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Saturday March 31

Indians left in the lurch
Elanjelian Venugopal

12:23pm, Sat: Malaysians are pragmatic people. We aren't given to venting anger by starting ethnic clashes. Race relations in Malaysia are good and harmonious. The system works, we are told. But then, how can we explain the clashes in Petaling Jaya Selatan, which stick out like a sore thumb?

Oh that! It's an isolated incident, caused by poverty. Possible. But, probably it isn't so; and I believe it has demolished a myth. A myth about the New Economic Policy (NEP) (now the National Development Policy). NEP was launched with grand
hopes. It was intended to create a new Malaysian society that transcended ethnic, cultural and socio-economic differences. A united Malaysia, in other words, where (paraphrasing former Lord President Tun Salleh Abas) ethnic communities not
merely co-existed, but actually intermingled harmoniously without the danger of having to repeat an incident like May 13, 1969.

The hope is still alive, but after the recent clashes, the means prescribed by the NEP fall under suspicion. The origins The discontent between ethnic groups in Malaysia is centred on economic disparity, created during the British rule. The method of
production then, was organised along two distinct, but parallel types:

- activities using Western technologies and organisation systems; and - activities employing less efficient traditional methods which evolved locally.

While the immigrant communities from China and India were exposed to the former, the Malays invariably continued with their traditional way of lifestyle. Isolated from the modern economy, the Malays fell behind, and by 1957, the disparity between the ethnic groups grew to a glaring scale.

Given the disparity, a compromise, or safeguard, was inevitable; hence the bumiputra special position, which essentially confers
several guarantees with regards to land, admission to public offices, scholarships, bursaries or other forms of aid for educational
purposes, and issuing of permits or licences for operation of certain businesses. As we know, that didn't prove sufficient to contain mounting discontent.

Nearly 12 years into independent existence, Malaysia saw its foundations shaken to the core. The 'bargain', seen by then as a
'sell-out', gave way. What resulted was May 13.

The challenge

In the wake of such a traumatic experience, it was obvious that a new course had to be charted. The nation was in need to be
reunited and rebuilt. The Rukun Negara came out in 1970, whereas the NEP followed a year after. A new contract, or a special measure, replaced the old.

The new measure aimed to create a nation 'based on equal justice and fairer share of the fruits of economic development for all
Malaysians, irrespective of race or religion'. To this end, the constitution was amended to help the bumiputra
further. Some now consider NEP as irrevocably flawed. If not for the racial nature of the special measures, they argue, our nation would have been far better; stronger, dynamic and confident - not unlike Singapore.

Perhaps, NEP - the albatross - has structurally sealed racism in our psyche.

But I beg to differ. I believe it's self-evident that all people have equal rights and dignity. However, owing to what John Rawls calls, 'The cumulative effect of prior distribution of natural assets - that is, natural talents and abilities - and such chance contingencies as accident and good fortune', we seldom find such equality in reality.

And racism and racial prejudice, almost invariably, built their foundations on these 'cumulative effects of prior distribution' and
aggravated the situation. Hence, the need for special measures.

Even the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (adopted in 1965) provides, 'Special measures taken for securing adequate advancement of certain ethnic groups shall not be deemed racial discrimination'.

Not continued

But there's a rub, however, which I believe, our government, to our collective detriment, has forgotten. The Convention also provides that those special measures will not be deemed racial discrimination only if, '... such measures do not lead to
the maintenance of separate rights for different racial groups and are not continued after the objectives for which they were taken have been achieved'.

The question then is - are the special measures introduced by the NEP threatening to create separate rights? Sadly, yes. (Ask Suqiu, or those who threatened to burn the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, if in doubt.)

And secondly, are the special measures being continued after the achievement of its objectives? Depends. In the case of
Indian-Malaysians, the answer is an obvious yes. Some say the bumiputra still need the special measures and the
justification for this is that they have not attained the 30 percent
mark. Is that so?

