On Being A True Malaysian: More Readers’ Responses
[Letters are arranged from the most recent]
Ethnicity and religion are here to stay, but we have to find ways and means to seek common grounds for unity, and use diversity as our strength. To me nothing is more damaging and dangerous than this “us” versus “them” mindset, and using religion or any other means for differentiation. That benefits no one in Malaysia, except the politicians (in the short term to get elected and stay in power).
I often look back nostalgically to those days in 1950s and 1960s when I used to go, eat and sleep in the homes of my Chinese and Indian friends without fear of being “contaminated.” Their parents were always sensitive that I was a Muslim; they bought halal chicken and meat, and never cooked and served pork when I was their guest. I did not have to proclaim, “I am a Muslim,” as they understood and respected who I was.
My friends also used to stay at my place. There was plenty of mutual understanding and tolerance. We studied together, exchanged notes and had discussions. But my friends and I also competed in school, to be the best in our studies and in sports. We readily acknowledged who among us emerged as the champions.
Today we seem to be divided because wittingly or unwittingly, religion has become part of national politics. The British used our ethnicity to isolate us, under their “Divide and Rule” strategy, and kept us as separate communities with different economic functions. After 1969, Tun Razak emphasized national unity by making the eliminating the identification of race with economic function as one of the objectives of the NEP. Today, Malays are in business just as the Chinese and Indians. Of course, more work needs to be done to create a viable Bumiputra Industrial and Commercial Community, especially after the 1997-1998 economic crisis.
In the 1980s, the Malays were caught in the global resurgence of Islam, precipitated by the Iranian Revolution (1979). Islam became part of our politics, for which UMNO (Anwar Ibrahim in particular) and PAS ought to bear some responsibility. The MCA, MIC and other parties in the Barisan coalition were also responsible, for their apathy permitted these Islamists to exert major influence in our politics. Now we are in the era of contentious politics. That worries me a lot.
So I am wondering whether we have become entrapped by the “British trick” except we are using religion (since in the case of the Malays, Islam is synonymous with Malayness) to keep us apart. We should get back to Rukun Negara principles. Our education system should seek to promote integration, not assimilation). We need a sense of common destiny. This is vital.
I could be entirely wrong in my analysis. I welcome your take.
Hey friends (S, HC, O and S in particular):
I agree that the best way for us to have an informed discussion is to avoid making broad, unsubstantiated claims. As we all share a common goal in finding solutions to the pressing and contentious issues in Malaysia, let us proceed in a manner that seeks to promote better understanding of the issues without unnecessarily speculating.
While personal anecdotes and experiences might be helpful, we should be careful not to extrapolate and extend them to explain issues in their entirety.
As you mentioned, the twin prongs of the NEP were to reduce poverty and to eliminate the identification of race with economic function. We cannot deny that considerable progress has been made in terms of the second objective (compare the figures in 1957-1970 and 1970-2000):
Clerical & related occupations: 1970 2000
Malays 35.4% 56.8%
Chinese 45.9% 32.9%
Administrative and managerial occupations
Malays 24.1% 37%
Chinese 62.9% 52.3%
Another way of looking at employment shifts is to look at the proportion of Malays in various sectors. In 1970, 62.3% of Malays were involved in agriculture; in 2000, only 21.5%.
In terms of the first objective, progress has been made too (although some might argue that poverty levels were reduced because of economic growth rather than state policies, while others might dispute the poverty measurement method). The poverty level in 1970 was 49.3%; 1990, 7.5%; 2002, 5.1%.
We should perhaps focus on some of the negative consequences of NEP (rise in intra-ethnic disparities as opposed to inter-ethnic disparities, and the growing sense of entitlement) rather than the successes of the policy in achieving its stated objectives.
As for private sector employment, employers’ hiring standards are not based on qualifications alone. Chinese are often overrepresented in SMALLER companies because these companies frequently employ family members or recruit new trainees through informal channels on the basis of kinship. In certain companies, the socialization process is easier when workers of the same ethnic group are recruited, hence reinforcing the pattern of ethnic-based employment. In certain industries, knowledge of Mandarin and Chinese dialects is required to communicate with suppliers and clients, and educational qualifications are of less importance.
