Changing Race Policies

If you are in your thirties, relatively successful and constitutionally Malay – the UiTM episode is an inconvenient reality.

Mind you, not a truth. We abandoned truth a long time ago.

I am going to admit upfront that I too am not party to it, the truth is almost like the holy grail here in Malaysia. We laid a series of half-truths almost sixty years ago, and a lot of what we call a reality – a relative reality to some – is a moving goalpost. If I were a centre-forward with the ball at perfect range to shoot, I’d still check myself into a facility than try to score.

The system I oppose with all my being, is the very system that has carved the lives of those closest to me, my friends whom I call family.

It is more akin to W.B. Yeat’s “ Who can tell the dancer from the dance.”

These are fine dancers, but the dance was wrong. What to do?

And therefore I look forward as much as I shudder – about meeting my friends, and talk about these unfortunate things.

About things Malays get in Malaysia.

The principle issue

The issue of Malay entitlement goes in repetition : from whether places in UM for medicine should be Malay majority as Mahathir put out in his Malay Dilemma, to the non-university status of TAR college for years, to the annual debates on what is the cut off point for entry into universities for non-Malays, to scholarships for overseas gig and for god knows what else.

It never ends, and sitting at the other end of the table listening in quite uncomfortably – more so if you are a constitutional Malay – you wonder how to break this gordian knot.

Most of my friends are not from poor families, but they are contributing to the nation in their present capacities – however have they benefited at the expense of their classmates in school, who were ahead of them?

I’ll call a spade a spade.

Based on the grading system of Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam, I topped my class in my SPM. However a slew of those behind me went on abroad to study using federal funds or GLC money. I didn’t even get called for the interview.

The years have passed, and here I am. Am I always going to scratch that sore? Should those who did benefit always feel insecure or worse defensive? And some of those included did have much better grades than me. And fair number of my Malay friends benefiting are completely brilliant guys.

The same atmosphere exists elsewhere. Of poorer kids not being able to become doctors even if they stayed up nights and aced them exams. Of kids who were just about average now being called doctor and serving an old friend for a sore shoulder. The soreness cuts deeper.

However I am not writing to beat affirmative action policies down, or tell how to fix them, or the pain they have caused. I want to write and try to understand how as Malaysians we can walk past these difficult feelings, and move forward.

Where to start?

In a vacuum

Justice is subjective. Though there are issues all of us are largely in agreement, the sense of outrage is never the same for everyone.

The question is about how to build an honest consensus between main stakeholders and plan better policies.

Yet you cannot do it in a vacuum. The players are products of the system, and when you change things – you are making some frown when some smile.

The error lies in gross generalisation of people. What pisses off the constitutional Malay who is world class is to be seen in the same basket as those who have made it with less ability than them, and to be criticised for the shortcomings of the others.

And on their shoulders is placed the “ you have benefited, now help others.”

The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Whenever we want to change things in this country, we cannot alienate people, on either side of the divide, even Umno members and leaders. The principle of good relies on endeavouring to do the right thing – and everyone has different ideas – without pre-judging.

We need to build trust before we build consensus on how to have modern and relevant affirmative action in this country. There are enough clever and fair people on the side of those defending status quo: of keeping UiTM closed, or leaving UKM’s law programme Bumiputera only, of sustaining a Bumiputera domination of the civil service, of having a single entrance exam for universities, of retaining share percentage requirements for public listed companies and many, many things.

It cannot be done with accusatory fingers, and a sense of compensation for the past. We are not going back to our form five days, or our public service examination room or evaluation day at the GLC.

We are here, and it is about where. And where must include both those who have not benefited before and those who have. The latter have to admit the inequalities while lauding the successes. The former must state the lost opportunities but speak of the parities achieved.

And we must build trust.

Real trust, not the expedient and cautious trust of the BN model. But real ones.

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