Time to end racial discrimination in Malaysia

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In 1966 the United Nations declared March 21 to be the Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to commemorate those who had been killed on March 21, 1960, whilst peacefully protesting against the Apartheid pass laws at Sharpeville in South Africa. The theme for 2015 is: ‘Learning from historical tragedies to combat racial discrimination today’.

My latest book ‘Racism & Racial Discrimination in Malaysia’ is written precisely from a historical and class perspective. As the philosopher George Santayana has said: “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We saw communal bloodletting on May 13, 1969 when the main victims were mainly ethnic Chinese. But we failed to learn the lessons and this was repeated, albeit on a smaller scale at Kampung Medan in 2001when the victims were ethnic Indians.

Since then, we continue to witness racist outbursts and threats uttered by far-right Malay supremacists. It is time for all peace-loving, just and rational Malaysians to urge an end to such racism, racial discrimination and hate crimes.

Class perspective critical

Racism and racial discrimination remain the most serious issues dividing the Malaysian nation and standing in the way of progress toward a high-income society ‘at peace with itself’. The Malaysian state still uses racism to divide and rule; racial discrimination is still part and parcel of official policy and the ruling party and its affiliates periodically issues veiled threats of mob violence against any who challenge the status quo.

‘Bumiputeraism’ has become a convenient populist tool for the ruling class to maintain its power. The measured affirmative action policies under Article 153 of the federal constitution for which the Reid Commission had recommended a sunset clause of 15 years were amended with the addition of sub-section (8A) allowing for the ‘quota system’ in 1971. This can be seen as tampering with the so-called ‘social contract’ of 1957!

Now, more than 40 years after the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP), the sun has still not set on this Never Ending Policy. The reason for this is obvious today. The NEP, as I analysed in the seventies, was the vehicle for capital accumulation by the state capitalist class during the seventies. ‘Bumiputeraism’ was, and continues to be the convenient ideological tool to buy over the Malay voters in the capital accumulation by this ruling class.

Then starting from 1981, Dr Mahathir Mohamad began privatising state enterprises into private Malay capital. Those who profited included crony Malay as well as non-Malay capitalists. This has been the function of racism and racial discrimination in facilitating the capital accumulation by this ruling class in Malaysia.

The costs of racist & racial discriminatory policies

The consequences of racism and racial discrimination in official policies are plain for all to see, the victims are all ethnic minorities who are not ‘bumiputeras’, including the Orang Asli of peninsula Malaysia. The country remains divided into ‘bumiputeras’ and ‘non-bumiputeras’ and the dominance of bumiputeras in the civil and armed services have gone way beyond the pre-1969 situation.

Racial discrimination is 100 percent in the public sector institution Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), where no non-bumiputera student is allowed admission even though it is built and maintained with Malaysian taxpayers’ money.

Racism and racial politics came about during British colonial rule. In the circumstances of the time, it suited British colonialism to legitimise their dominance by a divide and rule strategy that viewed minorities as ‘non-indigenous’ (or ‘immigrants’) who required assimilation. It was also the strategy of the colonial power to segregate the various ethnic groups according to both occupation and domicile.

Their concentration in different enclaves that came to typify the Malaysian reality was certainly not a ‘natural’ orientation, as my book meticulously documents.

This legacy of racism has been further institutionalised since independence, and is not only evident in school textbooks but also in media discourse and everyday conversation. My research and writings on press coverage of ethnic affairs since the Eighties have shown that the ethnic minority groups tend to be referred to in the Malay-language press in stereotypical and racist terms.

Thus, minorities are often associated with problems and conflict and then portrayed as a threat to the dominant Malay population. Topics tend to focus the reader’s attention on terms such as ‘aliens’, ‘them versus us’, while any association of crime with any cultural difference tends to be interpreted negatively.

The message is clear: ‘Immigrants must adapt or else...’, ‘Indians must behave...’ Today, this blatant racism is so evident in the Malay-language press that media watching in Malaysia can no longer be considered an art. The most recent public altercation over the categorisation of non-bumiputeras as ‘immigrants’ in October 2014 is yet another example of the racism that coincidentally erupts whenever the ruling party Umno faces internal contradictions.

