Home Newsletters ‘Non-Malays? ‘Other Malaysians’? – Words matter in building a more inclusive nation

‘Non-Malays? ‘Other Malaysians’? – Words matter in building a more inclusive nation

On this diamond jubilee celebration of Malaysia Day, let's commit to making this nation more inclusive, compassionate and just


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First, Aliran wishes you a belated selamat Hari Malaysia, happy Malaysia Day!

This is the first Malaysia Day with Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim at the helm of a “unity government” – and it was a diamond jubilee celebration, no less!

If we had a barometer that could measure how people in Malaysia feel about this milestone, what would it show?

After 60 years together as a nation, are we the people any closer to one another? Are we more accepting of one another despite our different ethnicities, religion or socioeconomic status?

Unfortunately, identification by race and religion remains a dominant trait. Polarisation is worsened by divisive leaders and politicians who weaponise race and religion for their own benefit. Their aim is simply to remain in power or to fight for power.

We continue to hear the term “pendatang” (immigrants) being used to describe people in Malaysia who are not ethnic Malay. Such labelling is divisive, highlighting difference rather than promoting inclusiveness.

At Aliran, we are steadfast in promoting justice, freedom and solidarity. This means everyone in this country – every one of us – deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.

We have consistently maintained that there is a place and purpose for everyone under the Malaysian sun. No one ought to be oppressed, neglected, marginalised or excluded.

Free Malaysia Today columnist Charles Chow, in a piece provocatively titled “Time to get rid of the nons“, suggests we stop using the word non-Malays.

The prefix non, he argues, “negates and cancels. The term non-Malay is divisive. It is segregationist. It is dehumanising. It is disrespectful.”

He says if it is really necessary to make a distinction, we could always use the term ‘other Malaysians’ instead of non-Malays. Aliran itself, in our articles, uses the term ethnic minorities.

But let’s broaden the range beyond Malaysian citizens. To promote a civil, caring and compassionate society as aspired to under the Malaysia Madani (Civil Malaysia) concept, we need to be even more inclusive. We must include all our fellow human beings who work and live in Malaysia – not just other Malaysians, but anyone and everyone who is domiciled in our country.

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Remember, 2.2 million documented migrant workers live in Malaysia, as reported by the Department of Statistics. Another 1.2 to 3.5 million undocumented migrants live and work here. That adds up to about six million migrants or more – about 20% of the people in Malaysia.

Then, there are the stateless people, the refugees, the asylum seekers and so on.

Words matter in framing how we think. They affect our subconscious and the way we view society. To ensure no one is left out, Aliran often uses more inclusive phrases like “people in Malaysia” or “everyone in this land”.

After all, migrants – people of other nationalities – contribute to the growth of the Malaysian economy. Often, they are the only people willing to take on the “three D” jobs – dirty, dangerous and difficult.

But instead of appreciating their contributions, Umno’s youth wing chief Dr Muhamad Akmal Saleh proposed that cheaper local rice be sold only to Malaysians – leaving foreigners (including migrant workers) to buy the more expensive imported rice. This was his disappointing response to the shortage of local rice.

Migrant workers already earn lower incomes. Yet in certain politicians’ zeal to project a nationalistic or chauvinistic image, they think nothing of proposing such discriminatory measures.

Let’s hope Akmal’s suggestion does not gain traction. Thankfully, we have people like retail tycoon Ameer Ali Mydin, who criticised the suggestion as impractical and discriminatory.

One positive reform proposal is to amend the Federal Constitution to remove the discrimination against Malaysians mothers in the case of children born overseas to a Malaysian parent.

To ensure that all these children will be entitled to citizenship rights, Section 1(b) and 1(c) of Part II of the Second Schedule of the Constitution should be amended by substituting the word “father” to “either parent”.

Presently, children born to Malaysian mothers overseas are not legally entitled to citizenship rights. They have to apply individually, and approval is subjective and difficult to get.

