Redefining the Malay race

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Everyone has something to say about what it means to be Malay and what it should mean. In my course of political activism, I am yet to formulate a theory. Which might just be a good thing considering we have far too many. I have however not missed the signs of trouble. I do not have a prescription, but I feel obliged to make my observations known.

The predominant notion of the Malay race from the lens of others is that we thrive on government handouts. What is even more troubling is our willingness to ignore such concerns and carry on. I am not denying the past success of policies to elevate underprivileged communities in Malaysia.

According to official data, the percentage of households living below the poverty line across all ethnic groups has been reduced from 49.3 percent in 1970 to 17.1 percent in 1990, and in 2009 overall poverty had been reduced to 3.8 percent. This improvement was largely attributed to the New Economic Policy (NEP).

Post-NEP, the wealth ownership of the bumiputera had increased from 2.4 percent to 23 percent. Malaysia now boasts a massive middle class, our equality figures through the Gini index have significantly improved. A lot of the measures were aimed not just at Malays either. However, this should be viewed from a public policy perspective and not from a privileged racial lens. At the end of it all, as a race it is imperative that we become self-reliant.

The NEP was not meant as a permanent measure. In certain communities, the extreme reliance on policies from the bygone century serves as a stark reminder of the difficulty involved in moving on. But it is a goal we must materialise.

A second discomforting trend is this feeling that the Malay race owes something to the government. During every Umno general assembly, this rhetoric will echo the halls of the Putra World Trade Centre (PWTC). Statements of these sorts have been made by the president of the party to the small divisional heads who visit the ‘warungs’ and ‘mamaks’.

This is problematic for many reasons. One is that it creates an unnatural sense of obligation. Which is what race-peddling political blocks most often exploit. Tell the people they are meant to be slaves and at one point the sense of enslavement is so deeply entrenched, it becomes a part of one’s fundamental identity.

The worst part about internalised submission is that it weakens our ability to challenge corrupt power structures. Notice how Umno members have justified the alleged robbery of Malaysians through the 1MDB scandal via racial arguments? “Its’ better that a Malay gets it, if not it will be the Chinese” or the seasoned excuse of, “It’s okay. He has done a lot for our Malay community”.

This has to stop in order for the Malay community to exit the psychological prison which binds us down.

A collusion that excludes other races brings us a sense of entitlement. In a multi-racial country, it’s the starting point of a deep divide. The divide becomes worse with every issue facing the public consciousness. The detriments are accentuated when issues like 1MDB are uncovered. A legacy of dependence and submission among the race solidifies into political obedience. The resulting trend is deeply disturbing.

As a Malay, I look at our rich history. A history where we not only co-existed but thrived along with other ethnicities. A close reading of history also indicated that the racial labels we unwittingly accept as our own are often inaccurate.

What does it mean to be a Malay? Must religion be a tie-breaker to the Malay identity? If we are going to go by history, why do we ignore the history that predates arrival of Islam in these islands? When did we start becoming Malay and when does one stop.

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