The Umno elite and their statistical charade

The recent controversy over the Asli equity report is but another episode in a charade that began when the New Economic Policy was manufactured after May 13, 1969. Supposedly introduced to eradicate poverty regardless of ethnicity and to correct the ‘racial imbalance’ relating to wealth holding in the country, all the statistics relating to ethnic proportions ever since have been consistently obfuscating.

Until the Eighties, the government used to measure wealth on a narrow cash-income basis without taking into account such factors as land ownership, scholarships, services and subsidies. This therefore revealed large disparities between the incidence of poverty among Malays being more rural-based, and the more urban-based Chinese.

Statistics on household income must also take into account the proportion of household members participating in economic activity. If the statistics show that there are more economically active members in the Chinese household, then this will invariably inflate their household incomes in comparison to other communities. It is clear that average income figures will always hide the true picture of poverty within each ethnic community.

Other controversial statistics relate to the proportion of equity capital held by the different ethnic communities. Even during the Eighties, it was pointed out that by lumping the holdings of bumiputera and government agencies in nominee and locally-controlled companies under ‘Other Malaysian residents’, it was not surprising that the ‘bumiputera’ stake would be understated.

It was estimated then that the bumiputera stake under ‘Other Malaysian residents’ accounted for at least another 12 percentage points. Hence, there would have been no further justification to prolong the New Economic Policy beyond 1990.

The solution to the latest controversy over how government-linked companies (GLCs) should be categorised seems elementary to the economics student. It does not take a genius to see that Petronas, to name but one example, is certainly not a ‘non-bumiputera’ corporate entity.

This whole notion of equity share by race is ridiculed by the very people for whom it is purportedly meant to benefit as bumiputeras can sell their shares for cash as soon as they have received their allocation and restore the status quo ante ad nauseum! Future writers of Malaysian fairy tales will no doubt deride the New Economic Policy very much like we lampoon the emperor’s new clothes.  

Without such a racially discriminatory policy, the Umno ruling elite would not only lose their unfair privilege, they would also lose their ‘Malay-centric’ ideology designed to win Malay votes and sustain the fruits of political power! Therefore the NEP has had to be prolonged under a different guise - the ‘National Development Policy’ and the latest ‘New Economic Model’.

The politics of race & class

The Malaysian state continues to use its formidable repressive apparatus through its control of the military and the police and its use of detention without trial as well as catch-all laws such as the Sedition Act. While the Internal Security Act was, from Independence, the favoured method of dealing with opposition leaders and dissidents, detention without trial now continues in a different form, including the latest proposed Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The form of this domination has been organised, on the one hand around the denial of civil rights to the minority nationals - the Chinese, Indians and other ‘non-bumiputeras’ - and on the other, around the mobilisation of the majority Malays and other ‘bumiputeras’ behind the demand for correcting the ‘racial imbalance’ of the economy.

Such a demand, of course, obscures the relations of class exploitation by portraying economic inequalities as the product of unequal distribution among the various ethnic groups. Thus, the Malaysian economy is still described by the Umno elite as one that is ‘dominated by the Chinese’ in order to justify racial discrimination packaged as ‘affirmative action’.

‘Bumiputera’ policy has been the cornerstone of development plans since the inception of the New Economic Policy in 1971, a policy ostensibly designed to be of benefit to bumiputeras as a whole. The reality is that the primary beneficiaries of the implementation of this policy are the new Malay ruling elite, strategically placed to reap the full benefits of this racially-based policy.

At the same time, within a state that is committed to capitalist development and privatisation, the New Economic Policy has also ensured that the non-Malay local and foreign capitalists, especially Umno’s crony capitalists also gain from the policy. This class cohesion among the Malaysian ruling elite, of various ethnic origins, underpins the racist politics which have characterised Malaysian society since Independence.