It
depends to whom the question is addressed. According to official statistics, the figure rose from 1.5 percent in 1969 to 22.2 percent in 1990. By 1998, it decreased to 19.4 percent. If so, then the 30 percent target has not been reached (see Figure 1 - Ownership of share capital, 1969 -1998).

However, Prof K S Jomo, thinks otherwise. In 1990, he suggested, "Bumiputra percentage does not include shares owned by those who use nominee companies and other such devices obscuring the identity of the owner".

Now, consider the Indian-Malaysians. In 1970, they owned 1.1 percent of the capital share. Thirty years later, their share of
ownership has edged to a mere 1.5 percent. Is that an indication the Indians are well positioned economically, better than the Malays? I think not. If this is so, what is the rationale behind this continued neglect?

Why should the plight of the Indian-Malaysians be ignored?

Two tasks

NEP hoped to create national unity by accomplishing two tasks. Firstly, it wanted to eradicate poverty. In general, the policy was a success. In 1971, the poverty incidence stood at 49.3 percent; now it is 5.5 percent. Secondly, it aimed to restructure the Malaysian society to eliminate the identification of ethnicity with economic function.

Again, this was a broad success. The three main ethnic groups may still be monopolising their 'traditional' economic activities, but Malaysia has evolved into a complex society, diluting significantly the possibility of stereotyping.

But wait! Where is the promised national unity and why do ethnic groups still clash? I feel that racism and racial prejudice are still rife, not only in poor areas, but everywhere, in universities, workplaces and marketplaces. The special measures used by the NEP, is akin to using racism to fight racism. To be effective, the measures must encourage a greater interaction between diverse groups.

This is seldom the case in Malaysia. Quota systems and special measures have only created ethnic enclaves - mental and physical. Malaysians are tolerant, but we remain indifferent to the concerns of other ethnic groups.

"Great deal of learning occurs informally," observed Justice Powell in a landmark case. "It occurs through interactions among students who have a wide variety of interests, talents, and perspectives and who are able, directly or indirectly, to learn from their differences and to stimulate one another to re-examine even their most deeply held assumptions about themselves and their world."

In Malaysia, I doubt our policymakers give two hoots to diversity. Life, for them, goes on in the monochromatic world of assimilation. Next, the job market is riddled with racism and racialism as well. Public sector jobs are generally reserved for the bumiputra. In the private sector, employers generally prefer members of their own ethnicity.

Curiously, there are no laws which protect employees from racial discrimination. If so how could racial discrimination (overt or covert) be prevented?

Finally, the Indian-Malaysians, supposedly better placed economically vis-à-vis the Malays, are now becoming the new objects of prejudice or contempt. As a class, they now suffer from what is known as, 'traditional indicia of suspectness', having been relegated to a position of political powerlessness. Yet the purposeful unequal treatment against them continues unabated.

New approach

We have spent the last 30 years restructuring our social reality. But, the promotion of diversity, and of quality interactions across the racial divide, has been overlooked. Most Malaysians merely co-exist. They seldom intermingle, as Tun
Salleh Abas felt we should. In living spaces we occupy contiguous plots, but within the mind, we remain as distant as ever, enslaved by a 'quota mentality' - only our ethnic communities matter, within which we compete. Encumbered with such mentality, many seldom make an effort to cross that line into the 'enemy's' mental territory. This must change. Diversity must be embraced. Hammering everyone into a particular mould will not create a better citizenry. Glorifying the differences, and appreciating the uniqueness, would.

That, alas, can only happen when we end racial discrimination, as it is practiced now. In its place, we have to erect institutions, like a race relations commission, that will tear down social structures and procedures with 'built-in-headwinds'. Only then could the ghosts of May 13 and Petaling Jaya Selatan be put to rest.


ELANJELIAN VENUGOPAL is a graduate student at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. This essay is part of a seminar paper on the topic of affirmative action that he wrote last year.

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