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Tuesday March 27

Racial eyesores on the Malaysian landscape
Kua Kia Soong

5:25pm, Tue: The recent outbreak of violence with racial overtones at Petaling Jaya Selatan squatter settlement requires Malaysians to face up quickly to this most critical yet unresolved problem of racism and racial discrimination in Malaysian society.

This agenda is highly appropriate and timely because this year happens to be the year the United Nations will hold its conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa in August.

Racism and racial discrimination have been part of Malaysian political, economic, social and cultural realities ever since colonial times. Today, race has been so deeply institutionalised that it is a key factor determining benefits from government development policies, bids for business contracts, education policy, social policy, cultural policy, entry into educational institutions, discounts for purchasing houses and other official policies.

Practically every aspect of Malaysian life is permeated by the so-called 'bumiputra policy' based on Malay-centrism. This is
unabashedly spelled out by political leaders in the daily mass media in Malaysia.

It is an established fact that racial polarisation is prevalent in various Malaysian institutions. A new survey by Universiti Malaya shows that 98 per cent of Malay students do not mix with non-Malays while 99 per cent of Chinese students and 97 per cent of Indian students do not mingle with the other races.

While the government tries to account for this problem by blaming other extraneous factors such as the existence of vernacular
schools, it is clear that the roots of polarisation lie in this institutionalisation of racism and racial discrimination.

Integral part

Racism is an integral part of the Malaysian socio-political system. The ruling coalition is still dominated by racially-defined component parties, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). These parties compete for electoral support from their respective constituencies by pandering to 'racial' interests. Invariably, their racist inclinations are exposed at their respective party congresses.

Some opportunistic opposition parties likewise pander to their constituencies using racist propaganda to win electoral support and they have also contributed to the vicious circle of racial politics which has characterised Malaysia all these years.

Umno, the ruling party, continues to insist that 'Malay unity' and even 'Malay dominance' is essential for national unity. 'Malay
dominance' is invariably used interchangeably with 'Malay privileges', which the ruling Malay elite justifies through the Federal
Constitution.

Consequently, we have witnessed the periodic controversies over the alleged challenges to Malay special privileges every time sections of Malaysian society call for non-racist solutions to Malaysian problems. The recent fracas over the appeals by the Chinese Associations of Malaysia (Suqiu) is a case in point. There have been other cases in recent Malaysian history in which the ruling party has allowed racist reactions to be used against the non-Malay communities.

White Paper

The official White Paper on the mass ISA detentions of 1987 documents the Umno Youth rally at the Jalan Raja Muda Stadium on Oct 17, 1987, at which racist and seditious sentiments were flagrantly displayed, e.g.: "May 13 Has Begun; Soak it (the kris) with Chinese Blood…" Umno leaders, including those who are ministers today, were among the rabble rousers on the podium.

The ruling party condoned such racism on the grounds that theirs was a reaction to the protests by the Chinese organisations over the posting of unqualified officers to the Chinese schools in 1987. In the same way, Umno Youth tried to justify their recent boorish protest over Suqiu at the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall by the fact that they were 'provoked' by Suqiu. These realities are principally because they were trying to externalise the internal problems within the ruling party, Umno itself.

Even more recently on Feb 4, 2001, a Malay Action Front rally was organised by former and current Umno leaders using the emblem of an unsheathed kris (Malay dagger) against a blood-red backdrop and calling for the further extension of Malay rights and privileges. Racism and racial discrimination are also manifested in the way indigenous peoples are uprooted from their traditional homelands and displaced to ill-planned resettlement schemes to make way for dams, plantations and other industrial projects. Many development agencies do not respect their native customary land rights. The underlying assumption in official circles is that their cultures and way of life are backward and they need to be 'modernised'. They are rarely properly consulted over these projects and their fate is tantamount to 'ethnocide'.

Migrant workers, including foreign domestic workers, are another group of people who face racism and racial discrimination in Malaysia. There are over two million foreign workers in the country, out of which there are over 10,000 hired as domestic help. The negative and derogatory perception of foreign workers held by many Malaysians condone the abuse of these workers. As women, foreign domestic workers are often subject to verbal, physical and even sexual abuse. The are discriminated against because of their gender, race as well as class.

Affirmative action

The ruling party Umno prides itself on the supposedly 'successful' affirmative action in favour of bumiputra. Bumiputra literally means 'princes of the soil', the official epithet for Malays and other indigenous peoples but which excludes the original peoples, i.e. the Orang Asli of Peninsula Malaysia. This has been the cornerstone of development plans since the New Economic Policy was started in 1971.

