Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic translation made from a post originally written in French. My apologies for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have been generated during the process. If you are reading French, click on the French flag below to access the original and correct text:
Should we say Malay or Malaysian? Both ! In fact, everything depends on the context, because the two terms do not have exactly the same meaning.
Malaysian Malay, Chinese, Indian
You can be Malaysian, that is, of Malaysian nationality, without being Malaysian.
Malaysians are nationals of Malaysia. So when we are talking about something about the country, we use the adjective Malaysian / Malaysian. For example: the Malaysian Prime Minister, a Malaysian company.
The Malaysians are the country's majority ethno-linguistic and historical community. Chinese and Indian communities are also important in Malaysia, and there are also indigenous communities in Borneo.
Being Malay therefore refers to "ethnic" membership. This is not insignificant, as Malaysia distinguishes between its citizens on the basis of their origins, according to fairly precise criteria. This discrimination is enshrined in the Constitution and is reflected in the civil register.
Article 160 of the Malaysian Constitution defines Malay as :
1 - a person who practices the religion of Islam, who speaks Malay, who conforms to Malay customs AND 2 - who has origins within the Federation of Malaysia or Singapore before Independence on 31 August 1957, or who is the child of at least one parent born among the population then belonging to the Federation of Malaysia.
In other words: the Malaysians of Malaysia are Malaysians, but not all Malaysians are Malaysians?
Ethnic and religious discrimination
Origin and religion are culturally very intertwined in Malaysia. But the ethnic and religious discrimination thus institutionalized has consequences on the daily lives of its 31.5 million or so inhabitants.
A Malaysian freediver (whom I had met in Indonesia) explained to me that he was not Malaysian, but Chinese Malaysian, and therefore did not have the same rights as the Malaysians in certain areas such as education, housing, access to property, credit, etc. He also explained that he was not a Malaysian but a Chinese Malaysian.
Update.This article, originally published in 2006, is still very popular years later, as soon as Malaysia comes back in the news... So I've edited it by adding recent links below, for those who want to know more about this thorny subject.