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Kopitiam talk: What will it take to change Malaysia?

Overheard - A group of concerned Malaysians in a hushed conversation about how to promote a more inclusive nation

Sembang kedai kopi - ALFRED/UNSPLASH

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Anu: Did you all see this Edict statement – the case of two police personnel who allegedly stood by while a civilian took the law into his own hands, resulting in the death of the alleged suspect? Our own George Floyd moment, in a way.

Mavis: Were the police culpable through inaction or negligence? Just can’t understand how everyone else stood by and watched.

Saras: I believe that it will take exceptional courage and confidence for any bystander to intervene when figures of authority are around. I think I can understand.

Mavis: In this particular incident, a civilian apparently took the law into his own hands while purportedly making a ‘citizen’s arrest’, choking the other person to death in the process, while the figures of authority and everyone else apparently just watched.


Parveen: It’s awful. Why didn’t the policemen stop it?

Saras: As for the bystanders, the police were already there. As for why the police did not stop it … that is the question.

Just sharing – when I was teaching in my school of very poor rural children, I carried out a small survey to discover the kinds of ambitions they had.

Over 90% wanted to be policemen. They did not want to be anything else. These kids did not want to be doctors or lawyers or engineers or even teachers. They saw being a policeman as a very desirable thing.

When I asked them why, they said that policemen had money and were very powerful. They desperately wanted these. These kids desired to feel that they needed to get out of poverty and feel powerful.

When you feel disempowered, the police force gives you the avenue to become more ‘assertive’ but sometimes actually more aggressive.

I believe a somewhat similar phenomenon happens to Indian kids. Being in a gang gives them that power.

Anu: When I was in Standard One, I wanted to be a policeman too. Keeping the world free from baddies and all that. Plus, I liked the cars with the flashing lights!

Harry: Aiyoh, if only you’d kept your ambition, you would surely be the IGP [police chief] by now!

Saras: But these were secondary school kids.

Anu: Maybe it’s the influence of the movies as well. Hollywood and local shows like Gerak Khas that glamorise the police.

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Saras: Probably – but this was a very poor community. Families did not have TV. Some were allegedly harassed by the police. Anyway … I was afraid of the police myself.

Harry: Not surprising that many aspire for the chance to have power and authority and a chance to ‘make money’.

Recently, an academic said that the call for non-bumiputras to join the police force should be lauded as it is expected to contribute to the overall improvement and effectiveness in law enforcement.

Agreed. But why would anyone want to join if there is a negligible opportunity for any decent upward mobility within the system? It is attached to race. Shouldn’t that change, too?

This should also apply to all branches of the civil service – including and especially education. That is the one branch where we can expect the greatest impact and change in the way people feel, think and act.

Was [Human Resources Minister M] Saravanan really wrong [when he suggested that non-Malays could not become IGP]? What is written [or not written in the Federal Constitution] and what is practised are two different things.

Malik: Yes, promotion is an issue for non-Malays in the civil service.

Saras: A very serious issue. That is why many Chinese and middle-class Indians are not inclined to join the civil service at all. Many feel they have learnt to survive outside the government system and have become isolated within their own language cells (living on systems that support English and Mandarin). They feel there is no need anymore to learn BM.

Everything that is based in our system today is connected to that one big thing – race!

We need to readdress this and review it as a B40 [low-income] priority instead of looking at it through [the prism of] race.

Malik: Having said that, Malays of the ‘wrong type’ are also victims of such discrimination.

Saras: Can you help explain, Malik? I am still learning. I believe you are referring to “liberal Malays”?

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Malik: The non-Umno types – [those] who don’t play the race-and-religion game that we have in our education system, including in the universities.

Saras: Yes, the system knocks them too. I have seen that too. In the end, it pays for them to conform and to remain silent.

I am from Johor and I grew up with Malays. My classmates speak up only among us, but they are all mostly afraid to speak up beyond those walls. We cannot hope to change until they do.

Mavis: Yes, saw that a lot in [the university I was in]. ‘Liberal’ is misused and distorted, in my view. I know principled and brave Malays who spoke up against discrimination or unfairness and were victimised by the establishment, yet continued to speak up.

That is why I get so irritated when people make sweeping generalisations about race and religious discrimination. There are often other intersecting and overlapping factors in play.

Saras: Yes. Agreed, Mavis. I do not deny that. Some do speak up. But not enough. That is why the discrimination tends to be perceived as one sided. 

But I can understand that. Most are petrified by the internal pressures within the system – by the little Napoleons. There is also much verbal abuse too. They are crippling and can be intimidating. In the end, fear rules everyone.

The ‘nons’ [ethnic minorities] are not subjected to that kind of pressure. They will speak up more.

My opinion: we need dynamic Malay leaders to galvanise and re-empower them – to show them that not being Umno-like [does not mean going] against [their own] race and religion.

I am certain that they will galvanise the ‘nons’ too. I remember with so much nostalgia how Anwar did this in 1998 from the rooftops of cars. He had skin in the game and paid heavily, too. We need that passion.

The ‘nons’ are not against race [the majority ethnic group], as they are painted out to be. We need to see a way forward for everyone.

Sorry. I am on a roll. Too much caffeine!

Hashim: Just to, hopefully, add another dimension to this discussion and to expand on Mavis’ observations. If we put aside, just for a moment, the ethno-religious angle, it’s not all pressure.

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There’s also the idea of socialisation. Both the Malays and non-Malays in higher education, as elsewhere, continue to be socialised into accepting things as they are.

Some fight against this socialisation, others don’t. Some believe the system may be unfair, but that somehow – having been socialised into thinking that they shouldn’t rock the boat – they can negotiate it.

If this were not the case, I feel the Malaysian private higher education sector would be teeming with revolutionaries, but it’s not.

And then, there’s also often this difference between those academics (irrespective of ethnicity) in the sciences and engineering and those in the social sciences, where the former tend to be more conservative and compliant, and the latter more questioning of wider society. Intersecting and overlapping factors.

Mavis: And I also get very irritated when I hear people say “not enough Malays are speaking up” or “the Malays need to change”, especially when this comes from non-Malays who themselves don’t speak up except in their own WhatsApp echo chambers or safe spaces and who also are unable to see or acknowledge their own racial biases.

I grew up singing: “It only takes a spark to get the fire going.” Maybe that’s why I’m always optimistic and hopeful.

Hashim: More seriously, I agree with you. But this reluctance to act by the non-Malays, to be fair to everyone – old age has crept up on me! – I guess is because of fear and the seeing of everything with ethnic lenses that leads one group to wait for another to make a move. I see a lot of this “the Malays need to speak up first” in various Whatsapp groups and postings.

Mavis: In my personal experience of 45 years’ involvement in CSOs [civil society organisations] or NGOs and faith groups, I actually see more Malays speaking up now, especially younger ones.

We need to engage and collaborate with them more, including the Muslim CSOs that are progressive.

The names of the speakers have been changed.

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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Phua Kai Lit
Phua Kai Lit
12 Dec 2021 6.22am

Interesting social movement appearing — the “Buy Nothing” (and share and give away stuff freely to other people, especially needy ones) movement.

But I think this needs to be combined with Universal Basic Income, since reduced demand for goods and services will mean less income for certain groups of workers.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x