Consequently, while this populist bumiputra policy has been applied to the benefit of bumiputra as a whole, the new Malay ruling elite is strategically placed to reap the full benefits of this racially-based policy. Totally committed to capitalism and to privatisation, this policy has ensured that the non-Malay local and foreign elite have also gained from the New Economic Policy since 1971. This class cohesion among the Malaysian ruling elite underpins the racialist politics which has characterised Malaysian society since Independence.

It is time for Malaysians to reaffirm the non-discriminatory basis of the Federal Constitution and to uphold human rights principles which are strictly anti-racist.

Article 8 (1) of the Constitution clearly spells out the principle of equality of all Malaysians while Article 12 (1) allows no discrimination against any citizens on the grounds of religion, race, descent or place of birth.

Article 153 on the special position of Malays was inspired by the affirmative action provisions of the Indian Constitution to protect the minority under-privileged class of harijans. Ours is fundamentally different from those provisions because the ethnic group in whose favour the discrimination operates in Malaysia happens to be the one in political control, the Malays.

Malay dominance

At the time of Independence in 1957, four matters in relation to which the special position of Malays were recognised and
safeguarded were: land; admission to public services; issuing of permits or licences for operation of certain businesses; scholarships, bursaries or other forms of aid for educational purposes. The Constitution certainly does not adhere to any notion of "Ketuanan Melayu" (Malay dominance), which is a totally racist concept.

When the Constitutional (Reid) Commission was considering whether such a provision should be included in the 1957 Constitution, it made the following comments:

"Our recommendations are made on the footing that the Malays should be assured that the present position will continue for a
substantial period, but that in due course the present preferences should be reduced and should ultimately cease so that there should be no discrimination between races or communities." (Report of the Federation of Malaya Constitutional Commission 1957, Govt Press, para 165, p.72)

After the Tunku was deposed in 1971, the new Malay ruling elite felt that adequate opportunities had not been made available to Malays, especially in education and that there should be a larger proportion of Malays in the various sectors. In 1971, under Emergency conditions, Article 153 was duly amended to introduce the quota system for Malays in institutions of higher learning. Clause (8A) specifically provided for the reservation of places for bumiputra in any university, college and other educational institutions.

Quota system

Nevertheless, the quota system was not intended to be the totally non-transparent and non-accountable and unfair system we know it today:

Firstly, Article (8A) makes it clear that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong can only order a reservation of a proportion of such places for the Malays. It would therefore mean that the quota system is applicable only on a faculty basis and more importantly every faculty or institution should reserve places for students of every race. No faculty or institution under this provision could cater for the Malays alone to the exclusion of the other races.

Years after the implementation of this racial quota system, there was no trace of any such order being made by the Agong nor was there evidence of any such order having been gazetted. Such a directive would thus seem to have been made by the officials of the Ministry of Education.

Thus, it is not clear whether the quota system is made applicable on an institutional basis or on the basis of the total number of places available in a particular course of study of all the universities in the country. To apply the quota system on the total number of places available in any particular university will again be a wrong interpretation of the provisions of the Constitution.

Article 153 (8A) does not authorise the administrators of any university to refuse admission to any student of a particular race. It only allows a proportion of the places to be reserved for Malay students. On such a reasoning, the constitutionality of institutions like the Asasi Sains in the University of Malaya or the science matriculation course of the Universiti Sains Malaysia which cater only for bumiputra students is doubtful.

Furthermore, the Constitution of the University of Malaya expressly prohibits discrimination on grounds of race for the admission of any student to any faculty or institution of the university. In this context too, the constitutionality of other institutions which admit students of a particular race only to the exclusion of other races is also doubtful as it violates the equality provision of Article 8.

From the above, it is clear that the question of the constitutionality of the quota system as it has been practised since 1971 especially in totally bumiputra institutions has never been tested.

Original intentions

We know what the original intentions of the 'Malay special privileges' provision in the Merdeka Constitution were, but to maintain that it is a carte blanche for all manner of racial discrimination as we have witnessed since 1971 is a violation of the spirit of the Constitution.

International law sets major limits on affirmative action measures. Notably, affirmative action policies must be carefully controlled and not be permitted to undermine the principle of non-discrimination itself nor violate human rights. Holding the equality principle uppermost, the raison d'etre and reasonableness for differential treatment must be proven.

Another important criterion to ensure successful affirmative action and synonymous with international law is that such special measures should be introduced for a limited duration as was suggested by the Reid Commission in its Report of the Federation of Malaya Constitutional Commission in 1957.