As we survey the development of this continued dominance by Umno since Independence, we see the practice of the Malay ruling class collaborating with both the Chinese and Indian elite in what is clearly a ‘class’ based exploitation of the masses. The Malay ruling elite are reluctant to support policies that would undermine the economic basis of their dominance, for that would threaten the capitalist foundation itself on which they so depend.

For years, the ruling class has relied on an authoritarian populist style of rule to stem the possibility of the peoples from different ethnic communities uniting into a class based political force and to simultaneously ensure the continued political domination of the Umno-led coalition.

A communal populist approach continues to be used to deflect the economic grievances of the Malay labouring classes against capitalist exploitation into a race based ideological allegiance to the Malay ruling class. Notwithstanding, with continued capitalist development and penetration of the rural areas, we see this strategy to sustain domination by Umno increasingly being challenged.

While bumiputera policies are intended to benefit all bumiputeras, the reality is that these policies have been usurped by the privileged Umno elite whose weak enterprise culture and expertise has had damaging consequences for the economic health of the nation.

The bureaucracy has grown in tandem with the populist measures by the state capitalist class to carve out bigger and bigger slices of the rural and urban economic pie. This ruling class within Umno engages in ‘rent seeking’ (accumulation of wealth through non-productive means) as a way to enrich themselves and their political party.

These favoured bumiputeras are conferred concessions and other benefits without open tender, while financed by loans from government-owned banks.

Racist threats during Umno power struggles

The emergent state capitalists succeeded in their coup against Tunku Abdul Rahman and the old aristocratic class in 1969 and since then, the spectre of ‘May 13’ violence been used in official propaganda as a threat against any potential challenge to the status quo, whether related to the civil rights of the non-bumiputeras or as a direct challenge to the ruling coalition in a general election.

Such a strategy was seen, for example in 1987, when Umno leaders provoked racial tension, first by the transfer of non-qualified administrators to Chinese primary schools and second by their response to the outcry that ensued.

Umno Youth organised a rally at the Jalan Raja Muda Stadium in Kuala Lumpur at which racist and seditious slogans were carried in banners which read: ‘MAY 13 HAS BEGUN’, ‘SOAK THE KERIS IN CHINESE BLOOD’. Umno leaders who were on stage to fan the flames of communalism included top government leaders today.

The 1987 power struggle within Umno between Team A (under Mahathir) and Team B (under Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah) was prompted by unhappiness over the control and distribution of business privileges and Daim Zainuddin’s inordinate influence in dispensing these deals. Anwar Ibrahim also practised patronage and his subsequent expulsion from the party in 1998 was again the result of division of these ‘bumiputera only’ business privileges.

The 1997/98 financial crisis exposed the frailty of the political-business ties created by Umno. With the fall of Anwar as well as Daim, the bumiputera businessmen they had favoured were unable to sustain their corporate interests and many went under during the crisis.

During the last forty years or so, we have witnessed the connivance of the police and the army with the state and until recently, the Youth Wing of the ruling party Umno has taken upon itself the role of storm troopers in carrying out threats to any who would demand civil rights or challenge the status quo.

The resort to such fascist tactics to disrupt democratic assemblies continues to the present day. On Aug 18, 2000, some 300 Umno Youth members boorishly demonstrated in front of the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in Kuala Lumpur over the Chinese Associations’ 1999 Suqiu election appeal for civil rights. They threatened to burn down the Assembly Hall.

But the most serious racial violence since May 13, 1969 was at Kampung Medan, Petaling Jaya from March 8 to 23, 2001. The victims of this more recent racial incident were from the Malaysian Indian community. In all, six persons were killed and over a hundred others suffered grievous bodily injuries at Kampung Medan. It took the Malaysian police 15 days to restore order while a small band of armed thugs went on a rampage.

When we compare this surprising ineptitude of the police with the speed with which the same police force took to disperse tens of thousands of Reformasi demonstrators after Anwar Ibrahim’s detention in 1998, a pattern of connivance emerges. To date, this recent Kampung Medan racial incident remains a state secret and there has been no public enquiry conducted by the government or by Suhakam, the National Human Rights Commission.

