Allowing ethno-religious arguments to triumph would only feed the flames of division and derail all attempts to create a new Malaysia that cares for all, writes Henry Loh.
We only recently marked the first anniversary of the new Malaysia, and quite clearly it has been an uphill climb for leaders of the new regime.
Since losing the 2018 general election, the previous ruling coalition leaders have been going full throttle in pushing the ethno-religious narrative, and there seems to be no letting up. Almost daily, we come across reports about how, since the formation of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, the people have become worse off.
The references to ethnicity and religion are relentless. Sweeping statements – often based on misinformation – are made, pointing out that the Malay-Muslims in particular are losing out. At every opportunity, members and supporters of the old regime argue that, under the PH government, the minorities have the upper hand and Malay-Muslims rights and privileges are being eroded.
Opposition to international instruments
A proposal to ratify the International Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination met with resistance very quickly. The move provided the opposition with the fodder they needed to organise protests aimed at protecting and preserving Malay special rights and privileges.
Opponents of the ratification were not prepared to acknowledge that Article 1(4) of the Convention allows “special measures” for certain groups to be given additional protection for the purpose of putting them on an equal playing field.
Similarly they conveniently chose to ignore that Article 2(2) of the Convention provide that:
States Parties shall, when the circumstances so warrant, take, in the social, economic, cultural and other fields, special and concrete measures to ensure the adequate development and protection of certain racial groups or individuals belonging to them, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the full and equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms…
Umno, Pas and Malay rights groups planned a major rally against the international convention in Kuala Lumpur on 8 December 2018. They announced that over 500,000 people were expected to attend, fuelling fears that violence might erupt.
Recognising the potential for disruption and danger, the PH government duly announced before the rally it would not be ratifying the convention in the foreseeable future.
But the rally organisers refused to cancel the event and insisted on going ahead. In the end, news outlets reported that over 55,000 people attended the rally – thankfully, without any untoward incident.
As expected, such an event in multi-ethnic and multi-religious Malaysia served to further divide the people, creating unnecessary fear, suspicion and tension.
The decision by the PH government to become a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was again heavily politicised by the opposition, which unashamedly claimed that becoming a signatory would subject or expose the king to the possibility of being charged for war crimes etc. Those from the previous regime who spoke out against the Rome Statute conveniently chose to ignore the fact that they had actually considered signing the statute when they themselves were in power.
The Rome Statute established four core international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. Surely the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, a constitutional monarch, would not have the means or resources to commit any of these crimes – nor would there be any inclination on his part to do so.
But for the opponents of the Rome Statute, this was of little consequence. They were more interested in painting this as an attack on Malay royalty and hence, indirectly, as an affront to all Malays.
The resistance to and the arguments against the international convention against racial discrimination and then against the Rome Statute are clear examples of the “old politics” that had served the previous regime well. The old regime had thrived on creating insecurity among the Malay-Muslim segment of the population.
The dominant narrative of ethnicity, royalty and religion has become deep-rooted, and it will take a lot of political will and commitment to try and change it. As difficult as the task may be, we expect members of the new regime to resist the ethno-religious narratives and promote alternative arguments.
Controversy over Maszlee’s remarks
The recent off-the-cuff remarks made by the education minister in explaining why the quota for matriculation students must remain at 90% for bumiputeras and 10% for others has unfortunately fuelled more debate along the ethno-religious divide.
Maszlee Malik was gravely inaccurate to point out that the minorities, in particular the Chinese, are generally well off and therefore do not need to be allocated more matriculation seats. He also said that the ability to speak and write Chinese is often a criterion for job applicants and puts the Malays at a disadvantage.
Surely he must know there are many Chinese and Indians who also do not speak or write Chinese. Certainly too there are many Chinese and Indians who are not well off.
Watching a video clip of Maszlee’s remarks, I found it quite disconcerting and alarming to hear the loud applause in response to what he said. It would be sad if the education minister was merely playing to the gallery. But it is of greater concern that the minister chooses to look at and analyse issues based simply on ethnicity and religion.