A consequence of the so-called affirmative action policies up to now is that for the poor of all ethnic communities, including the
indigenous peoples in Malaysia, these objectives of wealth redistribution for their benefit have not been met.

While it is widely recognised that racial polarisation exists in many Malaysian institutions such as schools, universities,
the civil service, it must be stressed that this is not a 'natural' consequence of a plural society.

On the contrary, through the years there have been deliberate attempts by those in power to create divisions among the people.
There is general agreement that racial polarisation has its origins in the colonial divide-and-rule strategy. This has been well-documented in studies by W R Roff (The Origins of Malay Nationalism, 1974:24) and Hua Wu Yin, (Class and Communalism in Malaysia, Zed Press 1983)

The racialist formula was institutionalised in the Alliance at Independence and perpetuated by the Barisan Nasional to the
present day. Attempts at creating racial discord among the people continue to be perpetrated in public institutions and the mass media whenever it suits the politicians.

These instances have been well-documented. (See Kua Kia Soong (edited) 'Polarisation in Malaysia: The Root Causes', K Das, Ink, KL 1987; 'Mediawatch: Use and Abuse of the Malaysian Media',Huazi Research Centre 1990 )

Of all the official policies and public institutions which practice racial discrimination, there is none more pervasive than the New Economic Policy (NEP) which was implemented as a fait accompli after the Emergency was declared in 1969.

Elite cohesion

Although its specific objectives were 'restructuring of society to correct the economic imbalance of wealth holding which led to the identification of race with economic function' and 'eradication of poverty irrespective of race', the NEP has been implemented these 30 years in a racially discriminatory way with little transparency or accountability.

Just 10 years after the NEP was implemented, the 1980 census showed that more than 80 percent of all government executive
officers were Malay; Malays held 75 percent of publicly-funded tertiary education places; and 96 percent of Felda settlers were Malay.

By 1990, it was widely held by observers that the wealth restructuring policy objective was very much on target if nominee
companies listed under 'other Malaysians' were analysed. It is also well-known that many of these nominee companies have been formed by the bumiputra elite.

All the same, these figures showing ownership of equity capital, however distorted, also reveal that the rich non-Malay elite have done quite well under the NEP. This perhaps accounts for the elite cohesion which has held the Barisan Nasional coalition together for so long. The evidence further shows that the NEP's 'wealth restructuring' has mainly resulted in increased wealth concentration and greater intra-ethnic inequality.

By the mid-80s, it was found that the top 40 shareholders in the country owned 63 percent of the total number of shares in public companies; the top 4.4 per cent of investors in the Amanah Saham Nasional had savings amounting to more than 70 percent of ASN's total investments.

The ASN is a prime example of a savings institution, secured by Malaysian taxpayers irrespective of race, but which blatantly
discriminates against non-bumiputras. This racial discrimination extends to loans, end-financing, purchase of housing, shares
allocation, etc.

Problem ignored

Racial discrimination in the education policy is manifested in unfair financial allocations to the different sectors and language streams and the reluctance of the government to allow development of the mother-tongue schools of the non-Malays.

Thus the number of Chinese and Tamil primary schools in the country have actually dropped from 1,342 and 888 at Independence to 1,284 and 535 today respectively, even though the population of the communities has doubled in the last 44 years. The government has continued to ignore the grave problem of the shortage of qualified teachers for these schools for years.

By 1990, the realities of the racially discriminatory quota system in education were as follows: an average of 90 percent of loans for polytechnic certificate courses, 90 percent of scholarships for Diploma of Education courses, 90 percent of scholarships and loans for degree courses taken in the country and almost all scholarships and loans for degree courses taken overseas were given to bumiputras.

Regarding the enrolment of students in residential schools throughout the 80s, 95 percent of them were bumiputra. The enrolment in Mara's Lower Science College, the Maktab Sains Mara, was almost 100 percent bumiputra throughout the 80s.

High time

Racial discrimination in the realm of culture is seen not only in the education policy but also in the discrimination against non-Malay cultures and religions in the National Cultural Policy. Non-Muslims face obstacles in their freedom to build places of worship and access to burial grounds, among other complaints.

Racism and racial discrimination have dominated Malaysian society for far too long. Now that the Malay ruling elite has clearly gained control of the Malaysian economy, it is high time for a new consensus based on non-racial factors such as class, sector and need to justify affirmative action.

