OCTOBER 4 ― It’s a glass half full or empty scenario depending on the reader’s context. International trips can provide clarity, since in these away matches our Jaguh Kampung — in football parlance — can’t crumble under the sole glare of international media.
So, Mahathir Mohamad is abroad, and he said a few things.
In New York, he conceded again, that, ethnic Indian Malaysians need affirmative action.
Days later in Britain, he insisted affirmative action for Malay Malaysians will continue.
There are two different ways to judge the statements.
One, Malaysia grows out of the ethnocentric quagmire it inherited to care for more Malaysians, by adding a group with dire economic needs. Insert applause here.
The other, not so palatable, which is by virtue of subtraction, Malaysia’s position remains to discriminate Chinese Malaysians. Assert self-righteous verbosity, leisurely, like a true overlord in the comments section.
It appears bittersweet is the flavour of these times.
More right is not all right
The New Economic Policy arrived in 1970 to uplift Malays, primarily. It is a misnomer because the rationale for it was always about the poverty of Malays, not the genetic disposition of Malays. Poverty was the alleged enemy, and the victims Malays, largely. The distinctions are central to future policy constructs.
Especially, in cognisance to how Mahathir the rabble-rouser argued in the 1960s while in his forties about “correcting injustices.”
The argument was about Malay poverty, while the policy was tailored for the extended construct, Bumiputera, so as to include Sarawak and Sabah’s natives and the Orang Asli.
In stages these privileges were extended to Eurasians and Siamese. When Umno, the NEP’s self-appointed vanguard embraced non-Malays (Christian Borneons and above mentioned Eurasians/Siamese) as members to a party committed to race supremacy, the lines blurred irrevocably.
Belatedly, Mahathir sees the rot in the Indian community. He had myopia in his first 22 years in power when it came to appreciate the collapse of the rubber plantation economy which entrenched further the community’s endemic poverty. There is optimism in his twenty-third and twenty-fourth he’d lay sustainable foundations for the desperate.
If this government intends to sustain Bumiputera advantages and adopt Indians in a parallel support structure, it only leaves the Chinese out.
The only one out of the 33 official Malaysian ethnicities which can manage on its own, says Mahathir.
The wrong Wong
The prime minister told the BBC, that it is immaterial if the Chinese are left out of government assistance as they have done well without state aid.
While it does provide a psychological boost to the ethnic group, to pride in success despite disadvantages, it does as equally reduce its collective stake in the country. Read: emigration.
And it is not true all Chinese are thriving. Even if one hosted his lavish 90th birthday, three years ago.
Plain read of statistics mislead. The list of South-east Asian billionaires is crowded by the ethnic Chinese. This conflated with the SME domination by Chinese Malaysians emboldens the eager to echo Mahathir’s generalisation — that the Chinese are doing fine.
Firstly, just because a large percentage of Chinese Malaysians have greater wealth is not proof that there are no poor Chinese. Just as much as falsely pointing to the Malay billionaires and claim it proves Malays are not poor anymore.
These are oversimplifications. Perhaps Mahathir, like many from a different time, is encumbered by cultural baggage and historical animosities, therefore fails to see past the aggregate Chinese. And consequently, downplays its struggling members.
Or thought, if they did struggle, the Chinese community would pick up the slack for the stragglers.
While it has truths in it, such expectations, builds race-think and justifies counter discrimination among the Chinese towards his own countrymen. “Select the Chinese Malaysian applicant over others because the others can ask government to help, but the Chinese Malaysian applicant has only his community to back him.”
So it’s not manipulation, it’s survival. It’s also toxic for meaningful race-relations.
Here’s a what-if. Why not remove the race criteria, and focus on needs-based?
This is what Pakatan Harapan’s precursor Pakatan Rakyat promised, the Ketuanan Rakyat.
It won’t be earth shattering.
In reality, the bulk of assistance would fall to Malays when their actual population size and poverty levels are gauged, add the other communities and finally a small number of Chinese Malaysians.
For the Chinese to know they have beyond their own communal safety net, another net constructed by their government to protect them, it drastically shifts mindsets.
Government has the opportunity to heal and unite its people through the symbolism of opportunity for the weakest. To sell the ethos that we are all in it together.
Mahathir’s pride or is he being clever?
One piece of messaging brilliance from the last election was the GST pledge, or more so end-GST pledge . Suspend thoughts on whether it is the right decision in the long run. The decision to do away with the GST without conditions, allowed for no misconception over the substantial tax burden. It was an easy sell.
Same too the prior decision to form a Malays-only party, Pribumi, to compete against Umno without being encumbered by complexities. To Mahathir, Pribumi was his newest Umno. The value proposition? Umno is bogus, because Mahathir is not in it and it is led by Najib Razak. Pribumi is legitimate, because Mahathir is in it, and fights Najib Razak’s Umno.
Which explains Pribumi’s ability to claw away Umno’s spiritual home, Johor. It is not complicated the math.
In that vein, it was felt possible to extend benefits to others. If the extension excluded the Chinese, the traditional Malay base can accept the broadening, according to Mahathir-think.
Which is Machiavellian to say the least, but one can appreciate the slyness to exploit Malay support.
However, perhaps, in the long run it would appear as an opportunity missed — to grab the moment and turn affirmative action to needs based.
To take the harder but righteous path.
Convince decent Malays that assisting poor Chinese and leaving rich Malays to fend for themselves, is not betrayal to race and country, but about social justice.
But my own sneaky suspicion has been the Chinese exclusion allows Mahathir to retain his own belief from over half a century ago that race discrimination is right. If one thing the medical doctor loathes, it is to openly contradict himself.
So, it is back to the indeterminate glass. Let’s fill it up by letting all poorer Malaysians access to state support. The destitute Chinese is not fiction. What is ridiculous is that it requires a high bar to prove, almost like the unicorn.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.