I do not necessarily believe, for the reasons mentioned above, that a fair national policy would reduce this clannishness. Historical and cultural barriers (we can thank the British) have created ethnically segmented markets that persist even as gaps in educational qualifications between ethnic groups are reduced.
Such sweeping generalizations as private sector employment being dominated by non-Bumiputra are ill-advised. Employment policies of LARGER non-Bumi corporations are monitored by the authorities and there are annual reports that have to be submitted detailing the ethnic composition of the workforce. Due to pragmatic considerations, positions at ALL levels have increasingly been filled by Malays over the years. It might interest you that in the finance industry for example, pressure from the central bank to increase Bumi employment at every level led to a competition for competent Bumi top management that “Bumiputera senior managers and technical professionals could command an economic rent of 20 to 50 per cent because of the short-term supply shortage” (Birks and Hamzah, 1988). This implies that the lack of Bumis at higher level positions is not due solely to discriminatory policies, which brings me to my next point, the claim that Malays do not secure significant professional positions in non-Bumi companies.
This can partly be explained by company policies where upward mobility is largely internal. In order to recoup the costs of training, companies prefer to limit hiring at mid-level positions and then allow employees to rise through the ranks. This strategy also helps prevent high turnover rates that could be to the company’s detriment.
A considerable number of Malays have only started to acquire industry skills recently (previously they were content with public sector employment due to the expansion of that sector in the 70s and early 80s – from 22 state-owned enterprises in 1960 to 1014 in 1985. They eventually collapsed due to inefficiency and massive losses. Thus they have limited role in preparing Malays for higher level employment in the private sector.
Let us examine the assertion that large non-Bumi corporations have been happily riding the tide of their own profitability at the expense of the poor and needy Bumiputras. How else should non-Bumi corporations respond to state policies that blatantly favor Bumis if these corporations do not collaborate with their Malay counterparts? Do you really think that the “poor and needy Bumiputras” would gain access to the contracts if those “Ali-Baba” partnerships were disbanded? Foreign firms would probably be the main beneficiaries of any reform (think about the Japanese firms who heavily profited from the Look East Policy in the 80s).
I am not denying that some people have excelled by overcoming whatever obstacles in their way. I am merely saying that similar to Bumiputera tycoons, most of the non-Bumi ones did not compete on a level playing field (as they received monopoly rights, concessions, subsidies, etc.), so they did not really make it “fair and square.”
Good reply on the subject so far. It is not erroneous that Bumi participation in non-Bumi company is at the polar ends: mainly as directors or office/dispatch boys. This is decided on and dependent upon how much political connection or wealth that particular Bumi has. The rest of the Bumis … well, they just don’t (or very difficult) get significant positions in those companies.
Non-Bumi companies constitute the back bone of Malaysia’s economy. It is the law in Malaysia that non-Bumi companies hire Bumi staff (look at it as a scheme to teach them how to fish). From what we have seen, this law is being mocked by hiring Bumis only for lowly positions, while reserving managerial, professional and executive positions to non-Bumis. In short, S, if he is really from a kampung, with no wealth or political connection, will find it difficult, if not impossible to have a career in such company. Even if he made it pass the entry level, he will encounter a significant amount of discrimination in the workplace. (sorry, no PhD thesis to show you the data for this….but from personal experience and from those who has been there …)
Most Malays (those without wealth or connection) find refuge in companies like Renong, Proton, KLAS, MIMOS, etc.
I almost gave up on myopic tunnel vision on the postings. They cannot even continue from or even digest a simple message from Bakri’s posting.
This is where I disagree with Bakri Musa – his assertion that the increase in the costs of projects is due to preferential policy. Bumiputras are not solely to be blamed for this; they do not have a strong grip of the core of the supply chain. The rent seekers among them (which constitute a minority), instead of taking the opportunity to build their business, take the easy route of being merely “proxies” to the non-Bumi companies, which in turn end up doing the bulk of the work and thus reap the bulk of the profit.
