Ioannis Gatsiounis

Racial Preferences in Malaysia: a Two-way Street

In Uncategorized on October 8, 2009 at 1:01 am

October 8, 2009

Non-Malays say Malay fears about ending Malay privileges are unwarranted. Are they?

I ask after an encounter yesterday at a café in Bangsar – and hardly the first of its kind – where a young professional Malay woman was gazing forlornly at passing traffic. When I asked what was wrong, she said she works for an international clothing retailer. All her bosses are local Chinese. They are culturally insular. They slip into the Chinese language during meetings. Chinese colleagues have been promoted faster than her, despite doing inferior work.

Malaysians are quick to pin personal as well as national ills on race, so I was at first skeptical of her claim. But the more she spoke the more her competence shined: she was lucid, articulate, stylish, thoughtful, and tactful.

Don’t expect the young woman to garner much sympathy among non-Malays. The Malays dominate the country’s key institutions, including the military and police. The Malays’ religion, Islam, is given special priority. An affirmative action program reserves seats for Malays in universities, the government, and on company boards. Malays and their political leaders are allowed to lash out at the other races; their minority brethren are not. You can, for instance, brandish a Malay dagger at a leadership conference or desecrate a cow’s head to protest the construction of a Hindu temple with impunity. Indians and Chinese have been known to be locked up for returning the favor.

And yet such flagrant, institutionalized racism has deflected attention away from discrimination cutting the other way.

Non-Malays are quick to argue that their animosity toward Malays will end when Malay privileges are scrapped. That’s a sloppy and convenient assessment of their own deeply ingrained prejudices. It doesn’t account for the belief among many non-Malays – one that predates the New Economic Policy – that Malays are lazy and incompetent. It doesn’t explain why a number of non-Malays I know say they won’t hire a Malay unless they have to. (Of nearly 100 employees at a friend’s firm, only two, he said, were Malay and they were the security guard and mail boy, and there was no plan to erase the deficit because “they are hopeless.”)

The point here is that while non-Malays have legitimate grievances over the indefinite extension and abuse of Malay privileges, no end to the policies can occur without incident unless Malay fears of what a repeal will precipitate are quelled. And Malay fears will not be put to rest, nor be wholly unjustified, unless and until non-Malays begin to address the bigotry among their own. Put another way, the toxic and primitive impulses that govern Ketuanan Melayu – the notion that Malays, under the banner of Islam, are the supreme leaders of Malaysia – must be exorcized if the country is to develop, but greed and insularity among non-Malays gives fire to the cause.

The impetus for the New Economic Policy was to even the playing field between Malays and non-Malays. How can that happen if non-Malays make it a point not to hire or promote Malays as quickly as they do their own? If they don’t address the root of their own narrow-mindedness, and the role they, too, have played in the widening racial divide? If they don’t practice the meritocracy they preach?

Malaysia’s collective mind is profoundly resistant to proactively bridging the racial divide. Each race has stubbornly refused to put its best foot forward. I’m reminded of this each time a member of one race complains to me about another and I ask in response what his or her own race could do to improve race relations. They look stumped every time.

It is naïve to think non-Malays will concern themselves with discrimination against Malays if and when Malay privileges are shelved, racism being the neurosis it is in Malaysia, with the races predisposed for several generations now to mingling with and assisting primarily their own. In fact, we are likely to see some quarters neglect or rationalize slights toward Malays on the grounds that for all those years the Malays discriminated against them.

Institutionalized racial preferences must end; it is in the best interest of all Malaysians. But unless a humble, self-reflective, pro-active approach is adopted by Malaysians of all stripes, any such effort is certain to fail.

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  1. You are right to focus on racial prejudices felt by all communities, and not only from Malays towards the others.
    However, it is my experience that the “big divide” in Malaysia now is between Bumiputras and Non-bumiputras, the latter being able to intermingle and work together quite easily and frequently, while the former not always able or willing to do so.
    The greatness (and weakness) of Malaysia is always its racially labelled society. It could be better if everybody was able to shift labelling from “race” to, simply, individuals.

  2. An accurate assessment but, the conclusion is easier said than done and is overly simplistic. Asian culture is deeply ingrained in their respective societies and, is bereft of popular liberal ideology. Indians and Chinese recognize that they are ‘guests’ in the Malaysian peninsula and, for the Bumiputras to concede otherwise is to imply a repudiation of their right as hosts to determine the political prerogatives.

  3. […] recently read an article written by a New York journalist based in Malaysia, who highlighted the discrimination of […]

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