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Time to rethink Malay affirmative action

Real changes need to happen within the minds of the Malays


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There is a disease that is eating the country from within.

Its symptoms are flaring every other day like bushfires. It is manifested in the insulting racist comments, in the intolerance and in the spread of religious extremism. It is like a raging fever, all symptoms of an affliction that desperately needs to be addressed.

I am no expert in psychology or economics but having been in the civil system for decades, having read some and having spent years observing and interacting with the system and the people, here’s my two cents worth.

To me, the genuine issues are not about race or religion but that feeling of being left behind, of being poor.

For the poor, their socioeconomic conditions determine much in life – the type of schools their children go to, where they live, what they eat, the type of car they own (or do not own) and where they work.

And now, with six state elections looming, these conditions may also determine the way they vote.

Keith Payne in his book The Broken Ladder says that as long as a group of people see themselves disadvantaged in any economic competitive context, they will continue to feel disempowered, desperate, anxious and impoverished. And so, when the desperation and anxieties are translated into race and religious issues, the bushfires are inevitable.

So, here’s a hard question that must be addressed: have affirmative action policies over the last fifty years transformed the lives of the ethnic Malay majority?

Are they much wealthier than the other communities in Malaysia today? The policies appear to have mainly benefited some Malays, the elite class, the middle class and the politicians.

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These policies may have also completely insulated Malay companies and businesses from the hard knocks of competition, providing them with a safe place and pace to grow.

Now, isn’t this a positive thing? But it has often been said that sugar, if consumed in excess, will become a poison. Hence, wouldn’t too much support and guidance disable anyone in the long run?

So, it is no surprise that after years of government support, Malay businesses are still highly dependent on government contracts to remain solvent.

Look around when you are next at the traffic lights. We do not need statistics to tell us that the Malays (and ethnic Indians) continue to be among the poorest communities in Malaysia. (For the poor Indians, they have been waiting for any kind of action, affirmative or otherwise!)

Having been in education and having worked in some of the poorest areas in the country, I know of boys who steal just enough money to visit cyber cafes and who would cut classes to sniff glue in abandoned sheds. I have come across cases of underage girls sneaking off to seek sexual relationships with boys in the kebun (orchard).

Visiting their homes, I could not help but feel just as miserable. Their homes were nothing more than wretched dark hovels. So, I can understand why the poor will need avenues for cheap escapism and pleasure.

The rigours of school, academics and discipline are poor substitutes to relieve this ‘tension’ of poverty and so, underperforming in schools is also an inevitable consequence.

I know personally that the Malays have so much more potential, but the affirmative action policies, the blind support, the namesake degrees and qualifications have also failed them.

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They have not resolved the genuine issues of the Malays and their tryst with the emotions of feeling poor.

Yet, the more the ‘authorities’ come across delinquency, the more they are inclined to resort to religion as a panacea.

However, is religion the best answer to their economic or social woes?

Religion may feed the spirit but it cannot put food on the table or provide a ‘class’ education for children, unless – one attempts to make this happen.

Perhaps it is time to embrace religion with one hand but also to sharpen one’s skills and competencies and to embrace the sweat and the grit with the other.

Using the metaphor of fuel and friction, Loran Nordgren and David Schonthal explain this situation rather succinctly in their book The Human Element.

They say that by focusing on “fuel” (affirmative action) policymakers often neglect the other half of the equation – the “frictions” (the psychological forces that oppose and undermine the desired change) which work against the goals that are expected.

It may be time to look to science and psychology for new solutions to empower the Malays because the eradication of real or imagined poverty is not a simple task.

It is not a matter of simply inflating incomes, or of physically removing a group of people from the kampongs to modern government office buildings, or of putting money into an individual’s bank accounts.

Real changes need to happen within the minds of the Malays. More of them need to be prepared to be diligent and to thrive in any openly competitive environment like some of the hardworking Malay farmers, fisherfolk, small business people and professionals who are already doing so. They should learn to be more astute and sharp; to be flexible and nimble-minded and to be in touch with global trends.

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Being multilingual is an added advantage, a necessary skill, whether it is English or Mandarin. Sadly, even this is often perceived by some as an affront to the Malay race and language.

The world is changing far too rapidly, and if most Malay youths wish to prosper in that world, they will need to aspire to higher employment opportunities instead of depending on the government for work or opting for low-skill jobs such as couriers and food deliverers.

“The value of an education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.” – George Carlin

Herein lies another part of the problem. Has the education of the Malays seriously inculcated this element of questioning and lateral thinking as valuable skills to possess?

The Malay culture is inherently gentle and non-confrontational. Questioning, discussing, debating and dealing with controversy is not something that happens naturally.

Yet, only when the Malays succeed at these can they begin to feel empowered and enabled enough to survive fair competitions with the other communities in the country.

Unless the Malays are clear on what they aspire to be, Malaysia and the rest of us in Malaysia can never truly prosper. We are all in this together, regardless of what one ageing nonagenarian says.

Lighting bushfires with the ethnic minorities will not solve the real problems.

Sukeshini Nair
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
1 August 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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manickam krishnasamy
manickam krishnasamy
1 Aug 2023 3.18pm

It is an awesome article. The Government of the day should invite
educationist as your goodself to reformulate our present education policies for the betterment of our younger generation and Nation.

7 Aug 2023 10.17am

Well said. It’s not an easy task to write what you have written in this climate.

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