Nicholas Chan shares his experience of struggling against his family’s financial constraints to enter university.
Come to think of it, I am in a way a New Economic Policy (NEP) child.
I figure this is probably why I get very upset when people start making statements like “Cina itu semua kaya, kan?” despite clear evidences showing the contrary.
The median salary of the Chinese is only RM2,000 per month, not to mention that the Malaysia Development Report 2013 had stated 86 per cent of urban households (which the majority of Chinese are) have no savings.
If people are more analytical they should know better than to make sweeping statements like this. The assumption that the Chinese (or any other non-Malay races) should be left out of government intervention because they would still survive and thrive in a laissez faire environment cannot be more wrong, perverse, and racist to its core.
A part of me actually felt vindicated when Bukit Bendera MP Zairil Khir Johari stood up and said that not all Chinese are rich, and poverty is not a race-based issue.
I literally could not be at where I am today without the assistance of the government. The reason is that I simply could not afford to. So when people say all Chinese are rich, I have always wanted to ask, am I not Chinese?
It is even more frustrating when people automatically assume you are from the upper class just because you are Chinese, asking questions like “why don’t you get your bachelor’s degree overseas” as if it is a birth right.
This comes from people both within and outside my communal group.
To clarify, I did not grow up in poverty. But neither was I ‘rich’. Both of my parents have no significant enterprise behind them (personal or generational) and the only physical asset we have is the single-storey terrace house we affectionately call home until today.
The fact is, financial strains were always present during my childhood. We literally had to break our piggy banks for whatever we could find to help us across those difficult junctures.
I still remember those nights when I had to gather my sisters for a meeting when we got wind that our father was going to be jobless soon, charting out plans to reduce our spending (like using less electricity and water) and saving some of our pocket money to give back to our parents.
It was no doubt an exercise in futility for us as schoolchildren but it showed that we were never naïve about our financial or even social standing.
Like any less affluent family, what we yearned for was not to be millionaires, but to gain upward social mobility, so that we as the next generation could enjoy better living standards than the previously.
In this sense, I think I can pretty much relate to any average or poor family, Malay or Indian. All of us have a great stake in what lies ahead. We can’t afford to slip through the cracks because there is nothing below to catch us before we fall to the bottom.
Perhaps that is why my parents insisted that their children should all attend university. They deemed it a “mistake” that their parents didn’t send them to college back in their day, but the truth is, their parents could not afford it.
And based on their own income, they still wouldn’t be able to afford our education without public universities (IPTAs) and study loans like PTPTN.
That is why I look with aghast at the privatisation drive of higher education in the 1990s because these private institutions were often cited as the answer for the Chinese who complained that they were unable to enter public universities and colleges.
But how can these private institutions (most of them, at least) be the answer when their fees are a few times higher than the public institutions? Which Chinese is the government talking about?
I still remember the day when my dad and I walked out with our heads down after an enquiry session at one of the private colleges because the fees were way out of reach.
It shook my belief that education is an inherent right, given to those who have worked hard to qualify for it. Until this day, I still can’t hide my disgust about how education, supposedly an instrumental for social improvement, was turned into a vehicle for profit.
With little choice left, you could say I hedged all my bets on getting into at least a public college or university, if not a government scholarship for an education abroad.
As someone who cherished learning very much, I simply could not resist the temptation of attending a world-class university.
This ambition has been the driving force for me since my upper secondary years. I needed to make sure that not only did I get a scholarship, but I am most qualified for it. It didn’t help when you were repeatedly being told that not having the correct skin colour might make the endeavour even more challenging.
Somehow, I did rise up to the challenge, finally being able to secure a government scholarship to a reputable university overseas to do my master’s. And it has changed my life since.
Nevertheless, the point of writing this is not about me. This is the story about a Chinese student who by merit had also relied on programmes that are affirmative in nature.
I, too, have benefited from programmes that stemmed from the NEP. I was picked to go to matriculation colleges that enabled easy access to the IPTA.
I managed to get a scholarship at the third attempt. As a once rejected full-A student, I can only say the prospect of getting a government scholarship was an odd mix of effort and luck.
I am relaying a personal story instead of my usual analysis because I want people to imagine what would happen to those coming from the same or worse background than I did but are denied the opportunity.
It is safe to say I wouldn’t be in the position I am in now without these hard-earned lucky breaks. Still not rich by any standards, I have enough to make my own luck.
I claim an element of luck for my blessings because I have heard and personally know of similarly qualified people (academically and income-level wise) who were shut out of the system. Many had to go through the more daunting STPM but were denied their primary choice of study, let alone the opportunity to go to a world-class university.
And I am not just talking about the doctor wannabes who often get into the newspapers. There are also the aspiring engineers and accountants whose cases are not highlighted simply because their results just weren’t stellar enough to warrant any attention, never mind the fact that they are perfectly qualified for admission.
These people are forgotten and had only their socio-economic (or even ethnic) background to blame. They worked hard but ultimately, couldn’t strike the lottery, losing the opportunity of a lifetime to realise their potential, for themselves and the country.
I genuinely worry for them, no matter what their race is, as socio-economic status has again and again been proven by research to be a major determinant of life chances.
I might once have been of my Bumiputera friends, who had a lot more opportunities than I did for upward mobility, like those scholarships I might never have qualified for because I was the wrong race, but now I no longer am.
For I understand their struggle is the same as mine, to pursue upward social mobility and to close down the gap that is forever menacing for us not born with a silver spoon.
I am happy as long as someone has made it through the socio-economic barrier. The focus should be on those who don’t.
Expecting camaraderie from my fellow Malaysians who are also facing the class struggle, I was no doubt hurt when Perkasa and their likes pointed out that government policy should not benefit the Chinese because they are already rich.
Again, which Chinese? Is the price of a few Chinese success stories a total overlook of those less fortunate in the same community?
The delusional stereotype that a Chinese must by default be successful on their own feet, is to me a curse and an insult, not a compliment.
The Chinese need affirmative action, too (also judged by merit of course) so that some of the less well-off can catch up.
It is understood the system might not be able to help everyone. But to deny assistance to an entire race due to caricatures and stereotypes seems like just one step away from stripping them of their citizenship.
A recent famous book that is themed around Malaysia’s inequality is named “the colour of inequality”. I, from first-hand experience, know clearly that inequality should never be distinguished by colour.