KUALA LUMPUR - The Malaysian government's new measures to benefit the Malay majority are angering the multi-ethnic nation's other races and raising fears they could accelerate a "brain drain" of talent heading overseas.
Prime Minister Najib Razak pledged in 2010, shortly after taking office, to reform controversial decades-old affirmative-action policies for Muslim Malays, seeking to halt a flood of minority voters to the opposition.
But he reversed course this month with a slate of new perks to placate conservatives in his Malay ruling party who are upset over a weakened mandate he won in May elections in which minorities continued to snub Mr Najib.
The move has angered non-Malays who complain of second-class status and led to accusations that Mr Najib reneged on a promise of racial inclusiveness.
"Of course, I am very disappointed," said Ms H.Y. Chong, an ethnic Chinese lawyer.
Ms Chong decided after the Malay-led 56-year-old coalition government retained power in May that she would emigrate to neighbouring Singapore, joining a flow of educated Chinese and Indians that economists say threatens Malaysia's competitiveness. "This proves Prime Minister Najib is further sidelining the non-bumiputra," she said.
Muslim Malays and smaller indigenous groups - known as "bumiputra", or "sons of the soil" -- make up more than 60 per cent of Malaysia's 28 million people.
Under the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno), bumiputra have enjoyed quotas in university placements, housing, and government jobs and contracts since the 1970s to prevent business-savvy Chinese from completely dominating the economy. Chinese make up a quarter of the population. Ethnic Indians comprise about eight per cent.
The policies are credited with helping create a Malay middle class and maintaining harmony despite tensions.
But critics say they have become a millstone in a competitive global economy and are abused by the Malay elite.
Mr Najib's new steps "throw acid" on the racial divide, said Malaysia politics analyst Bridget Welsh.
"This will only enhance the brain drain, including in the Malay community, as this policy is geared for the Umno elite," she said.