We can only start fighting for human rights after we get out of our own race-based tangles, says Mary Chin.
On my first scholarship overseas, I used to relate to my coursemates how, for the same house in Malaysia, the price would be higher for a non-Malay buyer than that for a Malay buyer.
Worse, some houses could be reserved such that non-Malays were not allowed to buy at all. (That was a simple way of putting it without trying to explain how most, but not all, bumiputeras are Malay).
Likewise, I shared, a Chinese and a Malay scoring the exact same number of A’s in pre-U exams could mean that the Chinese ended up rejected by all local universities while the Malay ended up admitted to the most sought-after course at the most sought-after university.
My coursemates dropped their jaws in disbelief: how could that be, what logic was that! They had never heard of such a thing in their lives.
- Sign up for Aliran's free daily email updates or weekly newsletters or both
- Make a one-off donation to Persatuan Aliran Kesedaran Negara, CIMB a/c 8004240948
- Make a pledge or schedule an auto donation to Aliran every month or every quarter
- Become an Aliran member
Years later, my flatmate from another country related to me how she got to England on a scholarship, without which she wouldn’t have got a passport to travel out of her country. She had to seize that chance to apply for passports for her parents as well because once her studies ended, they would no longer have any excuse to apply for passports. Even if the application was eventually approved, they would have to surrender their passports the moment they returned from their trip.
My jaw dropped in disbelief: how could that be, what logic was that! We have never heard of such a thing in our lives. Any Malaysian can get a passport. We don’t need any excuse, and we hold on to our passports until expiry. Upon expiry, it is entirely our decision whether to renew it or not.
That’s what living abroad is all about: zooming out, seeing the bigger picture, putting things in context.
That was decades ago. Today, Malaysians are still fussing over Malay rights. Whenever someone mentions Malay rights, we are going to get the reflex, “What about Chinese rights? Malays got rights Chinese no rights meh?”
Once we talk about Malay rights and Chinese rights, someone will quickly remind us not to forget about our Indians, Orang Asli, East Malaysians, Eurasians,… no matter how long we extend this list, we will always need a “lain-lain” (others) category.
And it is the fact that we always need a ‘lain-lain’ category that makes us so rich. We have a joint heritage that makes us wealthier than other societies. For instance, what I have is the sort of wealth no mainland Chinese can acquire or buy.
Housing disfigured by speculators
Now, back to buying the same house at different prices. The landscape has since changed completely. Houses no longer quite equate homes. Housing has been completely disfigured by speculators buying multiple properties which are meant not to be homes but to be profit generators.
Many do not even know the difference between investment and speculation. Still more are completely oblivious to the moral question: by speculating and inflating house prices, by denying others the opportunity of owning even their first home, shall I grant myself a personal choice whether to join that speculation bandwagon, or not? In the name of diversification or whatever, buying properties has become a standard ‘investment’ everyone seems to be doing and therefore everyone ‘ought to be’ doing.
People left out of home ownership are no longer struggling in that decades-old context of ‘houses reserved for bumis’ or discounts on house prices for bumis. It is no longer as simple as that. The challenge we have today is far more complex. Arguments from both sides – whether to keep or to ditch such rights – have expired. The arguments no longer apply.
Education and healthcare
Who is getting more: the Malays or the Chinese? In arguments like this, all others shrink into that forgotten lain-lain category. Fine, let’s excuse that exclusion for a moment and go along with that. So, are Malays getting more or are Chinese getting more?
Again, the context has shifted considerably from how it was decades ago. Decades ago, Chinese schools and Chinese hospitals were built and supported by Chinese tycoons. It was somewhat wide-ranging, not organised in any systematic network, but that generosity and support more or less covered most Chinese communities.
We see not much of those Chinese-for-Chinese efforts today.
Lam Wah Ee Hospital, for example, is a Chinese community initiative which remains a strong success story, definitely. But we find all doors and all arms of the hospital thrown wide open to embrace people of all origins – its service is literally colour-blind. The Chinese-for-Chinese landscape is waning.
On the other hand, many Chinese, who make the bulk of the Ubah crowd, are more interested to serve themselves rather than help any Chinese brethren. They are quite happy and settled promoting that false idea of ‘rural Malays’ being the poorest and the least educated.
This misrepresentation masks the reality of urban poverty and non-Malay hardcore poverty. The misrepresentation leaves many Chinese still struggling, still seeing no end to the tunnel. But the Chinese who are not struggling don’t seem to mind.
The reality is that the Chinese-for-Chinese landscape has faded considerably. The Chinese who are poor do need support, which is more centralised – from the government.
Selection by merit benefits Chinese?
