Wednesday, October 28, 2009


I have a deep connection to Malaysia. In 1985, I moved there from the US on a six-month lecturer contract without knowing much about the country, its people, history and cultures. I ended up working for five years for two different American university twinning programs under the auspices of the openly discriminatory tertiary educational institution, Mara Technical Institute, which was created exclusively for members of the Malay ethnic group (with a small number of native students from East Malaysia thrown in for appearances' sake).

Soon after arriving in Malaysia, I learned about the "race riots" of 1969, the "special rights" given to the Malay people, and the resentment that this caused amongst members of other ethnic groups. Realizing that "affirmative action" (as we call such programs in the US) is at times justified, I was able to rationalize my work on behalf of the government and the Malays when the programs I served were providing educational opportunities for a group of students that was mostly from rural and impoverished backgrounds.

What I could not help questioning was the considerable number of middle- and upper-class Malay kids on our campus, guys and gals who were getting a free ride just because they were Malay and not because their parents could not afford to send them to school. In fact, I even had the son of Malaysia's foreign minister at that time in one of my classes, and I watched in wonder as he was chauffeured to school and eventually drove his own BMW to classes.

I worried then about how the college-age children of the underclass of other groups were faring. But I became even more in tune to those folks' plight when I married a young woman of mixed Malaccan Portuguese and Chinese/Indian descent, a girl who had excelled in secondary school but was not offered a single ringgit by the government for her educational studies. The hypocrisy of the New Economic Policy's mandate to assist the poor "irrespective of race" really hit home.

It's 20 years later now, and I have watched Malaysia sink further into the abyss of ethnic divisiveness, much of that caused by communal arrogance, authorized greed, blatant corruption and a host of wayward government policies. It's easy to be depressed by the situation, even though I feel that I am now "part Malaysian." And it's rare when anyone might see light at the end of that long tunnel.

Tonight, however, I saw just such a light when I read the Merdeka message written by Sharyn Lisa Shufian, the 24-year-old great granddaughter of Malaysia's first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.

Rarely do I give over space on my blog to the writings of others, but this is just such an occasion.

Please read Sharyn's message and see why I feel that those of us who love Malaysia can have some hope:

Both my parents are Malay. My mum's heritage includes Chinese, Thai and Arab, while my dad is Minangkabau. Due to my skin colour, I am often mistaken for a Chinese. I'm happy that I don't have the typical Malay look but I do get annoyed when people call me Ah Moi or ask me straight up "Are you Chinese or Malay?" Like, why does it matter? Before I used to answer "Malay" but now I'm trying to consciously answer Malaysian instead. 

There's this incident from primary school that I remember till today. Someone told me that I will be called last during Judgement Day because I don't have a Muslim name. Of course, I was scared then but now that I'm older, I realise that a name is just a name. It doesn't define you as a good or bad person and there is definitely no such thing as a Muslim name. You can be named Rashid or Ali and still be a Christian.

I've heard of the 1Malaysia concept, but I think we don't need to be told to be united. We've come such a long way that it should already be embedded in our hearts and minds that we are united. Unfortunately, you can still see racial discrimination and polarisation. There is still this ethno-centric view that the Malays are the dominant group and their rights must be protected, and non Malays are forever the outsiders.

For the concept to succeed, I think the government should stop with the race politics. It's tiring, really. We grew up with application forms asking us to tick our race. We should stop painting a negative image of the other races, stop thinking about 'us' and 'them' and focus on 'we', 'our' and 'Malaysians'.

No one should be made uncomfortable in their own home. I know some baby Nyonya friends who can trace their lineage back hundreds of years. I'm a fourth generation Malaysian. If I am Bumiputra, why can't they be, too? Clearly I have issues with the term.

I think the main reason why we still can't achieve total unity is because of this 'Malay rights' concept. I'd rather 'Malay rights' be replaced by human rights. So unless we get rid of this Bumiputra status, or reform our views and policies on rights, we will never achieve unity.

For my Merdeka wish, I'd like for Malaysians to have more voice, to be respected and heard. I wish that the government would uphold the true essence of parliamentary democracy. I wish for the people to no longer fear and discriminate against each other, to see that we are one and the same.

I wish that Malaysia would truly live up to the tourism spin of Malaysia truly Asia. Malaysians to lead - whatever their ethnic background.

Only ONE NATIONALITY -MALAYSIAN. No Malays, No Chinese, No Indians - ONLY MALAYSIANS. Choose whatever religion one is comfortable with.


Anonymous said...
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Joshua Chng said...

This is why non-Malays want to study overseas. Or overStraitsofJohor. It's one step in the journey towards escaping from Malaysia. Hahaha.

haivandethuong said...
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haivandethuong said...

