Mustafa K Anuar interviews several successful academics and graduates to gauge to what extent affirmative action through the NEP helped them in their education and opportunities in higher education.
The New Economic Policy, which turned 46 last year, has resulted in more Malay or Bumiputera access to tertiary education, entry into professional and managerial positions, and increasing ownership of equity and assets.
In a recent study on affirmative action in Malaysia, Dr Lee Hwok Aun, senior fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, said Malaysia’s extensive affirmative action programmes have swiftly raised the academic profile of the Bumiputera population.
“Bumiputera proportions of public university student bodies increased from 40% in 1970 to 63% by 1985, and stabilised at that level until 2003,” Lee said.
“Current data on ethnic composition of university enrolment have not been reported, but affirmative action in public universities undeniably sustains Bumiputera representation. In 2009, UiTM, solely reserved for Bumiputera students, enrolled 140,000 out of a total 590,000 in the public university system.”
In terms of managerial and enterprise development in the Bumiputera community, Lee reports: “Government investment agencies, such as Khazanah Nasional, Permodalan Nasional Bhd and Ministry of Finance, Inc hold substantial stakes in GLCs (government-linked companies), which are tasked to support the Bumiputera commercial and industrial community (BCIC), while recently established Ekuinas and Teraju are aimed at cultivating new Bumiputera ventures.
“Public procurement or contracting and licensing are other major channels for promoting Bumiputera industrial participation.”
Education as a social ladder
If education is indeed one of the mechanisms employed by the government to facilitate upward social mobility among the Malays and other Bumiputeras, the people whom The Malaysian Insight met are a testimony to this view.
A professor at a local university, Dr Ahmad Fauzi, acknowledged that the academic successes he has achieved are not entirely of his own efforts.
He credited the government, in particular, the Public Services Department (PSD), for having sponsored his education from A-levels until his undergraduate degree. His postgraduate studies overseas were made possible by the fellowship granted by the university at which he is presently employed.
Similarly, lawyer-activist Fadiah Nadwa Fikri got a PSD scholarship for her LLB degree at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, while she pursued a master’s degree in international human rights law after she obtained a scholarship from Oxford University.
Zaharom Nain, a professor at Nottingham University Malaysia Campus, got to where he is now through various means. His higher degrees were obtained in parts from family funds, a Mara loan, a Mara scholarship and later an academic staff training scheme grant from a local public university where he used to work for more than two decades.
Indeed, government assistance is a crucial leg-up for an executive director of a civil society organisation, Mahfuzah (not her real name).
“I attended Maktab Rendah Sains Mara (MRSM) and after SPM, was chosen for further studies at a university in the US on a Mara scholarship. Mara provided an opportunity which I took and made my own,” she said.
“I don’t think one can say one succeeded alone. I had inspiring teachers at MRSM and at university, I met people inside and outside campus who became lifelong friends and taught me about the environment, healthy eating, human rights, social justice, including at the global level, and a keen understanding of politics of location and privilege.
“I had excellent women bosses who taught me how to fly and to fight against injustice.”
Dr Azmil Tayeb, an academic at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Social Sciences, also got a PSD scholarship to study abroad for an undergraduate degree.
“I do believe that I’ve earned the scholarship on my own academic merits despite the preferential treatment for the Malays, of which I’m part,” he said.
“In the subsequent years after I finished my undergraduate degree, all I have achieved professionally and academically has been on my own since I was living abroad at the time.”
Living abroad for many years has taught him to be self-reliant and a risk-taker.
“It doesn’t mean that I have managed to do it all on my own… far from it. I’ve had a strong support network of friends and family who had helped me along the way. Plus, there’s always the element of luck involved in shaping one’s destiny.
“The US, where I had spent 15 years is very open to personal reinvention and risk-taking, which has allowed me to pursue my interests and curiosity without any cultural barrier that I might have faced had I been living in Malaysia at the time.”
Dr Kamaliah (not her real name), a lecturer at a local public university, earned her first degree in the United States after receiving a scholarship from the government. However, her master’s and doctorate, which she also received in the US, were made possible by scholarships from top-notch American universities.
Senator Dr Ariffin Omar, who used to be an academic at a few local universities before he entered the realm of Malaysian politics, got his first degree from USM, his master’s at the National University of Singapore and a doctorate from the Australian National University – all through a USM grant.
Meritocracy and social justice
Although recipients of government assistance, especially under the NEP, they appreciate the value of meritocracy in various degrees as it is related to a sense of self-respect and self-esteem.
Kamaliah said: “I have to say that even to obtain a government scholarship, you don’t just get awarded on the basis of being a Malay, you have to have the grades, you have to pass interviews.