The racist and fascist taunts by delegates at the ruling party, Umno general assembly at which the Umno Youth leader unsheathed his keris (Malay dagger) on live television in November 2006 was a rude shock for many even though such actions had been standard fare at such Umno assemblies in preceding years.

On Aug 28, 2009, some fifty Malay-Muslims carried and stepped on a slaughtered cow’s head - a grave affront to Hindus - during a protest against the relocation of a Hindu temple to a Malay-Muslim neighbourhood in Shah Alam, Selangor. At the demonstration in front of the Selangor state secretariat building, one of the speakers threatened that there would be bloodshed if the temple was built there.

This trend and the persistent threats by Umno leaders whenever their monopoly of political and economic privileges is questioned have at least established one thing, and that is, the May 13 violence in 1969 was by no means a spontaneous outbreak of violence between ordinary Malaysians in the street. Their actions also bring into question the impartiality of the forces of law and order in the country ever since 1969.

Since the democratic uprising of Indians led by Hindraf in 2007 and the subsequent loss of the ruling coalition’s two-thirds parliamentary mandate in the March 2008 elections, Umno has outsourced its overtly racist agenda to right-wing Malay NGOs in particular, Perkasa.

This is an NGO led by a pro-Umno parliamentarian who promotes the Malay supremacist agenda and has the explicit support of top Umno leadership, including former prime ministers, ex-army officials and an ex-inspector-general of police.

Malaysia’s crony capitalism

Malaysia has once again made world news for the wrong reasons, coming third in The Economist’s crony capitalism index for 2014. Topping the list was Hong Kong followed by Russia. According to the report, all three have held the same positions since the last study in 2007.

Regionally, it noted that “most countries in South-East Asia, including Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, saw their scores get worse between 2007 and 2014, as tycoons active in real estate and natural resources got richer”.

Uncontrolled rent-seeking this century has allowed politically well-connected billionaires worldwide to double their wealth, thereby posing a threat to the free market, The Economist said. These rent-seeking industries include those easily monopolised, and that involve licensing or heavy state involvement, which it said was “prone to graft”:

From the eighties on, Mahathir’s privatisation of state assets ensured the divestment of state capital into the hands of favoured Malay crony capitalists. The success of the NEP in restructuring capital has, in the process, increased class differentiation within the Malay community.

Instead of targeting and providing strategic aid to the poor of all ethnic communities, the Umno ruling class has continued to use the tried and trusted strategies of race-based cash aid and uplift plans aimed at bumiputeras. In the latest Bumiputera Economic Empowerment Council, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has given handouts of over RM30 billion to “empower bumiputeras”:

“...and to thank the Malay and bumiputera communities who had supported, given their mandate and trust to Barisan Nasional at the 13th general election.”   

In the resource-rich East Malaysian state of Sarawak, the NEP has allowed forest concessions to be given to elite bumiputera politicians and their non-bumiputera business partners. Chinese owned timber companies are cronies of the chief minister and BN politicians.

In recent years, Sarawak’s capitalist class has also been investing in hydroelectric dams and energy-guzzling toxic industries. The 2,400MW Bakun dam project has already proven to be a major fiasco not only in terms of insufficient demand for the electricity generated but also a disaster for the 10,000 indigenous peoples who were displaced from their traditional ancestral land to the slum conditions of the resettlement scheme at Sungai Asap.

Anyone who respects and cherishes the rich heritage and human rights of these diverse self-sustaining peoples would describe their fate as another form of racial discrimination.

Institutional obstacles to attaining high-income status

The Malaysian government appears committed to its ‘Vision 2020' to attain developed country (high-income) status by 2020. Based on the World Bank’s 2012 definition which categorises a high-income nation as a country with a Gross National Income (GNI) per capita of more than US$12,615, Malaysia, with a GNI per capita of US$9,820 in 2012 is already ranked in the upper-middle income league.