If one were to blame the poor and corrupt implementation of this NEP, one has to look at not just the government but also the non-Bumi large corporations that have been happily riding the tide of their own profitability at the expense of poor and needy Bumiputras.
This is just one example on how the Bumi policy has been turned around to benefit the non-Bumis. I have more to say about this issue, and several others, raised in these discussions, but I am to bogged down with work to do any writing. God willing, I will do so in the near future.
I think you could be misleading N by putting too much faith in the Malaysian private sector. You ought to be more critical about Malaysian private institutions; they too are heavily dependent on the government. Look at their moribund performance on the KLSE.
The quality of private universities here too is suspect. Malaysian universities, private or public, pale in comparison to Harvard, Stanford or Yale. To me, the ownership of a university is not relevant. I know of some state universities in the US that are as good, for example, Michigan and the University of California. It is the culture of the institution that matters to me.
We must be frank about the prevalent culture of mediocrity and conformity (bodekism) here in Malaysia. N deserves some help. He wants to come back; that is laudable, but he has some reservations. I have written him expressing a view which may sound unpatriotic.
On balance, N should stay in the US to get more experience before returning home. Nothing is more dangerous that a young man who is disillusioned with the system.
There have been numerous instances where brilliant scientists who answered our government’s call to return home and contribute; and they have been disappointed. I know a few who have come back and have now gone elsewhere including nearby Singapore. Dr. Bakri Musa too has similar experience (please read his book, The Malay Dilemma Revisited). Of course, there is no publicity in the press about the fate of Malaysian expats.
Dear S and HC:
It is erroneous to say that non-Bumi companies are willing to take Bumis only as drivers for the CEO unless you are trying to convince me that drivers make up 20-30percent of the workforce. In that case, almost every company staff member (including the tea lady and office boy) would be chauffeur-driven. Unlike traditional paternalistic family firms, most of the large organizations that you mentioned have Bumiputeras in high-level positions. Here are a few examples:
YTL directors: YB Dato’ (Dr) Yahya bin Ismail, YB Mej Jen (B) Dato Haron bin Mohd Taib, Syed Abdullah bin Syed Abd Kadir
Berjaya directors: Tan Sri Datuk Abdul Rahim Bin Haji Din, Dato Suleiman Bin Mohd Noor, Dato Hj Mohd Yusoff bin Jaafar, Mohd Zain bin Ahmad, Dato Mohd Annuar Bin Zaini
Genting deputy chairman: Tun Mohammed Hanif bin Omar
Many of the successful Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs in Malaysia have not been immune to the system of political patronage. Over the years, it has become increasingly clear that a substantial number of non-Bumi tycoons have benefited from crony capitalism and inefficient rent-seeking behaviors.
Our system can be better and fairer. To me, helping the Malays does not mean that we must deny other citizens the chance to enter university, or to sacrifice the quality of our education system. Both are not mutually exclusive. Malays need help, but they should never misuse the system and waste taxpayers’ money (non Malays too pay taxes and lots of it!!).
University education should be for those who can satisfy a set of academic criteria which must be applied as impartially as it is possible. In addition to the usual academic criteria, there must be a means test in the award of scholarships. The rich or well connected Malays, for example, must start paying for their children’s university education and not get a free ride because of their special status. Those who are given loans to further their education at university must pay back to free resources for others. That is the duty and commitment of the borrowers.
Academic brilliance is not the monopoly of any single race. There must be equal opportunity. America is a good example of upward mobility based on merit. People there have a chance to live the American dream through hard work and grit, as N C and Dr. Bakri Musa will tell you.
I am sure Dr. Bakri will respond to all the e-mails he has received on his True Malaysian article. I am glad that Dr Bakri has the courage to pen his thoughts on what is obviously a very contentious topic. You should visit his website www.bakrimusa.com.