“I am no doubt a beneficiary of the NEP, I am the first generation in my family to go to university. The scholarship allowed for me to go to a good university and subsequently to be where I am now.
“But there was hard work and sacrifice by my parents to ensure that we (my siblings and I) did well in school.
“I never felt entitled just because I was Malay, not even in school. Perhaps I was naive when I was younger, but I remember being very focused on my goal to go overseas to study and I worked hard towards that goal.
“However, as I said earlier, I am a beneficiary of the NEP and I am not embarrassed by this. The NEP was first constituted based on a sense of equality and democratic values.
“For my postgraduate degrees, I chose to apply to the universities for scholarship because that is what you do. I was pursuing my goal and searched paths to get there.
“In the US, diversity is valued – not as a handicap, but something that you bring to the table. The diversity you bring can be in different forms, such as work experience, class, religion, ethnicity, gender, disability etc.
“The conversation in Malaysia seems limited to the dichotomy of merit vs ethnicity – either you have the grades or qualifications or you get in because of your ethnicity. But there is so much to affirmative action.
“Why was affirmative action put in place? It is usually there to correct a historical unjust.
“The NEP afforded me the opportunity that has now allowed me to be at the level playing field with others of different background and diversity.
“I am not ashamed of where I am. I am a beneficiary of the NEP and I’m thankful to have had the opportunity. It is a privilege.
“I made a conscious choice to work in a public university exactly because I want to give back to society, as I got a head start through public money.”
Mahfuzah, too, feels that meritocracy has its limits “because we are not all equal”.
“What society and governments can do is put in place policies that enable us to be as equal as possible in terms of opportunities – for example, free education, or at most, with minimum payment at the tertiary level, free nutritious food for primary pupils, state-owned housing etc.”
She had not struck out on her own. What she had done is join others in building together a society that promotes equality and justice in every sense of the word. This, she assures, is a work in progress.
“I finished my industrial engineering degree but never practised and continued living in the US post-graduation without professional work experience and so in the strict sense, I may be considered more a Bumiputera nightmare than a success story.
“Upon my return, I joined journalism, then the civil society sphere and for some years, worked in underpaid and overworked positions, but I have been fortunate to have been given the opportunity to travel and have access to progressive body of knowledge and attend trainings and workshops, while working in the non-profit sector.”
Unequal playing field
Fadiah believes that social justice is important given the fact that not everyone is born equal.
“Social justice,” she said, “requires that structural inequality be addressed and also changed to ensure that people are given the right to live a dignified life.”
Zaharom was always aware that some of the Malays received scholarships while others did not simply because of their ethnic backgrounds.
“I felt disappointed,” he said, “and even angry then, that friends of mine who needed financial assistance to go to university, and had similar or better qualifications, just couldn’t do so because they lacked the, as it were, kulitfication. They were not Malay.”
He got to where he is today “despite hurdles put in my path by politically inclined (public university) administrators who were concerned with my clear political stand rather than the quality, the substance, of my work.”
“Fortunately, academia, unlike many other working environments in Malaysia, has an international reach and is not restricted to this little Bolehland called Malaysia. It was this fact that kept me going.”
Ariffin never felt inferior to anyone. “If anyone feels that he is better than me, let him or her prove it in deeds.
“I believe that I must compete fairly with my fellow citizens on a level playing field to prove my own self-worth and to gain their respect.
“I refuse to accept any handicap in my quest for excellence because everyone should be treated fairly and equally. Democratic values are the cornerstone of my political beliefs for it is a bulwark against ethnic tyranny, religious bigotry, suppression of freedom of thought and basic human rights.”
Lee said Malaysians need to step back and acknowledge the role that ethnic preferential programmes have played in growing a Malay professional class.
“I have heard the testimony of many who profoundly appreciate the opportunities they were given, especially in university scholarships and civil service appointment, which they would not have had, because they would not have qualified on their academic record alone or would have felt that such lofty ambitions were unattainable.
“They typically speak of how they were ushered from kampung kids to sophisticated city life in the 1970s and 1980s, and rose to high echelons in government and GLCs.
“They acknowledge the privileges they received, and strive to make good on the trust placed in them. These experiences exemplify what the NEP at its best could achieve.”
Lee’s view strikes a chord with Dr Wong Chin Huat, fellow and head of Penang Institute’s political studies programme.
Socio-economic inequalities make society and economy unsustainable and they are rarely resolved by free market, hence, some form of state interventions are necessary, he said.
“When inequalities are stark and group based,” he said, “affirmative action – which is basically restrictions on or suspension of competition in favour of the chronically marginalised groups – is a common measure.”
Source: The Malaysian Insight