While Asia continues to set the pace as the world’s fastest growing region, Malaysia is among the Asian middle-income countries showing signs of economic slowdown and faces stiff competition from lower-cost economies.   

According to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) working paper, Malaysia, as compared to other Asian countries, faces a larger risk of slowdown stemming from institutional and macroeconomic factors.

A recent The Asia Foundation (TAF) report, also points to a compelling need for Malaysia to shift from a race-based to a needs-based policy in order to address imbalances in society and improve the democratic process to ensure good governance and that the rule of law prevails. It points out that poor institutions could deter innovation, hamper the efficiency of resource allocation and reduce the returns to entrepreneurship.

The TAF report goes on to reason that despite the numerous bold policy measures and long-term plans introduced by the government over the years, 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, relatively high labour cost and sluggish growth in productivity.

As the Education Blueprint has pointed out, Malaysia has underperformed in the latest global Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey results. Malaysia did not only trail behind high-performing education systems in East Asia, but also poorer nations such as Vietnam. Malaysia also continued to decline in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in which Malaysia once performed well.

Although Malaysia attained the international average in TIMSS between 1999 and 2003, scores dropped sharply in 2007 and further in 2011.

Thus far, Malaysia’s education system has failed to produce the skills and talent required to take the country’s economy to the next level. A key obstacle lies in the government’s failure to promote a fair and open economy. The bumiputera policy and insufficient checks and balances continue to hamper the country’s economy, leading to poor practices in governance.

Reforms, especially the replacement of racial discriminatory policies with race-free inclusive policies are critically needed to rally the nation to achieve its economic objectives. The NEP has mainly served to encourage rent-seeking behaviour and patronage politics which have held back national progress.

Affirmative action based on need, not race

In Malaysia, since the passing of the deadline for the NEP in 1990, it makes developmental sense to implement a new socially just affirmative action policy based on need or class or sector. Thus, if Malays are predominantly in the rural agricultural sector, the poor Malay farmers would be eligible to benefit from such a needs-based policy while the rich Malay land-owning class would not.

Only such a race-free policy can convince the people that the government is socially just, fair and democratic.

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 polarisation 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.”   

While the Chinese middle and working classes in Malaysia have largely adapted to this public sector discrimination by finding ways to make a living in the private sector, this has not been so easy for working class Indians. Many Indian Malaysianns have found themselves marginalised, much like the African Americans in the US were, especially after the destruction of the traditional plantation economy.

The phenomenon of the Hindraf movement which erupted in 2007 to express the frustrations of the marginalised Malaysian Indians is a warning of social problems waiting to explode. The cost of preferential treatment has also seen greater intra-community inequality, with higher class members creaming off the benefits and opportunities.

Any policy based on ‘race’ is seriously flawed and questionable since every ethnic community has its rich elite and its poorer majority. Every scholar worth his or her salt knew then in the seventies what the outcome of the NEP would be - thus, the ‘corrective’ measures have mainly benefited the well-placed Umno elite.

Separating the control of funds by NEP ‘trustees’ from nominal ownership by bumiputeras has led to the flouting of public accountability. Without effective checks and balances, Malaysia has been beset by massive scandals like Bank Rakyat, BMF and others since 1971 and now, it is 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

More potentially dangerous and insidious is the effect this widespread racial discrimination has had on ethnic relations in this country. Unity can only be promoted through an affirmative action policy based on need, sector or class, never on race.

Non-discriminatory basis of the federal constitution

It is time for Malaysians to reaffirm the non-discriminatory basis of the federal constitution and to uphold human rights principles which are strictly anti-racist.

Article 8 (1) of the Malaysian constitution clearly spells out the principle of equality of all Malaysians while Article 12 (1) allows no discrimination against any citizens on the grounds of religion, race, descent or place of birth.

Article 153 on the special position of Malays was inspired by the affirmative action provisions of the Indian Constitution to protect the minority under-privileged class of harijans. Ours is fundamentally different from the context for those provisions because the ethnic group in whose favour the discrimination operates in Malaysia happens to be the one in political control, the Malays.

