Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 22 August 2018

Prime Minister Mahathir’s call for Malaysians abroad to come home to build the country reminds us of Talent Corp’s attempts to do the same in recent years. A few years ago, Talent Corp mustered a team to try and convince Malaysians in the Silicon Valley to come home with special perks thrown in to entice them. At the symposium, Talent Corp tried to put across the impression that Malaysia now has a level playing field and Malaysians regardless of ethnicity would be free to flex their talents in the service of the nation. Unfortunately, all it took was one query from an observant Malaysian in the audience to deflate the myth of a level playing field: “If as you say, “race” is now a thing of the past, why is it that the composition of Talent Corp’s team in Silicon Valley is entirely Malay?”

Likewise, my question to PM Mahathir is this: “If, as you say, Malaysia is now a level playing field, why are you leading a party that is only for the “Pribumis” and have you discarded so-called “Bumiputeraism”?

Sadly, the evidence is clear to see. Dr Mahathir cannot possibly have discarded “Bumiputeraism” since he has just announced that he intends to privatise our national asset Khazanah for Bumiputera interests. From his record of 1981 to 2003, this sort of privatisation only benefits a select group of Malay crony capitalists and crony capitalism is nothing but endemic corruption. Economic Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali has also just announced that the functions of Mara would be enhanced in terms of Bumiputera economic structure, equity ownership and entrepreneurship at the Bumiputera Congress on Sept 1. Mohamed Azmin gave an assurance that his ministry would ensure that the objectives of Mara establishment would continue to be pursued and strengthened to protect Bumiputera’s interests. No doubt this involves keeping UiTM a “Bumis Only” preserve, keeping out Non-Bumiputeras who fail to get into the other public sector institutions.

This is the reality for those who have been dreaming of a “new” Malaysian dream of equality, justice and democracy. For a start, the Prime Minister’s verbalised commitment to the Rule of Law is not borne out in this “Never Ending Policy” based on so-called “Bumiputeraism” simply because the term “Bumiputera” does not exist in our Independence Constitution!

The term ‘Bumiputera’ does not exist in the Federal Constitution

The Bumiputera/immigrant differentiation to justify racial discrimination against non-Bumiputeras continues to be peddled by the ruling Malay elite right up to the present day. By some conceptual trick, the favoured people are defined as strictly “Malays” no matter where they come from (even Kerala or the Middle East) and therefore qualify as “Bumiputeras” who are entitled to special “rights”.

Incidentally, let us be clear about the difference between RIGHTS and PRIVILEGES. All peoples have rights – Malays, Chinese, Indians, indigenous peoples and all other ethnic communities are entitled to the same human rights. These rights are enshrined in Part II of the Constitution under “Fundamental Liberties”. They are inalienable, independent of the government-of-the-day. Thus, apart from the fact that they are guaranteed in our Federal Constitution, they are also part and parcel of the United Nations Human Rights instruments.

Let us be clear what Article 153 of the Constitution spells out:

“It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the states of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article…of such proportion as he may deem reasonable of positions in the public service (other than the public service of a State) and of scholarships, exhibitions and other similar educational or training privileges or special facilities given or accorded by the Federal Government and, when any permit or licence for the operation of any trade or business is required by federal law…”

This “special position of the Malays” took on a different form in 1971 with amendment 8A to Article 153 which allowed the quota system and all the other excesses of racial discrimination. The New Economic Policy which was launched in 1971 also had an expiry date for 1990. How long can the Malay elite keep changing the rules as they go along? The older generation knows that between 1957 and 1971 under Article 153 of the 1957 Constitution, we did not have the gross excesses of the quota system in all its forms we have experienced since 1971.

 Now, privileges are not rights. A RIGHT is defined as an entitlement, very different from a privilege or a licence granted by the Constitution. PRIVILEGES, on the other hand, are not rights. They can be revoked because they are conditional. The Reid Commission had suggested a sunset clause of 15 years for the “Special position of the Malays” clause in the 1957 Constitution. And once the intended results were met, privileges could be taken away but rights cannot be taken away. So, Malaysians should be more careful and not talk about ‘Malay rights’ or ‘Chinese rights’ or ‘Indian rights’…

The Obsession with Race

It is astounding that the bugbear that was thrown into the Independence struggle to put the anti-colonial forces on the defensive – viz. who are the ‘pribumi’ (indigenous people) and who are the ‘pendatang’ (immigrants)? – continues to be thrown at Malaysians in order to divide our nation to the present day.  The keepers of the Pribumi estate overlooked an elementary point of logic – namely, how could a ‘non-Pribumi’ become a ‘Pribumi’ simply by assimilating when the latter is strictly a historical category?

This obsession with race has little currency in the disciplines of anthropology or sociology, not to speak of human rights in the international community. Dato Sir Roland Braddel, former President of the Council of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and once legal adviser to UMNO pointed out years ago: “There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as the Malay race; there are Malay people, the Malay culture and the Malay language, etc.”

How to stop the brain drain

It still amazes me that intellectuals in the government cannot conceive of ways to help the poor and marginalised without raising the issue of race which is really a populist agenda to secure votes in the elections and not because there is no other choice.

Sixty years of racially based policies have divided us while enriching the well-connected crony capitalists linked to the political elite. It is time to replace race-based policies with needs-based measures that target the lower-income and marginalized sectors. It is common sense that poor rural Malaysians should be assisted based on their needs according to the particular economic sectors in which they live and work. Today, with more than 95% Malay personnel in the civil and armed forces, isn’t it high time that recruitment and promotion in these services were based on merit?

With the “Bumiputera Agenda” and the continual flip-flopping policies, Malaysia’s economic progress continues to be plagued by a lack of innovation and skills, a low level of investments in technology, declining standards in education and sluggish growth in productivity. The cost and consequences of the racially discriminatory policy in Malaysia have been immense especially since the NEP in 1971. It has caused a crippling polarization of Malaysian society and a costly brain drain. According to the World Bank,

“The diaspora has likely reached about one million people in 2010; compared to about 750,000 in 2000…the brain drain is estimated at a third of the total diaspora. This translates into a number of 335,000 in 2010, which is up from 217,000 in 2000.” 

To sum up, the PH Buku Harapan promised to “create a Malaysia that is inclusive, moderate and respected globally…just and equitable life, free from any forms of discrimination. The diversity of races and religions should be seen as a source of power, not as an obstacle”. That is a vision all right thinking Malaysians share but it can only be realised if unjust and dysfunctional institutions are reformed.

Such a reform starts with the Prime Minister making the honest gesture to call for an end to race-based political parties which make up the ruling coalition; the end to racism and racial discrimination in all Malaysian institutions and affirmative action based on social and sectoral need, not on race. Malaysians who have gone abroad will definitely know when it is time to return to their homeland – when there is truly a level playing field in Malaysia.

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