Portraits of Malaysian people (Pic by Bangash Khan)
WHEN Raja Nazrin Shah, the Crown Prince of Perak, burst onto the public scene in early 2006, he said, “Malaysians of all races and religions need to believe beyond the shadow of a doubt that they have a place under the Malaysian sun.” Not long after, people started to repeat the phrase “colour blind”, an apt prescription for any racist tendencies among us.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi seems to have caught on. Addressing the Malaysian Student Leaders’ Summit held on 2 and 3 Aug 2008, he said the civil service is colour blind. Had I the opportunity (I am, after all, no longer a student), I would have asked a more pressing question: could he also kindly confirm to us that government policies are similarly colour blind?
The response would have been disappointing, I’m sure.
It is fair to assume that in most cases, personal interaction between races works fine. Colleagues and classmates practise healthy colour-blindness in sharing jokes and complaining about the massive traffic jams in Kuala Lumpur.
Cultivating interethnic friendships is not the real problem in Malaysia. A 2007 peninsula-wide study on young Malaysians and national unity by the Centre for Public Policy Studies and the Bar Council’s Young Lawyers showed that policies and systems were the primary factors leading to perception of poor national unity, even when respondents were driven by a genuine desire for unity.
Systematic positive discrimination
This finding does not come as a surprise, as it has long been a contention of ethnic minority groups in the country that government policies are inconsistent. It is idiosyncratic to simultaneously promote unity on the one hand and positive discrimination on the basis of race on the other.
(© Konrad Mostert / sxc.hu)
Over the past 37 years, systematic positive discrimination has seeped into almost all layers of public life in sectors such as education, the economy, civil service, and the corporate, among others.
Scholarships are more easily accessible to the bumiputera community. Priority is always given to contracts tendered by this same group by law, at the federal, state, and local levels. Strict adherence is required by companies wanting to list publicly on the stock exchange that 30% of initial public offerings is reserved for bumiputera. Preferred vendors of Government-Linked Companies (GLCs) are those that have at least 30% bumiputera share ownership and significant numbers of bumiputera at management level.
These are only some examples of policies that have structurally co-opted racial affirmative action into a system that governs the public life of all Malaysians. Worse, this system has bred an unhealthy culture among individuals to give preference on the basis of race, even when there may not be a policy to that effect.
For example, the promotion of university lecturers and public servants has been largely criticised as being determined by race. Likewise, the appointments of key corporate positions, like chief financial officer or general manager of GLCs.
Greater opportunities open up for Malays in business circles, since having them as partners guarantees access to government contracts in most cases. The system justifies and validates positive racial discrimination. It normalises and desensitises racism. It is in no way colour blind.
This surely cannot be healthy for racial unity in any possible permutation. Citizens of a country want to feel that they belong to a country, and without equitable access to quality opportunities, the future of racial unity is bleak.
The big five
The state of government policies today is, of course, something we have inherited from previous leaders. In fact, they go back a long way in Malaysian history. One must necessarily trace events of our past to understand how policies today are laced with the element of race.
There are five key elements to the interethnic problems of today: Article 153 (of the Federal Constitution) that gives Malays a special position; the social contract (largely understood as the trade-off between non-bumiputera citizenship and Malays’ special rights); ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy); 13 May 1969 (during which violence between Malays and Chinese took place); and the consequent New Economic Policy introduced in 1971 to restructure society and eradicate poverty irrespective of race.
Fortunately, colour blindness still generally exists among
Malaysian friends and colleagues Many an intellectual academic has already addressed the above “big five”, but the point is this: Malaysia is at a stage where we need to move far, far beyond the shadows of the “big five”. It is not enough to merely acknowledge that we have a baggage-ridden past.
Although difficult to negotiate, politics should be more about the brave leadership of ideals than the reality on the ground today. The leadership must evaluate if this past and present model is still relevant to the present electorate; if not, what model would serve as an alternative? Enough political rhetoric about unity and colour blindness. We must get down to the gritty business of promoting colour blindness in every possible way.
This will be no easy task, balancing the interests of many different communities desiring different outcomes. Whatever the cost, I firmly believe that the country will slide down the slippery slope of chaos if we do not address the issue of interethnic unity once and for all.
At this crucial point in the nation’s history, I would single-mindedly propose and call for an immediate, extensive referendum to review all national policies that contradict interethnic unity. These would be any laws, regulations, policies, circulars from every ministry, agency and department that are essentially not colour blind — and we know there are many.
The ultimate objective would be to gradually replace them with needs-based affirmative-action policies that do not discriminate upon race. We desperately need this to preserve racial harmony.
Standing before the multitude of more than 800 students at the Summit, the Prime Minister made warm, smiling commitments to his belief in equal empowerment, rights and privileges. He said, “We do not want racism or extremism.” Let us put this into practice. Let all government policies be colour blind.
Tricia Yeoh is the Director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies. She hopes for the day that all national policies are colour blind.