Whether the ICERD is ratified or not, racial harmony in the country should not be wrecked by a few self-seeking politicians who are desperate for power. The use of race and religion to claim supremacy of any ethnic group will not bode well for any multiracial country. It will only create unnecessary social maelstroms. This brouhaha has to be nipped in the bud if a nation wants to see peace and gain the confidence of investors. Our country can only prosper with the cooperation and understanding of all ethnic groups.
Malaysia, by design or default, has become a multiracial and multi-religious country. The independence of Malaya in 1957 saw the three major races – Malay, Chinese and Indian – sharing power. The country’s constitution was designed to safeguard the welfare of all races. In 1963, Malaya was joined by Sabah and Sarawak, leading to the formation of Malaysia. By virtue of being the majority race, Malay leaders were accepted by the other ethnic groups to lead the country, assisted by leaders from other groups based on a power-sharing formula.
We have never had a prime minister who was not a Malay, and there has been no objection from the other races.
Kind and accommodative
The Orang Asli or indigenous people, though being the earliest settlers in this country, do not have the numbers or capability to rule. Nevertheless, they are not sidelined but given a special position as the original people of the land. In the peninsula, they are the proto-Malays who migrated to this land more than 2,500 years ago. In Sabah and Sarawak, they are the natives who migrated to the land more than 5,000 years ago.
The Malays are by nature kind and accommodative. Their unassertive qualities have made them accept other ethnic groups with ease. They are generally easy-going people who are sincere and friendly to others. Unfortunately, the self-seeking politicians are the ones who have spoilt this natural ambience of the Malay race.
As a nation, there has to be a national language. The Malay language which is widely spoken in the Malay Archipelago was rightfully chosen as the country’s national language. But knowing other languages is always an asset, and these languages are taught in some schools. To promote national unity, ideally national schools should be the school of choice for all.
But even after 61 years of independence, the ruling elites have failed to make this a reality. National schools have not lived up to the mark due to some “distasteful” school policies when dominated by a single race. Zealous religions tones among some teachers have stained the schools, and this has failed to bring racial unity to the country through education. Instead, vernacular and religious schools have become the preference of many parents.
Of all the vernacular schools, which include religious schools, Chinese schools are the most efficacious as they are seen as being able to instil mental discipline among students. They also get huge financial support from their community. The Chinese value education and skills-related jobs. If their children are not academically inclined, they are pushed into the skills sector. Both sectors can be financially rewarding.
Seldom are the Chinese seen unemployed. Neither do we see them loafing around or being involved in pointless activities like bike racing or lazing around shopping malls. Chinese migrants all over the world are a resilient people. It’s their inherent culture that ensures their people are financially spirited. The majority of high income earners in the country are the Chinese, as most of them are in the business sector.
Eradicate poverty irrespective of race
Apparently, the Malay race of today is no longer a pure race due to their long history of intermarriage with other ethnic groups, but their roots and identity are still within the constitutional definition of an indigenous race. They adopt Islam as their religion. Islam then became the official religion of the country, but other religions are allowed to be practised without hindrance. Malaysians have been living harmoniously since independence. There have been some minor racial glitches, but with tolerance and maturity from leaders of all races, these were all nipped in the bud.
When the country achieved independence, the Malay race was economically backward. Most of them were farmers, fishermen and lowly paid civil servants. The Chinese were and are still the wealthiest people compared to all other ethnic groups. The majority of Indians were then still in the estates as rubber tappers. The indigenous people were mere peasants.
Upon achieving independence, the Malay leaders naturally had to help the Malays improve their social and economic status. The nation too should see to it that the Malay race, being the majority and poor at the time, is not left behind economically. The DEB was created to help them catch up with the Chinese. Another prong of the DEB was to eradicate poverty irrespective of race. In other words, in principle, other ethnic groups who are poor should also be helped.
Despite the billions (in fact over 200 billion) spent to spur the Malays economically since 1970 through the DEB and later the NEP, they are still not on par with the Chinese. Many Malays have succeeded in education and business compared to before 1970. However, Malays in general are still lagging behind economically. Even with government assistance, many have not grabbed the opportunity to improve their livelihoods. However, they do dominate the civil service.
