Martin Luther King once began: ‘I have a dream…’
I, too, have a dream. In my dream racial discrimination in Malaysia is a thing of the past. In this dream my homeland, Malaysia, has transformed into a country known for good governance. In my dream Malaysia is a beacon: a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural country in which I, though largely of Chinese descent, am treated as an equal citizen.
With each passing day this dream recedes further into the abyss. Racial discrimination in Malaysia is now entrenched. The country’s governance gets from bad to worse. And its list of scandals grows longer.
When it comes to corruption, Malaysia competes well with the likes of China and Mexico – a staggering feat for a country of only 30 million. According to Global Financial Integrity, the developing countries with the largest illicit outflows between 2001 and 2010 were China, Mexico and Malaysia. No surprise, then, that US$1.2 billion found their way into the Prime Minister’s personal bank account in the scandal known as 1MDB. How such an astounding amount arrived there is something which Najib Razak, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, has still not explained properly, yet the man remains Prime Minister and looks unlikely to be deposed!
Hand-in-hand with corruption have come increasing Muslim fundamentalism and concomitant attacks on religious freedom, the latter always carried out under the guise of ‘protecting Muslims’. Several years ago the word ‘Allah’ was proscribed for use by non-Muslims when referring to God. Emboldened by this poisonous atmosphere, extremists have attacked churches, cast aspersions on the adherents of other religions, and routinely made racist comments that would not be tolerated in a civilised country. These disturbing trends date back years. The culprits behave with impunity and with the connivance of the ruling political party – the United Malays National Organisation – or UMNO. This party, which has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957, uses Islam as an electoral tool with which to acquire the Muslim vote.
A new low was reached recently. Now activists have begun to disappear. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) finally took note and placed Malaysia on its Tier 2 list, alongside such luminaries of religious freedom as Afghanistan, Cuba and Turkey.
How did Malaysia, a once tolerant and moderate country, get to this point?
First, if we strip everything away, I believe the crux of Malaysia’s problems lies in something we are not supposed to discuss: its racist policies. The country’s descent has been gradual. But the slide actually began a long time ago – with the principle that not all Malaysians are created equal.
The idea that some Malaysians, namely, those of us who are ethnically Chinese or Indian, are somehow ‘squatting’ on land that rightfully belongs to Malays is pernicious but long-standing. I first heard the idea expressed in Mahathir Mohamad’s infamous book ‘The Malay Dilemma’. In the blog-post Where is Home? I describe how being called a squatter made me feel. By 1973 when I learnt about Mahathir’s book, the concept had already been codified into so-called affirmative action policies with no time limitation. The beneficiaries are a special breed of Malaysian, one who deserves extra rights, not through merit or because of need, but because the ancestors of this type of Malaysian arrived in the country earlier. The logic is so spurious that a special term had to be invented: bumiputera, or the prince/princes of the earth. (See The Malaysia We’ve Lost.)
Imagine the first pilgrims to the United States calling themselves the ‘princes of the earth’ and giving themselves and their descendants ‘special rights’, over and above those enjoyed by all the other waves of immigrants who helped build America. Bumiputera ‘rights’ in Malaysia are eye-watering; they include: entitlement to a disproportionate share of university places, discounted property, quotas in government departments, 30% equity stakes in companies and government scholarships. At one point, there were even universities reserved for bumiputera! This has been the situation in Malaysia since the 1970s, when the concept of the bumiputera was written into government policy.
The question of who is a bumiputera is a minefield, because there are people who are truly indigenous to Malaysia. Even in the Malay language they are called Orang Asli, or the original people. Naturally Orang Asli have bumiputera status, though this is more lip service. The crucial point is that Malaysians of Malay ethnicity, who are believed to have come to Malaysia from Yunnan in southern China and more recently from India and Indonesia, are all deemed to be bumiputera.