It is time for all Malaysians who hunger for peace and freedom to outlaw racism and racial discrimination from Malaysian society once and for all and to build real unity based on adherence to human rights, equality and the interests of the Malaysian masses:

Non-racial solutions to Malaysian political institutions

1) Political parties formed on the basis of race to further the interests of their respective races should be outlawed as such
practices are inconsistent with international conventions against racism and racial discrimination;

2) Ratify all the international covenants and UN Conventions that have not been ratified by the Malaysian government to ensure that all legislation in the country abide by international human rights standards;

3) Enact a Race Relations Act and institute an Equal Opportunities Commission to combat racism, racialism, and racial discrimination in all Malaysian institutions;

4) Delineation of constituencies must be based on the principle of 'one person, one vote' and there should not be wide discrepancies between the number of voters in different constituencies;

5) Reintroduce elected local government so that problems of housing, schools, etc. can be solved in non-racial ways;

6) Ensure that there is no racial discrimination in the civil and armed services and that every ethnic community has equal chance of promotion;

7) Establish an Independent Broadcasting Authority which is fair to all ethnic communities in Malaysia;

Non-racial solutions to Malaysian economic development

8) There must be full transparency and accountability to ensure that contracts and shares are not dispensed on a racial basis through nepotism, cronyism or corruption;

9) Public money must not be used to bail out failed private businesses under the guise of affirmative action;

10) Government policies should be strategically aimed at reducing income disparity between the rich and poor regardless of race, religion, gender, disability or political affiliation;

11) Small and medium industries, the backbone of national industrialisation, should be developed without racial discrimination;

12) Fair and adequate support should be provided to all sectors including pig farmers especially during times of crisis;

13) Land should be fairly distributed to farmers of all ethnic communities;

14) The racially-based quota system should be replaced with a means-tested sliding scale mechanism for deserving entrepreneurs;

Non-racial solutions to Malaysian social development

15) Modernise the 450 or so New Villages in the country which have existed for more than 50 years, in which many of our small and medium industries are located and where basic infrastructure is inadequate;

16) Improve the living conditions (e.g. a guaranteed minimum monthly wage) and basic amenities such as housing, education and health facilities of plantation workers;

17) Ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and members of their families;

18) Set up an Equal Opportunities Employment Commission to address all forms of discrimination in the workplace;

19) Gazette all communal lands of the Orang Asli and other indigenous peoples so that they can control their own land resources and choose their own way of life;

20) Enact laws to confirm the rights of urban settlers and obligations of developers to provide fair compensation and alternative housing to urban settlers;

21) Cater to the special needs of women, children, senior citizens and the disabled;

22) Provide more recreational facilities for the youth regardless of race to allow them to develop positive and healthy lifestyles and to encourage tolerance and awareness of cultural diversity and equality;

23) Establish a housing development authority to direct construction of low and medium-cost public housing for the needy irrespective of race;

24) Poverty eradication programmes to benefit the poor of all ethnicity must be seriously pursued;

Non-racial solutions to Malaysian education

25) Special assistance must be based on need by under-privileged sectors and classes and not on race;

26) Institute a means-tested sliding scale of education grants and loans for all who qualify to enter tertiary institutions regardless of race, religion or gender;

27) Recognition of educational certificates, diplomas or degrees should be dealt with by the National Accreditation Board on strictly academic grounds and not politicised or subject to racial discrimination;

28) Schools using the mother tongue of Malaysian minorities should be built as long as there is a demand for them in any catchment of these ethnic communities and they should not be racially discriminated against in financial allocations;

29) Establish a long-term solution to the crisis of teacher shortage in the Chinese and Tamil schools;

30) Amend the Education Act 1996 to reflect the national education policy as originally stated in the Education Ordinance 1957 ensuring the use, teaching and development of the mother tongue of all Malaysian ethnic communities;

31) Make available compulsory Pupils' Own language (POL) classes within the normal school curriculum as long as there are five pupils of any ethnic community in any school;

Non-racial solutions to Malaysian cultural policy

32) Promote knowledge, respect and sensitivity among Malaysians on Malaysian cultures, religions and ethnicity;

33) All places of prayer and worship for all ethnic communities should be gazetted in their areas of domicile free from any encumbrances and there should be no arbitrary restrictions on these places of worship;

34) National artistic and literary awards and scholarships considerations should be for all works by Malaysians regardless of the language in which they are written;

35) All ethnic Malaysian cultures should be fairly represented in official cultural bodies and the media.


DR KUA KIA SOONG, a former ISA detainee and member of
parliament, is a director of human rights group Suaram.

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