This is a very interesting post. I have heard about the second class citizens. I watched the daily news about the strike of the Indian Malaysians for more rights just before the election last year. Actually, it was shocking to me that the Malaysian government denied the rights of people who have been living in Malaysia for generations.

I need to declare that my opinions could be very biased. Anyways, I think that having the Malay rights, in matters like education, only gives the Malay an advantage in the short term, It is like giving them fish, not teaching them how to go fishing. The law actually indirectly tells the Malay that they could afford to be less competitive and still get to the university. This is not a mind set that the government should encourage its citizens to adopt because we compete internationally in many areas like research. The Malay will be at a disadvantaged position compared to the Chinese/Indians/other ethnic Malaysians for jobs that only cares about the job competency.

In addition, with the Malay rights, the Chinese/Indians/other ethnic Malaysians will try harder and will become stronger eventually. Then the Malay Malaysians will feel greater need to provide Malay Malaysians with greater rights and protection. Does it seem like a vicious circle?

Brad Blackstone said...

Thank you, Joshua and Van, for reflecting on this post.
Joshua, I wonder what you think about Sharyn's letter. Van, How does Vietnam handle its ethnic diversity on a political level? Are all groups treated the same under the law?

Audrey Wong said...

I guess I am aware of all the things happening to Malaysia because of the 'special rights' but I have been numbed rather. They do get many privedges including getting into boarding schools easily where everything is paid for. People used to say they can afford to have that many children because after the age of 12, the parents no longer need to fork our money for their children's education. I remember my mum telling me this. Her malay friend who got a cgpa a little worse than hers was offered a scholarship to study chemical engineering at the UK. FYI, she asked my mum, "What is chemical engineering?". Pick up your jaw.
Anyways, I agree with Sharyn that Malaysia should not emphasize on the races and being multiracial and even harmony if they really want to achieve racial harmony. The way to do it is to treat everyone equally and not to mention anything about races. The more they label their citizens as malay, chinese, indian and others, the worse it becomes.
Even in school, there are quotas in a class. 10 chinese, 10 malays, 10 indians. See, it's all there since the first day of school. Haha. I hate it the most because I am not in the top 10 chinese! Haha.

Joshua Chng said...

Well, I really respect all the Malay and Bumi people who oppose preferential treatment. It's natural for Chinese and Indian people to be unhappy about it, since we're being hurt by it. But for someone who can profit from it to still reject it, I think that's very admirable.
I do think that a united Malaysia would be great. It's always great when peoples from different cultures can get along. But, I simply don't think that's likely to happen any time soon. Even if you ignore the preferential treatment, I notice that Malaysians (especially students) tend to stick to their own race. This isn't really due to racism, but simply due to the fact that we speak different languages. Even though Malay is the official language and the one used in school, whether or not we learn extra languages will separate students into different classes.
Schools don't use the module system. In one class, all students take the same subjects. So, yeah. If I take Chinese, I'll be in a different class from the people who don't. And well, Malays and Indians tend to not take Chinese.
Even out of school, I feel more comfortable talking to people in my own language rather than messing up trying to speak theirs (or to listen to them mangle Chinese).

Huahua said...

It is great to see that someone in the Malays finally stand up for her people. It really speaks a larger volume than any ethnic groups.

My mom was a Malaysian and I have relatives that are facing unfair education rights. Naturally, I feel unjustified for them when they worked really hard but were not able to get the University or course they wanted.

I like Sharyn Lisa Shufian's ideal, if more malaysian thinks like her 1Malaysia is not an impossible dream.

Thanks for sharing the letter, I too feel that Malaysia was a small part of me as I grew up there in my childhood.


- Yuanhua -

Russell said...

I can't help getting a dig at them. This is what happens when the entire nation is more enamoured with sodomy charges rather than how to survive the next financial collapse. All thanks to their great leader who has been teaching his people to look at behinds instead of looking forward. (pun intended) In the short space of time since our independence, Singapore has made tremendous progress while their economic machinery is still plodding along like a rusty robot tied to the yard post, making no real progress.
That was just some tongue in cheek. (not butt cheek!) As you can see, I’m not really focussing on the issue of race/religion in Malaysia. What I feel is the central problem is their government’s ineptness. What they need is a radical change in ideals. They need a Malaysian version of Obama, someone who can lead them out of this vicious cycle of protectionism.

Brad Blackstone said...

Yes they do, Russell, yes they do!

Anonymous said...
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Jebat Haziq said...

Very interesting post.

That why we as malaysian need to united.. 1 malaysia!