Given the various challenges the affirmative action policy has posed to the Malays as a whole, has it become an unnecessary crutch for them, wonders Mustafa K Anuar.
Given the sense of entitlement that some Malays harbour and the dependency syndrome that afflicts others, the New Economic Policy has given rise to a form of social stigma.
This ‘affliction’ affects particularly confident and assertive Malays or Bumiputeras who have achieved success in their respective fields.
And for Malay-Muslim women, there is that additional gender dimension.
Being a Malay-Muslim woman wearing a headscarf in the legal profession, Fadiah Nadwa Fikri often gets this remark: “Oh, you speak good English!”
“When I was younger, I didn’t quite understand why people would say this. Then I realised there existed stereotypes about Malays and Muslim women who don the headscarf – that Malays are lazy and women who wear the headscarf are backward.”
It is also because English proficiency is always associated with the middle or upper class that is presumably modern, educated, and respected, she added.
“I was troubled by this, but I had no choice but to ignore it. It still doesn’t make it right.”
Pride and prejudice
Prejudice, if not derision, haunted Mahfuzah (not her real name) when she started working after her return from overseas.
“I joined a Chinese-majority work environment and used English predominantly in my first job. When I first came back and started working, I had a strong American accent, which irked a few of my colleagues who thought I was showing off.
“One colleague who was known to have a scathing way of communicating even gave me a nickname – ‘Bumiputera with wax in her ears’ – when I made a mistake in identifying his name at a time when I was still a newbie.
“He may not be typical but it did cross my mind that being Bumiputera or Malay may be a big influence on how others see me.”
She didn’t think, though, that her other colleagues saw her identity as ‘Malay’ first.
“I also was not conscious trying to prove or disprove any idea they had of me, if there were any. I worked on being true to myself.
“It’s not an easy thing to do but it gets easier the older I get.”
The myth of the lazy Malay native is a powerful one, even for her.
“I am a conscientious worker, at times bordering on being a workaholic. So, in a mixed-ethnic work environment, it is interesting to witness the myth being debunked.
“I have encountered lazy colleagues, yes-men middle management who only listen to the top boss, and major apple-polishers from all ethnic groups.
“My experience working in a non-Malay majority environment ended more than a decade ago. Since then, the situation has changed where the influence of state Islam is very pronounced and the work of ‘policing’ to ensure media coverage toes the line of state Islam, is parcelled out to ‘Malays’ in a workplace where Malays are the minority.
“Another myth I fight to this day is that which presupposed all Malays as Umno/BN voting, lazy, just waiting for handouts, Muslim chauvinist, and Malay chauvinist.”
Dr Kamaliah didn’t encounter such unpleasant treatment as she works in a public university where non-Malays are a minority.
“However, my friends in the corporate world often talk about this experience of being second-guessed.
“Outside the public university, yes, often outsiders overlook or make certain assumptions about my appearance (Malay Muslim) and then they are surprised when I am not what they expected.”
She felt that there are ingrained stereotypes about different races in Malaysia – even among the progressives.
“This was initially shocking for me to meet with people who are ‘progressive’ yet racist. I like to break these stereotypes and shake up people’s assumption.
“My qualifications have allowed me to navigate many different places. People are often surprised at my qualifications but they quickly show respect.
“I like to let my work speak for itself. As an academic, I write for a bigger audience, I ‘compete’ at a global level.”
Prof Zaharom Nain didn’t get derision or prejudice the last two decades or so as he to was working a public university.
He said: “I wasn’t one of those Malays primarily because Malays dominated my workplace for more than two decades. They still do, even more so now, which is a bad thing.
“It’s time to get rid of the ethnic quota system, certainly in the public service. I was one of those Malays who mocked the other Malays who didn’t do much work but demanded respect. They deserved no such thing.”
Prof Ahmad Fauzi, on the other hand, has a different experience.
“I am not one of those,” he said.
“On the contrary, judging from the numerous speaking invitations that I have received, I believe that I have become a sort of role model for young academics, Malays and non-Malays alike, to excel in research and publication in their own fields of expertise.
“I publish mostly in international outlets and in English, so I don’t rely on the advantage of having Malay as my mother tongue to prove my ability in academia.”
Dr Eric Loo, senior fellow at the University of Wollongong, Australia, who also worked at a public university in Malaysia for a long while, views the NEP as a double-edged sword.
“It enables as well as disempowers because it is inequitably implemented. The NEP has evolved into a tool to sustain the support of the Malay heartlanders.
“To break the dependency syndrome, the Malay community needs to develop new transformative mindsets, work ethics and the ‘can-do’ goal oriented values.”
Scholarships and discontent
Dr Lee Hwok Aun feels that preference in scholarships and higher education opportunities should more clearly target the disadvantaged and those showing potential, “but I feel that these efforts are not systematic and vigorous”.
“Increasingly, many Malays have been born into the middle or upper class, and may feel judged that their achievements ride on their ethnicity rather ability.
“One issue that drives wedges between Malaysians – both Malays and non-Malays – is the scholarships (although scarcer these days) reserved for Malays to study abroad, even to those who are clearly able to afford it.”
