Although Malaysia has a diverse population including many people of Chinese and Indian descent, the Southeast Asian country's 1957 constitution gives special status to the people known as the Malays. This ethnic group is considered to be the indigenous population of the country, whose ancestors lived there long before any other modern group. The constitution calls for the safeguarding of the Malays' "special position" through a system of affirmative action quotas, which also brings up the need to define criteria for who counts as "Malay."
The first constitutional requirement for a person to qualify as a Malay is that the person "professes the religion of Islam.'' Islam is the historical religion of a majority of Malaysian people, and is also considered the official religion of the country. But the constitution still includes guarantees of religious freedom, and specifies that Islamic courts only have jurisdiction over people who are registered as Muslims.
The criteria for determining who is Malay also require that the person "habitually speaks the Malay language''. Malay, a major Southeast Asian language with links to the languages of the Pacific islands, is also the official national language of Malaysia. However, the constitution guarantees the right to teach and speak other languages outside of official purposes, and even allowed for the Parliament to use English during the country's first 10 years of independence.
The third requirement when defining Malay identity is that the person "conforms to Malay custom.'' The Malay people, like all cultures, have various traditions and customs that have been passed down through the generations. One example of a Malay custom is the traditional greeting, in which men exchange a type of handshake called "salam" while women use a different kind of handshake among themselves; between a man and woman no physical contact is allowed, and a bow or smile takes the handshake's place.
The final requirement to qualify as a Malay under the constitution revolves around "Merdeka Day." Merdeka Day is the date that Malaysia became officially independent from Britain, defined in the constitution as August 31, 1957. To be an official Malay the person or one of his ancestors have to have been born in Malaysia or Singapore before Merdeka Day, or have been a Malaysian or Singaporean resident on the day itself. Singapore is included because it part of Malaysia when British rule first ended in 1963, even though it became a separate country just two years later.
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