I believe one should take a look at the whole big picture, not only at the academic point of view (which is just a small part of the world) but from the business, trading and commerce perspectives.
First, the number of Bumiputera is more than non-Bumiputera, so obviously positions held or space allocated in the university to Bumiputera will definitely be more. Why is there injustice that if allocation is based on the race ratio? Look at the tycoons in business: Genting, Sunway Group, Thai Thong, timber tycoons, YTL group, property tycoons, all Chinese; while Maxis and Astro are Indian. I notice that none of these organizations willingly take a Malay or Bumiputera in their organization, except as a driver to the CEO. This is a fact. The managers in these organizations hire their own kind.
There are many Chinese tycoons even though they are not well educated, but they are tycoons nonetheless. My friend’s father-in-law is a timber tycoon, and my ex-secondary classmate married nephew of YTL Group and had her wedding at Marriot Hotel, a grand wedding. Some Malays just have their wedding by the roadside with tents.
These large non-Bumi organizations which dominate the economy should give a helping hand to those poorly-educated Bumiputeras, by hiring them, or perhaps sponsor them. The NEP is necessary to close the income gap between Bumis and non-Bumis. If the government does not do anything about it, it will only get worse. The whole nation cannot move forward and be a developed country because there are people who are left behind and be a drag on the economy. We have to see the big picture.
I am glad that you have a sense of belonging to Malaysia, and maybe you can use your doctorate to help the poor people in Malaysia and reduce the income gap and eventually abolish the NEP.
The key to returning home is to be in the private sector. How, I do not know. The private sector is vibrant back home.
Perhaps the way to reform higher education is through strengthening private institutions. Consider the fact that Stanford, as well as Harvard, Yale and most of the top institutions in the States are private. The key is to have private universities as well as research institutions that can get government funding.
Let us discuss how this would be possible.
Dear Dr. Bakri:
I would like to comment on your article. Your thesis is that non-Bumiputera (henceforth NB) do not “feel like true Malaysians” because they are denied special privileges. I believe this thinking is flawed.
I hope to return to my home country on finishing my doctorate here. I am not too concerned about the financial impact of returning (with at best an 80 percent pay differential even adjusted for cost-of-living disparity), nor the fact that I will not be able to do the kind of work that interests me because the industry in Malaysia is insufficiently developed for the kind of technical work I enjoy. What concerns me greatly is that I will not be able to contribute my skills and (mediocre) talent to the progress of our country. I fear the skin ceiling, of not being able to make an impact and be given significant responsibility commensurate with my abilities, thus invalidating my reason for returning.
I believe many NBs currently residing abroad share my apprehension. The roots of our concern lie not in policies that promote the advancement of Bumiputeras, instead in the propagation of policies and ideas that tout the idea of dominance (Kedaulatan/Ketuanan Melayu).
Let me start with an example in our local universities. We all know the famous Terrence Gomez and K.S. Jomo case. Let us disregard them for a moment and look at the organization of our most celebrated institution, University Malaya. Of 12 departments, there are only 2 NB deans, one Indian and one Chinese. Similar numbers persist for Assistant Deans and other academic positions. Such a trend exists for nearly every local public university. I do not believe that there is any NB Chancellors or Vice Chancellors of local public universities (I may be wrong).
I really struggle to believe that there is such a disparity in academic prowess and/or administrative ability that there is not more representative distribution of responsibilities. Does this race-based provision in our local public universities do anything to advance the lot of Bumiputeras? Some might argue that they serve the same function as the rise of the Bumiputera business technocrat in the 1990s, that of role-model and inspiration. Of course, I fail to see how this idea holds water. How does the appointment into an important academic position of someone with little research productivity save a doctorate from, say, Kalamazoo State, inspire the next generation of Bumiputera academicians?
The same argument applies to most of our local institutions. There are some who explain the lack of NB participation in the civil service and other non private-sector institutions as an example that NBs are not interested in serving the nation and are only concerned with making money. That argument disgusts me. I firmly believe that it is not the lack of patriotism that prevents NBs from pursuing such a career, it is the not unfounded conception that one would spend the rest of one’s life doing inconsequential work, not because of one’s ability or lack thereof, but because of policies that promote the idea of dominance, not equanimity.