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Apart from this, another proposal is to amend Section 19B of Part III of the Second Schedule. However, rights advocates say this particular amendment will cause much harm and hardship to stateless children. For one thing, it is regressive. It will worsen the problems faced by abandoned children, foundlings and children whose biological parents cannot be traced.

The peninsula has at least 10,000 stateless people, while the numbers are much larger in East Malaysia. The legalese may be cold and lifeless, but its impact will be devastating, triggering suffering and even loss of life.

The sad tale of nine-year-old Andy (not his real name) dramatises the deadly effects of statelessness. Infected with HIV while in his mother’s womb, he was born into misery and suffering. Without parents, he was deemed a stateless child and therefore ineligible to enrol in a public school or to receive free treatment in a government hospital.

Andy’s maternal grandmother incurred a debt of RM40,000 with the Lahad Datu Hospital while providing her grandson with medical care. She had to pawn jewellery and beg and borrow to partially pay for Andy’s medical treatment. Despite her best efforts at providing for Andy, her grandchild succumbed to Aids and died several months ago. How tragic – and avoidable!

A truly caring and compassionate Madani government will ensure that no other child meets Andy’s fate: dying simply because of bureaucratic obstacles. It is so inhumane for stateless children like Andy to suffer through no fault of their own when treatment is available but simply too expensive for their families. Believe me, many more stateless children and adults out there face immense hardship and suffering.

Prime Minister Anwar and his team have lots of work to do to realise the Madani ideals.

The “discharge not amounting to an acquittal” which Deputy PM Zahid Hamidi obtained in his corruption case has painted Anwar in poor light.

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As much as the PM tries to explain that it was a decision beyond his control, the court of public perception thinks otherwise. In February 2023 Anwar’s approval rating was around 68% (Merdeka Center). But just before the 12 August elections in six states, his approval rating from respondents in the six states stood at just 42% (Ilham Centre).

Granted, we are not comparing like with like here. Still, it is not far-fetched to imagine the PM’s approval ratings dropping even more after the controversial conditional discharge accorded to Zahid.

How can Anwar redeem himself? Implement essential reforms to help the people regain confidence in his sincerity to bring about change. Make the concept of Malaysia Madani real and concrete – not mere rhetoric.

Last year, Aliran launched civil society’s People’s Agenda with five demands:

  • Uphold the dignity and quality of life of the people
  • Promote equitable, sustainable development and address the climate crisis
  • Celebrate diversity and inclusivity
  • Save democracy and uphold the rule of law
  • Fight corruption and cronyism

These are just five key points, but they cover most of what the PM and his team aspire to under their Malaysia Madani framework.

A close friend of mine lamented that Malaysia has already “missed the boat” on the journey to becoming a more united and inclusive nation.

I hope he is wrong – though I am sure many others share his views. After all, many – almost two million people – have already voted with their feet, moving abroad to other countries where they think they will be treated more fairly.

However, many more of us have chosen to remain in Malaysia and to struggle to become one people and one nation.

On this diamond jubilee celebration of Malaysia Day, let’s commit to making this nation more inclusive, compassionate and just – a nation that not only respects its diversity but celebrates it as well.

Henry Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
20 September 2023

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Aloysius Francis Pinto
29 Sep 2023 6.02pm

Prime Minister Anwar and his team have lots of work to do to realise the Madani ideals.
This is a Fundamental Change Civil Society needs to address.
PMX and his team alone will not be able to realize the MADANI Ideals.
The MADANI Ideals was penned when he was writing as PH Chairman…it was known as SCRIPT, it’s a huge document which I believe most of his team have not read nor understand what it means and how to implement The policies articulated by PMX.
There is a very loud and clear Invitation by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim seeking help from Civil Society to work together with the current Government to realize the MADANI Philosophy, which is nothing more than spelling in details what the 5 Pillars of the RUKUN NEGARA means.

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