The Chinese, even without much support from the government, are still the wealthiest race in the country today. They are a hardy people who can survive wherever they are.
About 40% of Malaysians are in the B40 category (defined as households with an income level of RM2,629 and below). The Malays and the indigenous households account for 44.7% of the B40 group, followed by the Indians (38.71%) and the Chinese (28.02%). Although Malays and the indigenous people make up the most households in the B40 category, the income gap between the rich and the poor is the biggest in the Chinese community.
Deprived of a decent livelihood
Corruption and cronyism have destroyed the image of some Malay leaders for many years. Politically powerful Malays and the nobles are more connected to prosperous Chinese businessmen who have made them equally wealthy. The DEB/NEP thus did not really achieve its objectives.
The professional Indians are generally doing well in the country. This constitutes 20% of the Indian population. About 40% are in the middle income group. The other 20% can be considered as poor, facing social and economic problems. They feel that the developmental programmes by the government have not empowered the community. However, the community also feels that their problems can be solved if they have proper education, their women are empowered, and they can be free of alcoholism and gangsterism.
The marginalised Indians are those who were displaced when the estates they were working and living in were taken over by property developers and agricultural conglomerates. They were left without homes and education. So they left the estates and became squatters, living on the periphery of cities, deprived of a decent livelihood. The school dropout rates among Indian students is among the highest in the country. Abandoned, they lack the opportunities to climb up the social and economic ladder. Only in Malaysia, the Indians migrants (many of whom came to Malaya as indented labourers) and their descendants are not doing well, relatively. Elsewhere in the world, as migrants, they are a prosperous people.
The indigenous people in the country which include those in Sabah and Sarawak are also generally poor but happy and content with their way of life. However, they lack education and are also economically left behind. Many prefer to be in the peasantry sector tending to their farms and doing odd jobs. This is another group that needs help from the government.
Almost all the ethnic groups have their share of social problems. Malays form the most number of drug addicts in the country, followed by the Indians and Chinese. Divorce rates are also the highest among Malays. This has led to many single mothers who cannot sustain their livelihoods. They are also afflicted with other minor social problems. Indians form the most number in gang activities followed by the Chinese and Malays. Alcoholism is also highest among the Indians. In the gambling and illegal activities like smuggling and drug trade, the Chinese are dominant. Again, the indigenous people are generally more innocent and mild-natured.
Malaysia is far better than many other countries
Be that as it may, power sharing in the administration of the country has generally born fruits over the past 61 years. Malaysia is far better than many other countries that are seen perennially mired in religious conflicts, violence, illiteracy and poverty.
However, Barisan Nasional (BN) today is a broken coalition, leaving Umno as the only party commanding a large share of seats in Parliament among its components. PAS is seen as a saviour to some Malays but the party cannot penetrate the non-Malay electorate. Regrettably, of late both Umno and PAS have been playing racial and religious politics, but this will make them none the wiser. Not all Malays and Muslims will agree with their approach to politics.
Apparently, the new government under the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition represents all the major races in the country, replacing BN as a multiracial coalition. It seems to appeal to the aspiration of Malaysians more than any race or religion-based parties. Though it is a multiracial coalition, PH is still led by a Malay leader and the majority of those representing the coalition are Malays. Looking at the country’s demography, Malays will continue to lead the country but on a power sharing basis with other ethnic groups. The country does however need capable Malays to lead.
Abject poverty in the country is less than 1%, but if the coalition can take care of all the relatively poor and marginalised groups in the country which come within 40% of the population, it can stay in power for many more years to come. The government should not neglect this cohort of people, be they Malays, Indians, Chinese or the indigenous communities. Their social and economic status has to be elevated, as these are the people who will vote them in again out of gratitude.
We are blessed with assets and resources enough for all the races in this country. But the onus is on the people to take advantage of these opportunities and change for the better. In the Quran there’s a verse that says: “Indeed, God will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (13:11).
Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.