As a senior cabinet minister, Maszlee missed a great opportunity to promote the awarding of places based on needs. Indeed, if the awarding was needs-based, those in the bottom 40% of households would be given priority. And given that the majority of those in that stratum of society are bumiputeras, the majority of those selected would also be bumiputeras.
The clear difference is that the criterion used in the selection process would be based on the applicants’ socio-economic backgrounds and not ethnicity. In this way, non-deserving Malaysians irrespective of their ethnicity would not be allocated places. As long as these students were able to afford alternatives in private universities and colleges either locally or abroad, they would not be considered for the limited matriculation places. An exception could be made for a small minority of students who qualified based on good academic results – so that home-grown achievers could be nurtured and retained.
Indeed the minister has lots to do and to focus on if he takes the reform of the education sector seriously. The elephant in the room is the formal education system in this country. He should review the current system of education from primary school through to the university level.
Consider whether there is too much focus on the passing of exams and rote learning. Revamp syllabuses so that they emphasise greater understanding and the promotion of unity among students of various faiths and ethnicities. Consider too how the education system can help to promote sustainable development in view of the climate change challenges.
The middle class and the well-to-do are spoilt for choice in Malaysia as there are many private institutions offering a range of courses.
But those from the bottom 40% of households, whatever their ethnicities, will have to compete for a limited number of available places. Again, the minister could find better ways to ensure more scholarships are made available for the poor and deserving. Our country has a long way to go in terms of trying to reduce the inequality gap.
Maszlee should take the cue from Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who has espoused the concept of “shared prosperity” for all – ie one should not just leave it to market forces to ensure a fair distribution of wealth and opportunities.
Similarly Anwar Ibrahim, at a speech he made at a recent DAP national congress, pointed out “no one should feel marginalised or neglected” and there must be “needs-based policies revolving around people’s welfare and requirements”. He added “it is important to ensure needs-based polices reach every Malaysian”.
So there are enough pointers out there for Maszlee and other members of the cabinet to follow and try to implement.
Having pointed out Mazlee’s misguided remarks about the need to maintain the bumiputera quota for matriculation places, I think it is politically dangerous and counter-productive to push for Mahathir to remove Maszlee as Education Minister.
Already there are petitions going around urging the prime minister to sack Maszlee. Indeed, the anger and disappointment over the minister’s chauvinistic remarks felt by many who had voted for change is understandable.
But getting the minister sacked would play into the hands of those who are bent on causing greater friction and division among the Malays and the minorities. Even worse is a suggestion that the deputy education minister, the DAP’s Teo Nee Ching, replace her boss as the minister.
Those who are arguing that the minorities – in particular, the DAP – are the puppet masters pulling the strings of the PH government would surely go all out to argue that Maszlee’s removal was part of a greater agenda to erode Malay-Muslim power. Already, a vice-chancellor has called for Maszlee to stand firm. A petition to retain Maszlee has also been launched. The danger is that we fall back into the us vs them argument that has fuelled the ethno-religious divide.
Needs-based approach required
Malaysians who are keen to give this PH government a chance to bring about much-needed institutional, socio-economic and other reforms, as promised in the PH manifesto, should look at the broader picture and not merely choose to react to a specific situation.
Yes, we need to continue criticising members of the ruling government and the opposition where necessary especially if they continue to push the ethno-religious agenda.
But let us do so wearing needs-based lens and not counter by being equally racist or bigoted. Let us be sensitive to the needs of all Malaysians especially the poor and marginalised. Let us support all genuine moves to bring about reforms that will further strengthen democracy.
We need a clear separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial arms of government. We want oppressive and regressive laws to be repealed. We want policies that seek to reduce inequality and poverty. If there must be affirmative action, let it be needs-based. We need reforms in the education sector. We need to improve existing healthcare facilities for the poor and less fortunate.
So many reforms need to be carried out for the benefit of all Malaysians – and non-citizens – irrespective of their race or religion.
Remember how many of us voted on 9 May 2018 to bring about a new Malaysia. To our great delight, we achieved it peacefully. Allowing ethno-religious arguments to triumph would only feed the flames of division and derail all attempts to create a new Malaysia that cares for all.