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Saying yes to non-racial affirmative action

Suddenly, the issue of Malay unity and special rights has emerged again, in the hodgepodge we call Malaysian politics. Then there are the deaths in Old Klang Road, which came into being, partly, as a result of racial tensions.

A non-Malaysian would be forgiven to think that Malaysians are still in the 20th century considering we continue to accept a racially-based political, economic and social system in our lives. But that is a fact as even now in the 21st century, some quarters are still interested in stirring up racial sentiment for their own interests.

The colonialists used it to a great measure in order to maintain their grip on Malaysia, and it looks like we continue to play their game. We are ever too aware of our race.

Among the four prime ministers Malaysia has had since independence, Tun Abdul Razak had, arguably, done the most for the common people. The New Economic Policy was supposed to eradicate poverty for all Malaysians and also lessen the economic differences the Malays had with the other races.

Thirty years has passed, and unfortunately the target has not been achieved. Before the economic and political crises set in, a lot of the foreign media were heaping praises on the NEP, saying it was one of the most comprehensive and ambitious affirmative action programmes in the world.

Rich Malays

However, once our cosmetically-impressive economy faltered, and with the increasing momentum of opposition pressure following the sacking of the deputy prime minister, the Malaysian people, and the Malays in particular, are realising the failure of the NEP.

While I realise the majority of the Malays are still concerned with special rights and various other bumiputra issues, our mentality has progressed significantly since the last 15 years or so. The Suqiu bogey would have caused a racial crisis similar to that what happened prior to Ops Lalang in the mid-1980s, but this time, it did not, contrary to allegations from some quarters.

Most of the Malays are now aware that the real threat to Malay progress may not necessarily come from the non-Malays, but possibly from the rich Malays themselves, the only real beneficiaries of the NEP.

While I do not support the 'Barisan Betindak Melayu' campaign, which at first seemed to aggravate racial tensions, they did include the Malay leadership in their criticisms, rather than harping on the usual Chinese threats and such.

Marginalised Indians

If the real aim of the NEP was to overcome the significant economic gap between Malaysians, why should it be drawn along racial lines? Shouldn't we concern ourselves with bridging the gap between the rich Malays, Chinese and Indians and their poor Malaysian counterparts, regardless of their race?

Why should rich bumiputras get preference for government tenders, public university admissions and other economic, social and political benefits? Why shouldn't the Indians who have long been marginalised for their political insignificance (unlike the Malays) and economic unimportance (unlike the Chinese) be assisted too? Are they less Malaysians then the Malays or Chinese?

The Indians, especially in the estate and squatter areas, have long been mere spectators to the economic development of the country. Although accounting for more than eight percent of the national population, their share of corporate wealth is a mere 1.5 percent (Malays have 19.4 percent and the Chinese 18.5 percent) and they make up two-fifths of the estate workers.

A disproportionate number of criminals and hardcore poor come from this community. Being prejudiced by the system, and forgotten in the estates, this comes to no surprise. The statistics prove that they deserve affirmative action as much as the Malays.

An insult

What is affirmative action? Marquita Sykes in The Origins of Affirmative Action defined it as being 'a set of public policies and initiatives designed to help eliminate past and present discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin'.

Affirmative action, done in a careful and organised manner, can play a role in social re-engineering. I acknowledge that the system must accommodate the society's different backgrounds to ensure social justice, equal opportunity and equal participation.

But this can only happen if affirmative action focuses on helping disadvantaged people, regardless of race, religion or political convictions. By acknowledging that a student deserves to go to a university simply because he is a bumiputra, it implies that all bumiputra students are intellectually less capable than their non-bumi counterparts. As a Malay, I regard that as an insult to my capability. I am equally capable as other Malaysians.

I am blessed to have been in different environments in my life. I had a multiracial, urban mix during my primary school years, and later, I was selected to go to a residential school, with a hundred percent Malay student population including boys from the East Coast, Sabah and Sarawak.

Finishing school, I went to a private college where most of the students were non-Malays. Throughout these periods, I have seen that brains does not go along with ethnicity. A lot of my Malay friends have been able to compete with the best and even without preferential quotas, systems and scholarships, would still have been able to compete with anyone in the world.

I have encountered brilliant non-Malay students who fail to enter local universities because of the quotas and had to enter the working world since they had no money to pursue other alternatives.

A lot of non-Malays, after going through the national education system funded by taxpayers' money, have migrated to work in countries which acknowledge their true capabilities and reward them on merit, not on their skin colour. This is a great loss to Malaysia.

Utopian dream

Our present affirmative action simply coddles the Malays and makes them complacent. It helps to fuel the long-time myth that Malays are lazy and cannot compete with the non-Malays. It gives the picture that the non-bumis represent a threat to the Malays.

My suggestion would be to revamp our affirmative action programme, to focus on alleviating the fortunes of the downtrodden and the poor, the mustadhifin and the untermensche; and not only those from one race.

The majority of the poor in Malaysia are still the bumiputras, so indirectly, the bumiputras who need aid will still receive it, though it will not discriminate against non-bumis who are in need of help either.

Islam advocates a system in which the disadvantaged sections of society will be given preference to enshrine equal opportunity and participation, but never based on ethnicity. In Iran, the nation experimenting with political Islam, the Jews and Assyrian Christians have gained representations in the Majlis (Parliament) unlike in the previous regime of the Shah when they were not given that opportunity.

Nevertheless, this revamping cannot be done in a radical manner, so as to not alienate the Malays - though there is no question on the need for it. Without it, Vision 2020 would remain a utopian dream for the Malays, the Chinese, the Indians and all other Malaysians.