My point is that we should be careful to appreciate the subtleties of these policies, a point you do not make in your article. We should also recognize that there are both explicit and implicit special privileges, and it is precisely the latter, and not the former, that the majority of the disenfranchised overseas Malaysians despise. I am all for policies, especially in education, that strive to better the lot of Bumiputeras. What I and others fear is the propagation of policies that promote Bumiputera dominance, and that will alienate non-Bumiputeras and prevents them from being true Malaysians. Your article mentions that we should not let others determine our identity as Malaysians. How can we not when these policies have sunk so deeply into our national psyche that they are now not merely edicts, but a culture?
You mentioned that those of us who attend elite institutions or who are otherwise successful despite nongovernmental help, have successfully breached policies of special privileges and thus should not be concerned about these policies as we never needed them anyway (if I read you correctly). As mentioned, we are not immune to the effects of special privileges even though we have thrived despite of it.
Let me end by saying that I do not and never have believed, that Malays want this idea of a rightful dominance. Instead it is a dangerous idea espoused by a few in power and we must not allow it to thrive.
My other point is more personal. Like many others, I have been fortunate to receive substantial financial support from American institutions for my education. When all is said and done, I estimate that the total amount I will have received is in excess of US$400,000. I should owe a far greater debt, and feel more attachment to America for the opportunities which I have been privileged to enjoy, as well as the opportunities which will hopefully await me upon graduation. Yet I irrationally feel, at my heart’s core, a strong attachment to my home country, an infatuation with her and her people that persuades me to sacrifice much in the future in a vainglorious attempt to bring about some good in the country of my birth. However this desire will be for naught if I am convinced that I cannot bring about any progress, and share in the future of my country, despite my best efforts, because of the color of my skin. I believe I am not alone in this, and that many of our country’s best feel the same way. It is this that disillusion, not the 5 percent discount in the purchase of a house given to Bumiputra buyers.
I was on medical leave for a while after my eye surgery. It went well and I am now recovering fast. Of course I still stick to old rules like avoiding certain foods and to take my beta-carotene tablets, and Chinese medication. I can tell you that I am having my sight back. Thanks to modern technology, but above all, to Almighty God.
I read your article with interest. I have been away from home for about 20 years. I share some, if not all of your views. We have our own complexes: superior, inferior, or other. One thing I do not agree is that someone would forget his or her childhood language. This is something built in, psychologists or linguists will tell you that it is intrinsic, within you. It is not something I will forget even if I live in a remote world for a very long time, I may forget certain technical words, but I will never forget my language. I completely disagree with your Chinese fan.
I have studied 911 events and talked with Americans on the subject. I would reserve my comments, but the “cave man” is incapable of orchestrating such an event as 911. It was just too complex; it required the cooperation of so many departments and organizations. My own conclusion is contrary to the official story, so our cave man is not the culprit even though I am not a conspiracy theory maniac.
When I was in UK 30 years ago, I was approached by an English man who said to me that we Malays were so privileged. He had been fed that propaganda by many Malaysian Chinese. I asked him what was the ratio of Malay and Chinese students abroad before the NEP? Of course he did not know. Well, it was 1:5 or so in favor of the Chinese.
We all have our own little experiences. Now I am back home I cannot accept this notion of whether you are a “true” or “not true” Malaysian. There is no such thing anyway. Just be a Malaysian, that is all, do not distinguish people by the word “true.” I am a Malaysian alright, there is no “true” in it. Just like we have problems with some members of the Islamic Party (PAS) who say that their Islam is the true Islam, so they are true Muslims, others are not “true” Muslims. Come on, only God can say that.
I am now studying into another big subject of my interest, Kundalini.
So, all the best to you and your family, keep up the good work.
Best regards. Wassalam. Note: If you were to Americanize your name, you should use Moses Baker!