Non-Malays, and Malays who cannot afford it, feel marginalised, maybe resentful, he said.
“I don’t think the solution is to prohibit high-income Malays from receiving scholarships, but to create prestigious new scholarships that select competitively and holistically – but also offer financial aid based on need, ie families will be required to contribute financially in accordance with their income and ability to pay.”
He felt that Malays should also be spurred to pursue higher education opportunities and scholarships independently.
Challenges in the community
Challenges also come from within the Malay community.
For Fadiah, one of the challenges is when she’s perceived as not being “Malay enough” for being what or who she is, and for being always critical of power, the Malay construct and racial politics.
A similar problem is faced by Fauzi. He complained that just because he’s working in a state institution, he’s expected not to go beyond the political rules of the game as a civil servant serving the government of the day.
“Hence, once I had to withdraw from a speaking engagement, after receiving a call from the university legal officer, which would have involved me sharing the stage with a prominent opposition party personality. Apparently five complaints had been lodged to the university authorities.”
For Zaharom, the challenge now is getting the younger Malays to stop their welfare, entitled, privileged mentality.
“They need to stop being snowflakes in need of constant support, especially when they have gone this far in their careers.
“They need to stop talking about ‘unfairness’ and ‘suffering’ when they have no idea how their non-Malay counterparts have been treated unfairly and have suffered all these years.”
These and other challenges face squarely the direct and indirect beneficiaries of the NEP. What can be done?
Dr Kamaliah said politicians need to stop playing up the siege mentality sentiment.
“We need to look at needs-based and meritocracy,” she said, “but we also need to address historical injustice and take into account diversity and inclusivity.
“We need to ask who is under-represented and historically excluded – we need to address issues of inequality here.”
An example she cites is certain public universities set very high cumulative grade points average (CGPA) requirements for admission.
“Anyone below that CGPA will not able to get in. We are proud to say university admissions are now purely by merit, but here we have such a limited view of what constitutes merit.
“As it gets more competitive, the CGPA cut off keeps getting higher. At the end, you will find the students coming into our top public universities will be of a certain class and background.
“What if you are an Orang Asli student whose CGPA is just a point below the requirement, what if you are the first generation who graduated high school, what if you are from a poor farming community, they may be all good students but whose grades are just below the CGPA cut-off mark.
“Not allowing for this diversity, you miss having a much more diverse and inclusive student population which makes for a richer education experience for all.”
Fadiah said Malaysians need to rethink what affirmative action truly means and seek to achieve and separate the politics behind it. That is, how power can use this for political mileage instead of addressing structural inequality in society.
“We need more nuances in talking about affirmative actions and structural inequality. Affirmative actions are for the poor – they may be Malays, Chinese, or other races.”
Dr Wong Chin Huat reminded that while there is value to resorting to affirmative action, there are, however, at least three costs to bear in mind when employing it:
- The under-utilisation and/or exodus (brain drain, capital flight) of the disfavoured groups in pursuit of greener pastures;
- The dependency culture and/or moral hazard that emerges among members of the favoured groups, thereby preventing the rise in their competitiveness; and,
- The capture of affirmative action benefits and opportunities by some well-placed or well-connected sub-groups.
He said when affirmative actions are made more effective and just, successful Malays or Bumiputeras would be free from stereotypical prejudices.
Is it a crutch?
Given the various challenges the affirmative action policy has posed to the Malays as a whole, has it become an unnecessary crutch for them in contemporary Malaysia?
Zaharom said in its present configuration, “the policy needs to be dismantled, demolished even, to be replaced with a fair one for all deserving Malaysians”.
It would depend on how the Malay recipients of affirmative action take it, said Fauzi.
“Crutches are meant for those in need of it, so I don’t think there’s any harm in extending the help to the needful among non-Malays, such that there is progressive de-ethnicisation of affirmative action.”
This, he said, will give a good impression of a benevolent Malay-dominated state willing to share the nation with their non-Malay fellow citizens.
“As for Malays who have progressed up the socio-economic ladder, they need to withdraw from being on crutches voluntarily, not being greedy but rather willing to forego finite resources of the state that can be extended to less fortunate segments of society.”
Dr Azmil Tayeb is of the opinion that the government and the Malays need to encourage Malays to take more risk and get out of their comfort zone.
“Middle- and upper-middle class Malays,” he said, “don’t need government crutches to succeed since they already have the cultural capital and financial means to compete on an equal level with others, domestically and internationally.
“For less fortunate Malays, and other less privileged ethnic groups for that matter, affirmative action programmes are still needed to help level the playing field, such as preferential access to scholarships and university admission.”
Lee, however, believes that some matters rest squarely in Malay hands.
Malaysia, he said, desperately lacks a visible, meaningful and powerful demonstration of the community’s capability and confidence.
“I do wish for more among the Malay professional and managerial classes to step forward and declare that they no longer require ethnic preferential treatment – and are willing to forego such provisions, especially property discounts. That would send a clear and affirming message.”
Source: The Malaysian Insight