Malaysia's unspoken caste systems

FEBRUARY 12 ― Last week Christians were upset at PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang’s remark that the Church practises a caste system.

That would’ve been a totally asinine remark if not for how it raises questions about caste systems existing where we don’t expect them.

“Naturalised” inequality and stratification are, in fact, most powerful where it is not recognised as such.

Take schools, for example. Did you know that schools have a caste system? Are you aware that the educational system as a whole considers some students as naturally superior, naturally inferior and so on?

Consider the way we talk about our students. If Adam excels in Maths or Science, we call him intelligent. But if Adnan is a good footballer, we call him talented.

Likewise, if Susan can draw amazing landscape portraits, people don’t generally label her has smart; like Adnan, if her mastery of subjects is limited to areas not involving mental calculation or the ability to recall facts, we tend to say only that she is “creative” or “has flair.”

All of which is sometimes a shorthand way of saying that if students like her don’t buck up in those credits which many colleges use as entry requirements, they are going to end up homeless.

That’s the caste system i.e. the categorising of selected subjects as “more important” than others and, subsequently, the (quiet) labelling of students as “superior” or “inferior” based on their mastery of said subjects.

Note that one of the defining points about a caste system is that its members do not question it. Education, according to the dominant narrative, is ultimately about making truck-loads of money ― how many people question that?

To many people’s minds, the only people who decide to study courses like Sociology or Anthropology are Tan Sri’s kids or folks who already have a business degree or are so insecure they need another academic cert to enhance their sex appeal.

Aside from the education sector, corporations also have a caste system.

I used to work for this financial services institution and, as a manager within the training department, I noticed something which unfortunately is quite common in the corporate world: A full 70-80 per cent of the funds budgeted for training and people development is utilised for less than 10-15 per cent of the headcount. The recipients, obviously, would include the directors and senior managers (which, for the record, didn’t include me).

Many of the staff in the lower “bands” complained to me regularly about how little training they were getting. I tried passing along and pitching this message to the higher echelons with, as expected, little success.

Needless to say, the more opportunities for training that one receives, the higher the chances of one being promoted or rewarded even further. But if a staff is merely a clerk, her chances are de facto reduced, and the gap between her and the Senior Directors widened.

Again, everyone knows this is the case. Everybody knows it unfair and also counter-productive, given how the annual Employee Engagement Surveys grant every employee equal voting rights. Nevertheless, like any religious caste system, this system is taken for granted.

It appears that such corporate practices eerily mirror that Biblical quote which states, “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” ([1])

Ultimately, of course, the reason why discrimination happens in both the business and education sector is the same reason: It’s all about “business needs.”

Oh, the top directors are given millions for training because that’s what business strategy requires. Oh, it’s not practical if my child excels in painting or sports because there’s no future (translated: no money) in that endeavour.

So whilst religious caste systems base their stratification on some spiritual hierarchy, capitalism sustains a virtual (but disavowed) caste system by reproducing itself as a religion. And as the new universal religion, our profiteering system is the one thing you never question ― lest you be cast(e) down?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

[1] Matthew’s Gospel (from which the quote is taken) was not justifying the unequal distribution of wealth and advantages in society. The passage, instead, is talking about the understanding of spiritual things which, in turn, always involves an openness of heart. So, if you love truth and are open to it, you’ll get more of what you already have. If you hate the truth, you’ll end up believing in more lies.

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