Some 56% of the country’s 31 million people are ethnic Malay (defined in the constitution as Muslim), and another 13% belong to other indigenous groups, according to 2019 estimates from the Department of Statistics Malaysia. Collectively they are known as bumiputera, or “sons of the soil.” There are also large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities who are Christian, Buddhist and Hindu. Government policies give preferential treatment to bumiputera, traditionally seen as disenfranchised, in such areas as public-sector jobs, housing and higher education. Critics say the preferences have fostered cronyism and a dependence on state handouts and have prompted many educated minorities to look for work overseas, draining the economy of talent. But they are something of a “third rail” in Malaysia’s polarized politics. Mahathir’s appointment of Lim Guan Eng as finance minister, the first ethnic Chinese to hold the post in over four decades, sowed suspicion among Malay nationalists that their benefits would be eroded, costing the coalition support.