a bus door through an advertisement showing the Malaysia ethnic communities with traditional dress in Kuala Lumpur, September 25, 2013.

Sons of the soil

Possibly the best-known and widest reaching of these schemes is the New Economic Policy, which was introduced in 1971 and gave Malays perks like cheaper housing, business loans and generous quotas to enter public universities.

The policy’s genesis lay in the aftermath of brutal Sino-Malay race riots which resulted in the death of hundreds of ethnic Chinese Malaysians.

Tun Abdul Razak Hussein the country’s prime minister, created the New Economic Policy to lift up the Malays, who were mired in poverty, through the use of affirmative action policies.

The plan was to get the community – known as the Bumiputera (or sons of the soil) – to control at least 30% of the national economy within 20 years.

In 1991, the NEP was first replaced with the National Development Policy, and then other plans with the latest being the Bumiputera Economic Transformation Roadmap 2.0, all of which have continued to give the Bumiputera most of the same privileges.

The Bumiputera share of national capital ownership today stands at between 29% and 35% per capita. The Bumiputera also hold the top positions in most government-linked institutions, a great many private sector companies, as well as the bulk of all civil sector jobs.

Yet, the divisive race-based affirmative action policies show no signs of going away, and as a result, Malaysia’s communities are yet to come together as one.

Pro-government ethnic Malay hardliners wave flags and shout slogans during a demonstration in Kuala Lumpur on September 16, 2015.

Protests erupt

This Bumiputera-first approach has grated on those unable to avail themselves to its benefits, and sometimes led to public and painful displays of dissatisfaction against the ruling Barisan Nasional government, in situ since independence in 1957.

In 2007, tens of thousands of Indians took to the streets in the largest protest against the government by a community largely pliant and supportive since independence.

The protest erupted after growing frustrations over the endemic poverty plaguing the community due to a lack of job opportunities, spots in public universities and business licenses, as well as the demolition of Hindu temples by authorities. It was one of the key factors behind the government’s poor elections showing a year later.

In 2013, Barisan Nasional was dealt yet another blow when it limped to its worst ever election performance. This time, one of the biggest contributing factors for the poor showing was the almost wholesale abandonment of the ruling coalition by Chinese voters.

Two days after that bruising elections result, Utusan Malaysia, a newspaper owned by Umno, the Malay party in the Barisan Nasional coalition, ran a frontpage story with one screaming headline – “What else do the Chinese want?”

The story castigated the Chinese community for being ungrateful to Barisan Nasional and was yet another sign that lines were being drawn in the sand among the main races in the country.

The Utusan Malaysia front page was not an isolated attack on non-minorities either.

Other egregious examples include ethnic Malay politicians using the word “pendatang”– “immigrant” in Malay – time and again to disparagingly refer to non-Malays, a minister urging Malays to boycott Chinese businesses, and another minister defending the actions of a mob that in 2009 dragged a decapitated cow’s head on the streets to protest the relocation of a Hindu temple to their area. Cows are sacred to Hindus.

Crowds gather for National Day celebrations at Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur on August 31, 2016.

Who’s to blame?

Historian Khoo Kay Kim, Professor Emeritus at University Malaya, says politicians play the race card because their survival is dependent on ensuring their power base – the division of races – remains intact.

This, he says, is why they have not done much to create a post-independence Malaysian identity.

Khoo says while politicians may refrain from using the race card on the national stage, they change their tune when they meet voters on the ground.

The race card is crucial to Barisan Nasional. Though the coalition consists of some 13 parties in all, its prime movers remain its three founding members – the United Malays National Organization – UMNO – the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress. Each of these three parties champion their own people and communities.

“If these political parties are told to forget about race, they will cease to exist,” says Khoo.

S. Nagarajan, an associate professor with Wawasan Open University, agrees that politicians are increasingly using race and religion for survival, and says it’s resulting in the further deterioration of communal relations.

“UMNO has used the race card in the past, but after the 2008 general elections, there was a push to use race and religion for political survival,” he says.

This has not gone unnoticed by the public.

A 2011 survey by respected Malaysian pollster, the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research, found a decline of public confidence in ethnic relations, with 44% of respondents saying the country’s ethnic unity was “superficial.”

In Malaysia, issues of race and religion are inextricably intertwined. The three major ethnic groups also predominantly have different faiths. Malays are Muslim, while Chinese and Indians practice Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam, among others.

And just like race, religion is also being used more and more to further segregate people.

“Religion is now being used as a tool and once this takes root, the minority has got plenty to fear,” Nagarajan says.

Recent examples of religious confrontations are aplenty.

Arguably the most prominent was a years-long court case between the Catholic Church and the government over a Catholic publication’s use of the word “Allah” to refer to God in a non-Muslim context. The country’s apex court in 2014 finally rejected the Church’s challenge.

Yet another long-running issue has been the unilateral conversion of minors by a parent who has converted to Islam. In August this year, the government passed the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment) Bill 2017 – but excluded a crucial provision that would have resolved interfaith custody conflicts and established coherent standards for reconciling the best interests of the child.

Malaysia practices a dual justice system which allows for state-level Syariah law (Islamic law) to govern Muslims on matters such as family, conversion and inheri