At the time of Independence in 1957, four matters in relation to which the special position of Malays were recognised and safeguarded were: land; admission to public services; issuing of permits or licences for operation of certain businesses; scholarships, bursaries or other forms of aid for educational purposes. The federal constitution certainly does not adhere to any notion of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ (Malay Dominance), which is a totally racist concept.

When the Constitutional (Reid) Commission was considering whether such a provision should be included in the 1957 constitution, it made the following comments:

“Our recommendations are made on the footing that the Malays should be assured that the present position will continue for a substantial period, but that in due course the present preferences should be reduced and should ultimately cease so that there should be no discrimination between races or communities.”

We know what the original intentions of the ‘Malay Special Privileges’ provision in the Merdeka Constitution were, but to maintain that it is a carte blanche for all manner of racial discrimination as we have witnessed since 1971 is a violation of the spirit of the Malaysian constitution.

International law sets major limits on affirmative action measures. Notably, affirmative action policies must be carefully controlled and not be permitted to undermine the principle of non-discrimination itself nor violate human rights. Holding the equality principle uppermost, the raison d’etre and reasonableness for differential treatment must be proven.

Another important criterion to ensure successful affirmative action and synonymous with international law is that such special measures should be introduced for a limited duration as was suggested by the Reid Commission in its Report of the Federation of Malaya Constitutional Commission in 1957.

A consequence of the so-called affirmative action policies up to now is that for the poor of all ethnic communities, including the indigenous peoples in Malaysia, these objectives of wealth redistribution for their benefit have not been met. Worse, the poorest community remains the Orang Asli of peninsula Malaysia, the Original People of Malaysia who are not even considered ‘bumiputera’ by the status quo.

The world community outlaws racism & racial discrimination

The world community reaffirmed at the World Conference against Racism and Racial Discrimination at Durban in 2001 that ‘nationality’ is a legal relationship denoting membership of a nation or sovereign state. It implies duties of allegiance on the part of the individual as well as of protection on the part of the state. Nationality is regarded as an inalienable right of every person in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

The status of nationality and citizenship has the crucial implication that every citizen is equal in the eyes of the law. It does not matter in the least whether citizens have been recently naturalised, or that their forefathers came here centuries ago. This is provided for in our federal constitution (our ‘social contract’?) when we became independent in 1957.

Further amendments to the Constitution allowing for the so-called ‘quota system’ during the state of Emergency in 1971 after May 13, 1969 cannot be considered as part of the 1957 ‘social contract’. This simple point of history has been subjected to gross manipulation by desperate politicians.

Eliminating racism & racial discrimination

The institutional reforms to eliminate racism and racial discrimination are actually quite straightforward if the government has the political will to carry them out. These include:

1. Basing affirmative action on need, sector or class and certainly not on race;

2. Enacting an Equality Act and establishing an Equality & Human Rights Commission;

3. Outlawing racism and incitement to racial hatred with appropriate and effective legislation;

4. Ratifying the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights (ICCPR);

5. Providing non-racial alternatives to national development based on justice, equality and human rights;

6. Promoting unity based on integration through greater democracy and shared facilities among communities.

And to ensure that pogroms such as May 13 and Kampong Medan never happen again, all it takes is the political will to implement these necessary measures:

  • Forming and swiftly deploying a Special Multi-Ethnic Peace-Keeping Force to keep order if such incidents occur in future;
  • Establishing, with urgency, a neutral Commission of Inquiry into any such incidents and charging the culprits responsible for murder;
  • Implementing the Independent Police Complaints & Misconduct Committee.
To conclude, for Malaysia to take its seat in the Security Council and to assume the chair of Asean in 2015, it must live up to the expectations of the world community by eliminating racism and racial discrimination in our society. If we succeed in achieving this, then we can truly begin the task of national reconciliation and reconstruction...


DR KUA KIA SOONG is Suaram adviser.



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