One of the greatest myths in Malaysian history is that selection by merit means a Chinese will get the job. That is a myth. There is no truth to that. It is cerita dongeng. Selection by merit to any position, whether federal, state, local councils, corporate – whatever – suggests absolutely nothing about ethnicity.
Many who are fighting for local council elections, as much as many who are fighting against such elections may have got it wrong if they had assumed that the Chinese would get elected.
It is the same with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination: many of those wanting it want it for the wrong reason (to strip benefits off others) and many of those against it oppose it for the wrong reason (wanting more for self).
We find the same in the appointment of Tommy Thomas as attorney general. Among those for the appointment, many made that stand for the wrong reason (because Tommy is non-bumi and he is Christian). Among those against the appointment, many took that stand for the wrong reason (because Tommy is non-bumi, and a Christian). This distraction (that he is non-Bumi and he is Christian) masked the most critical criteria for appointing an attorney general.
Selection by merit simply means we select whoever is most eligible and effective. I don’t need to be represented by a Chinese. I honestly don’t give a damn whether that person is Chinese or not.
Categorically barring non-bumi Malaysians from holding positions, on the other hand, defies every logic of civilisation. Nobody in any right state of mind would be able to defend such policies.
Racial politics revisited
Let us revisit the question of whether the National Justice Party (PKR) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) are race-based. Opening membership to Malaysians of any race does not make PKR and the DAP non-race-based.
If they weren’t race-based, neither party would field Malay candidates in areas of Malay majority, field Indian candidates in areas of Indian majority and field Chinese candidates in areas of Chinese majority. Both parties have openly and shamelessly announced such strategies and tactics – and they in fact take pride in them.
In so doing, PKR has extra cards to play in their hands compared to the Islamic Party (Pas), which doesn’t have Chinese and Indian candidates to field in areas where non-Malays are in the majority. Likewise, the DAP has extra cards to play compared to the Malaysian Chinese Association, which doesn’t have Malay and Indian candidates to field in areas where non-Chinese are in the majority. To me, that is an abuse of a multi-racial membership.
The least the DAP and PKR could do is to say here is our multi-racial contingent – they are all ready to serve everybody and anybody. It should be all-for-all. Note how, in all these drives, the lain-lain category disappears into thin air.
This is sad race-based politics, uglier than the race-based politics the Ubah crowd accuses Umno, Pas and the MCA of. It divides us. We drift further and further into disunity so long as campaigners continue to pull us aside and tell us one story, draw up the fence, then pull our neighbours aside and tell them a different story, draw up another fence, and pull yet another pocket of voters aside and fill them in with another story.
It is time for Malaysians as a collective whole to discover our values – one of which should be to reject this decades-old habit of different groups needing to hear different stories.
On 16 January 2019 Karen Wang was ejected from a by-election in Canada. Her political career was killed by her post on social media calling on Chinese voters to vote for her as she was the only Chinese candidate and the other candidate was a Singh.
Isn’t that the standard template for fielding candidates and for campaigning in Malaysia? If the same measure was to apply to Malaysia, where racist politicians are removed from the political race, our Parliament would be more or less empty.
Karen Wang is now one of the most despised persons in Canada. Even Canadians of Chinese descent have largely disowned her. She and her family now face rejection even when walking the streets and living their daily lives. Racism is against a common value Canadians share.
That so-called non-race-based politics of the new Malaysia, fulfilled by Pakatan Harapan, is sketchy. So long as we continue to capitalise on the ethnic origins of voters and candidates, the Ubah crowd should stop pointing fingers at ‘rural Malays’ for finding security in Malay representation by Malays.
If it is human rights that we are fighting for, stripping race-based rights that discriminate against others cannot be the lone item on the agenda. So long as we get ourselves stuck in the Malay-versus-Chinese tangle, it is not human rights that we are fighting for. We start fighting for human rights only after we get out of that Malay-versus-Chinese tangle.
Our plural society (masyarakat majmuk) is drastically different today compared to the configuration that was. The lain-lain category has now broadened considerably. We have migrants and refugees who live in subhuman conditions, denied basic rights (eg representation in court) and denied access to healthcare, education, banking and more. Many Malaysians either turn a blind eye to their plight or silently believe that subhuman treatment serves them right.
Without recognising the injustice faced by the lain-lain category and without advocating for justice for them, self-proclaimed human rights warriors are merely fighting for themselves. That is tribalism (fighting for one’s own kind), not human rights.
Improving the living conditions of migrants and refugees is not the NGOs’ job. Such efforts cannot just come from Tenaganita, Suaram, Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign and Medicin Sans Frontieres. We get nowhere without ordinary and everyday Malaysians internalising the respect for human dignity.
Malay rights, Chinese rights and lain-lain rights need levelling and an alignment on all fronts.