Why is this important? To start with, there is the issue of moral dubiety. In Malaysia it’s well-known that part of Mahathir Mohamad’s own family came from India. Ergo, the man who calls me a squatter in The Malay Dilemma is himself squatting on land which belongs to Malaysia’s original people, the Orang Asli. Then, there is the groundswell of resentment which the creation of the bumiputera has caused. How can you have a unified nation with such blatantly racist policies? The answer is that you can’t. A million Malaysians have left. I am part of that exodus. I left with a heavy heart – and anyone who has read The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds will know that my love for Malaysia remains strong.
What do you think happens when a government tells one section of its populace – the bumiputera – that its members have rights over and above others? It’s almost inevitable that those who are mollycoddled become spoilt. They start to feel as if they’re above the law and can do whatever they want.
Worse than that, dishing out special rights anaesthesises those who are privileged – in this case, the bumiputera population, the Malay recipients who form the country’s majority. UMNO, the ruling party, has been purchasing their acquiescence for decades and in so doing, has fundamentally distorted the democratic process. For as long as a majority in the electorate is numbed by handouts, UMNO can do whatever it wants.
Except… it’s now harder, even for UMNO. After nearly sixty years in power there is discontent, especially among urban Malays. UMNO’s excesses have become so electrifying, they’ve hit world attention. Part of its electorate is restless. Some bumiputeras recognise the harm which Malaysia’s racist policies have done. A columnist, Wan Saiful Wan Jan (a bumiputera), with two friends (also bumiputera), began the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) several years ago. In a recent article, Wan Saiful pointed out the immorality of Malaysia’s bumiputera policy. ‘Why not then steal from the rich and give to the poor?’ he wrote rhetorically.
Wan Saiful should be applauded. No one else has had the guts to be as blunt. He and groups like IDEAS and Bersih (the group that is fighting for clean, fair elections) – and all the people campaigning for an open, progressive Malaysia – must be supported.
And here’s the second part of my answer: Malaysia did not arrive at this point by accident. We Malaysians have allowed it to happen. We have allowed it through our collusion and our silence, and by our refusal to venture outside of our comfort zone. When I was growing up, how many times did I hear a fellow Malaysian-Chinese say, ‘Ai-yahh, why bother with politics? Let’s just make money-lah…’
Fast forward to 2017, when we can see where such attitudes have led us. Malaysia is poised at a crossroads, and what I hear now is a lot of grumbling. Mutterings too, along the lines of, ‘What’s the point? I can’t do anything. I’m not bumiputera.’
In this way, all blame is passed on to the bumiputera, as if we do not bear collective responsibility for the state of our country. As if our national obsession with food, gossip and shopping, to the exclusion of much else, is not a contributory factor. I know I’m guilty, too. I took the easy option and left, instead of staying on to fight. I now do what I can, by supporting Bersih and IDEAS and all the people who are willing to stand up for a better Malaysia. I also write. Both in this blog and in the novels forming The Malayan Series, which will carry on after the second book, When the Future Comes Too Soon, is published this summer. Fiction is a powerful tool, one which I intend to use. (Foreign readers don’t need to know anything about Malaysia. The Malayan Series is first and foremost an epic family saga, a story about people. What happens will be experienced through the characters themselves.)
There are plenty of Malaysians who tell me, ‘Malaysia is still a good place to live.’ And then they ask what I can find elsewhere that I can’t have in Malaysia.
Here are a few of the things I enjoy in the West. Equality in the law. The chance to compete on merit. A vote which counts. And when things aren’t right, I have the ability to protest, to get things changed. Anyone who has read The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds will understand that I have not been brainwashed by the West. No human system is perfect; both Britain and America have flaws.
Within the cracks of their flaws, however, lies a gem: the cliché known as freedom. In the West, I have the freedom to be whoever I want and to live my life exactly as I choose. This is so precious and priceless that once experienced, is almost impossible to give up.
To those who say that Malaysia is still a great place to live in, I have the following questions.
- Do you think this is the country our predecessors fought for in 1957?
- Is today’s Malaysia really the country you want to see?
- Does this Malaysia make you proud?
- And what are you going to do about it?