There are three important accomplishments Malaysia can be proud of in the journey towards national unity, says a political scientist.
He ranked “minimal communal violence” as the first in the list of accomplishments during an interview with Bernama at his office here recently.
He said the May 13 riot and some minor skirmishes since then, are the exception rather than the rule.
“This is very important… we have had minimum communal violence,” said Chandra, the chairman of the Yayasan 1Malaysia Board of Trustees.
Chandra, who is also a professor on Global Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), compared Malaysia’s experience with other multi-ethnic societies of the world.
He named Ireland and Yugoslavia in Europe; Lebanon and Egypt in the Arab world; India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in South Asia; and Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia in Southeast Asia.
According to him, in all of these countries ethnic or religious challenges had spawned violence.
“In our case we have had minimum violence and our people must appreciate this because violence, bloodshed, and killings, to my mind, are horrible,” Chandra said.
“In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, violence has implications that are far more serious than violence in other types of society because the violence never ends. If you kill someone from another community, there is a desire for communal revenge. Thus the ‘eye for an eye’ continues. It is terrible, so I think the fact that we have had minimal violence is one of our great achievements in Malaysia,” Chandra said.
The second accomplishment is resolving ethnic friction, problems, and challenges that arise from time to time.
Major ethnic challenge
He said the disputes were resolved through policies and actions arising from discussions and compromises.
A major ethnic challenge is related to the economic position of the different communities.
“Why was it major? Because we had 70 percent of the Malay community in 1957 living below the poverty line, and if you look at the middle class and upper class, the Malays were very poorly represented.
“We are talking of the community most closely associated with land and its identity, and yet the community was economically very weak and vulnerable in 1957,” said Chandra.
Today, he said Malays constitute about 35 percent of doctors and 40 percent of lawyers, a far cry from the two to three percent in 1957.
He added that even the middle class now has multi-ethnic representation.
The big transformation, according to Chandra, was achieved despite the communal friction along the way.
The other challenge is the democratisation of education, which many people forget or tend to ignore.
Education was made available to everyone and since the Malays are in the majority, they benefited from it.
“If we look at our development budget, this is one of the very few countries in the world which has been allocating consistently, since 1957, about 25 percent of the development budget for education, which is just amazing.
“This is the reason why this transformation was achieved. And of course what reinforced the transformation is the New Economic Policy (NEP),” said Chandra.
Clear road signs
He said that despite creating some unhappiness within certain segments of the society, the transformation had ensured stability and harmony.
“If we had not achieved this, we would have been in deep trouble. Everyone has to appreciate this. Let’s say the situation had remained as it was in 1957 or even in 1969. Can you imagine what the country would be like today?” he asked.
“There would have been no peace, no stability, no harmony, and certainly no democracy, if the situation had remained as it was. The transformation has also made a repeat of May 13 less likely today.
“This is something important that the people must remember. Sometimes people tend to forget. Not only do they forget, they do not appreciate this at all. They think that the NEP is the cause of all our problems when actually this is one of the reasons why we are all able to live fairly well in this society – the Malays, Chinese, Indians and everyone else.”
One of the major NEP conflicts – the inability of qualified non-Malays to obtain places in institutions of higher learning – has been more or less resolved through several measures.
Chandra said that when more public universities were established in the 1970s, the government gave more emphasis to the recruitment of Malay students and a lot of deserving non-Malays were marginalised.
To resolve the unhappiness of the non-Malays, one of the measures adopted under Hussein Onn’s premiership was to fix a 55-45 Bumiputera-non-Bumiputera quota for public universities in 1978.
Another measure taken in the early 1990s was to allow a number of private universities and colleges to be established for those who could not enter public universities.
“This important development took place during Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s time… Najib Tun Razak was the education minister at the time. It was an attempt to reduce the unhappiness among non-Malay parents and students,” said Chandra.
The third achievement was the setting up of clear road signs in the management of ethnic relations.
Chandra said all countries, whether multi-ethnic or not, need clear signposts in their journey of achieving national unity.
“I think we are very fortunate… we have a balanced Federal Constitution and as far as basic ethnic principles are concerned, they are still intact.
“We did not deny our history because no nation can be built if it denies its history… our history is embodied in our Federal Constitution – the position of the rulers, Bahasa Melayu as the national language and Islam as the religion of the federation,” he said.
On the special position of the Malays, Chandra said it was linked to history. The Malay position had to be protected, especially after citizenship was given to a huge segment of the non-Malay population.
“People today have no idea what it was like then. If you look at the statistics in 1955, only 15 percent of the citizens of the country were non-Malays (Chinese and Indians). Because of the liberalisation of citizenship laws just before Merdeka, in 1957, almost 40 percent of citizens were non-Malays.
“In other words, the Malay community made a huge sacrifice to accommodate others; it was an incredibly magnanimous act on the part of the community.”
The Federal Constitution establishes a balance, which cannot be found in most constitutions of other multi-ethnic societies.
According to Chandra, the constitution is fair in terms of the rights and positions of the different communities.
Chandra also said the Rukunegara, which is a preamble to the Federal Constitution, lays out the goals and guiding principles of the nation.
All these are further strengthened by the government’s Vision 2020, proposed in 1991, which articulates a vision for the future of the multi-ethnic nation.
“The first of the nine strategic challenges is dedicated to creating greater unity among our people. We are again lucky that we now have a unifying idea to bring the people together – 1Malaysia. It is all part of a trajectory, starting with the constitution, Rukunegara, Vision 2020 and now 1Malaysia.
“We have these important signposts for our journey ahead and most thinking Malaysians would appreciate them,” Chandra said.