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By Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, Unit Pendidikan Politik-IKD

Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and the party he leads, Umno, have suddenly been championing the issue of meritocracy. This is indeed a paradox, since previously Mahathir and Umno have been the main advocates of racial-based affirmative action including quotas in universities.

Any move to question meritocracy were gunned-down as 'inciting racial sensitivities' or 'not understanding the Malaysian situation'. Reading the praises sung by the mainstream press on Umno's new attitude on the issue was surprising, especially those of the Malay newspapers.

Just a few months back, when the Chinese lobby group Suqiu talked about reforming the racial system running Malaysia, including the preferential university quotas for the bumiputera, Mahathir labeled them as 'communists'.

Historically, Umno has always been a reactionary force when it comes to promoting an end to the ethnocentric system that was inherited from the British divide and rule policy. During
its early years, the battle cry was Hidup Melayu or 'Long-Live the Malays." Many ideologues and hardliners in the party continue to stand by their believe in the survival of the Malays even at the cost of discrimination against other races.

This xenophobia can be contrasted to the progressive policies of the local left wing and nationalist parties. The famous Ahmad Boestamam (pix) biography of Dr Burhanuddin Helmi Dr Burhanuddin: Putera Setia Melayu Raya records the opinions of Burhanuddin.

He dreamt of a Malaysia where all those who resided would be deemed as Malays and thus there would be no institutionalised discrimination against anyone on the basis of race for everyone would be deemed to be of the same race.

Voted out

PKMM, the party of Burhanuddin, in the 1950s was part of the broad-based progressive left wing and nationalist alliance, the AMCJA-Putera. The non-Malay based parties that formed AMCJA such as the Communist Party, the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU), the MIC and the New Democratic Youth League (NYDL) led by Tan Cheng Lock fought for equal citizenship under the name 'Malayan'.

They believed in a Malaya for all Malayans. Nevertheless, the British fought hard to crush this opposition and the alliance did not survive for long. Parties based on narrow nationalism and communal interests - like Umno, MCA and MIC became the dominant parties in the local political scene.

When Onn bin Jaafar proposed renaming Umno as the United Malayan National Organisation and opening membership to all Malayans, he was voted out as the party president and went on to form the unpopular Independent Malaya Party.

In1966, DAP was formed and amongst the major credos of the party was its 'Malaysian Malaysia' ideal, shared by Gerakan which was then in the opposition. The Barisan Nasional (BN) continuously attacked this idea - and many Malays were fooled into thinking that a 'Malaysian Malaysia' would threaten their survival and that Hang Tuah's famous quote 'The Malays would not be wiped out from the earth' would be proven wrong.

Temporary mechanism

Affirmative action is an important instrument for a progressive and equitable social engineering programme to take place. Nevertheless, for affirmative action to be fair and effective, it must be done on the basis of socio-economic conditions, not on the pre-requisite of race or ethnicity.

We cannot dispute the success of the National Economic Policy (NEP) put into place by Tun Abdul Razak. It has played a significant role in creating the modern Malay middle-class we see today. To a certain degree, it has, in fact, kept the multiracial fabric of the Malaysian society from disintegrating.

The Malays, however, are often persuaded to believe that affirmative action and the preferential racial system should be a permanent feature of the Malaysian nation-state. If we want the vision of a prosperous, thriving and progressive nation to actually become reality, we have to discard this mind-set.

Affirmative action should not be about coddling inefficient citizens forever; it should only be a temporary mechanism to balance the socio-economic inequalities of the people and promote competition on a level-playing field.

We need to be able to differentiate from the means of attaining the aim, and the aim in itself. The means is affirmative action while the aim is to have a society that can compete on equal opportunities.

At a time when the world is shrinking faster and faster into a global village, everything is about ability and merit, no longer about race. The more the government tries to stratify society according to the colour of their skin, the more our country will be left behind by our neighbours.

The National Economic Policy as being practiced by the Mahathir administration has also given attention and emphasis to creating a few wealthy Malays rather than benefiting the Malay grassroots.

Achilles' heel

Thus any call for meritocracy is welcomed. But we have to also consider and evaluate the motives for these demands. Meritocracy goes back to the ideal that all men and women are born equal as espoused in the 'Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen' in revolutionary France. Ceteris paribus, meritocracy, is the most equitable and morally correct system.

Without slowly dismantling and liberalising racial quotas, the more the myth of the 'lazy Malay' would be confirmed - by the pathetic showing of the Malays in examinations, etc. Contrary to Mahathir's thesis in The Malay Dilemma, I believe that given the opportunity,
Malays can prove that they are just as good as others.

We do not need the system to be biased towards us for us to prosper and achieve success.
Umno and their leaders are now demanding meritocracy not because of their principles or faith in the legitimacy of the system but because the increasing number of Malay students in local public tertiary institutions is intensifying what they term as 'anti-government' activities.

Thus all that they were willing to sacrifice in defence of Malay rights etc. was forgotten as their own survival is at stake. This swift about turn might also lead to discrepancies in the proper implementation of the plan.

Many academicians are calling on the government to properly review the effects of such a plan and not simply push for it to be put into practice immediately. In a recent article for Malaysiakini, Prof P Ramasamy pointed out the need for meritocracy to be introduced throughout the whole system, not just for a few sections for the benefit of the ruling elite.

The irony of the entire episode is that racial quotas, amongst other things, owe their existence to Umno, which sees itself as the defender of the Malays. However, as Umno continues to inflame the Malays, these racial quotas have become the Achilles' heel of the party by allowing anti-government sentiment to ferment in local universities.