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What’s the hype about?

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Francis Loh finds the hype surrounding the proposal that we should do away with the ethnic/race categories in application forms befuddling.

Photo courtesy of parenbonjour.com

Give the ethnic group of the following Malaysians: Abdullah Badawi? Samy Vellu? Ling Liong Sik? Karpal Singh?

Yes, Abdullah is Malay, Samy is Indian, Ling is Chinese and Karpal is Indian of Sikh faith. No prizes for getting the right answers. Most Malaysian school children would be capable of doing so. Hence, even if these individuals do not state their ethnic group or race orally or in any form, we would still know which ethnic group each belongs to.

In fact, Malaysians are also not required to state their ethnic group or race when they register themselves to vote. Yet the ethnic breakdown for each electoral constituency can be worked out. We know that the political parties determine the estimates for each constituency by going through the electoral rolls. Or if they do not have the capacity to do the counting themselves, they rely either on the estimates that the Elections Commission or the major newspapers provide. Whether the newspapers rely on the Commission’s estimates or the other way around is not so clear. Anyway, the point is that we can determine the race or ethnic background of most Malaysians by reference to their names.

Hence it is befuddling that there has been this hype about the 1Malaysia Foundation’s proposal that we should do away with ethnic/race categories in forms issued by the public and private sectors. The Foundation’s call has been supported by various organisations, political parties and at least one Minister.

But because of the ‘sensitivity’ of the issue, the exercise, it is suggested, should be done ‘slowly’. For the Foundation, stating one’s race or ethnicity might still be necessary to achieve the larger goal of national unity, and can therefore be justified. After all, there is a need to increase non-Malay participation in the civil service, the police and armed forces on the one hand, and to strengthen the Malay, Indian, Dayak and Kadazandusun participation in certain coveted enterprises in the private sector.

Consequently, the Foundation proposed that the race column be removed from banking loan applications and from hire purchase forms, for starters. True enough, why should ethnic data be necessary in approving hire-purchase agreements and in accessing bank loans? Maybe the second step should be to do away with identification of ethnicity when it comes to public examinations like UPSR, PMR, SPM and STPM, which the 1Malaysia Foundation finds ‘totally unnecessary’, often causing ‘suspicion’ instead.

But is this a major step towards building 1Malaysia as the media hype suggests? With due respect to the Foundation, my humble opinion is that we are treating the symptom rather than the source of the problem!

It is not on account of the race category in our forms that Malaysians have become obsessed with the question of race. Rather, it is something more fundamental.

On the one hand the problem is caused by unscrupulous politicians who racialise non-racial issues. Invariably, they belong to ethnic-based political parties and they spew out their racial vomit, which gets highlighted in the mainstream media, owned or controlled by their parties. This happens time-and-time again, but especially as we approach elections.

Second, and perhaps more important, it is when the government divides the citizens by race, and applies racial quotas in their policies – from access to tenders and concessions, to buying even luxury houses at discounted prices, to entrance to schools and universities and to choices of particular courses – that we contribute towards not just obsession with race but what is worse, racial polarisation. This is why 1Malaysia is so difficult to achieve!

At the point the NEP was launched in 1971, and even more so in 1957 at Independence, when wide socio-economic disparities separated the Chinese (and the Indians to a lesser extent) from the Malays and other bumiputeras, it might have made sense for affirmative action policies in favour of the latter. No doubt, the government had to lend a helping hand to Malays and bumiputeras to get out of the poorly developed rural agricultural sector to enter into the modern industrial and business sectors.

Most Malaysians, though many were initially reluctant, came around to support the NEP ultimately. It was the implementation of the NEP which led to cronyism and money politics that made the NEP controversial, not the need for it.

But 54 years after Independence and 21 years after the end of the NEP (1971-90), after substantial numbers of Malays have joined the ranks of the upper and middle classes, it is difficult to persuade the wider Malaysian audience, especially the younger generation, that we still need ethnic-based policies and ethnic-quotas!

This is why the Pakatan Rakyat parties have decided that it is time to replace the NEP with a new policy that discriminates in favour of the poor regardless of race instead. All who are poor, especially the bumiputeras who form the vast majority of Malaysia’s poor and have still not enjoyed the benefits of Malaysia’s economic development in spite of the NEP, would now become the new focus of attention.

Such policies and quotas in favour of the poor will go a long way towards making Malaysians less obsessed with race. It would be so much easier to achieve 1Malaysia.

Hence doing away with the race category in the forms, whether pertaining to the public or private sector will have negligible effect. After all, we will still know the race of an Abdullah, or Samy, or Ling, or a Karpal. If the Foundation wants to take a bigger step forward, all applicants for hire purchase, or bank loans, or scholarships, or entrance to universities in the courses of their choice should not state their names either. Rather, they should register themselves after which they should be given a number, which then makes these applications race-blind. But such a process would be extremely cumbersome. It could turn into a huge nightmare of unnecessary work for all concerned.

Yet, forms without the race category or without names will not resolve the obsession with race. Doing away with race-based policies with racial quotas, and replacing them with policies that provide for the poor and needy regardless of race, might. And once this is done, the unscrupulous politician who tries to racialise non-racial issues will have very little influence. Invariably they belong to ethnic-based political parties, like Umno, MCA, MIC will then become increasingly irrelevant. And the mainstream media that they own and control will stop spewing out the racial hatred they do especially when elections are around the corner. How lovely when these unscrupulous politicians, their parties, the media they control and their racial policies and quotas are washed away into the dustbin of history. Bye bye!

Hidup 1Malaysia!

Dr Francis Loh is a Professor of Politics and Secretary of Aliran

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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