Malaysia: Apartheid State


[Name and address withheld. Ed.]

The non-Malay community in Malaysia has always accepted the fact that the government's first priority will always be the Malay community. This is manifest in the many direct and indirect subsidies given to the Malay community. For example, Malays (legal term- ‘bumiputeras’) automatically qualify for a 7-15 per cent discount on houses, apartments and shop lots, and for government scholarships or loans if they get a place in a State University; they are first in line for civil service jobs; they get promoted regardless of merit; and they receive 30 per cent of shares in a public listed company.

While the non-Malay community has never been comfortable with these preferential policies, they buy the argument that the subsidy is the ‘price’ they have to pay for relative peace and political stability, and for a relatively free hand in the economic arena. Given the recent anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia, this argument sounds reasonable and ‘affordable’. But, in recent months, the non-Malay community was shocked by a series of revelations about how far the preferential policies have been pursued. It is now widely accepted that they are akin to the blatant racial discrimination practised in the old South Africa under the apartheid system. Last year it was revealed that more than 300 mostly Chinese students who scored almost perfect grades were denied places in State tertiary institutions. Malay students with barely passing grades were offered the choice courses. At first the quota system was blamed, but it was revealed later that the real problem was the central university admission system administered by the Education Ministry. Ministry officials had simply refused to give available places to the non-Malays. Under the quota system, non-Malays were supposed to get 45 per cent of tertiary places but in practice, non-Malays were given only about 30 per cent of the first-year seats. This practice had been going on for at least a decade before it was exposed. After a strong reaction from the Chinese community, the government backed down and blamed the issue on ‘a few’ civil servants who they claimed were not ‘following orders’, and Mahathir hinted that there were quite a number of ‘extremists’ in the civil service.

Despite pronouncements by Mahathir that next year's (2002) intake would be based on merit rather than on race alone, there are signs that the bureaucrats at the Education Ministry have not lost their old habits. Thus far, not a single Education Ministry official has been reprimanded over the racial discrimination in the university intake. In fact, the Education Minister, a former Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia, defended the system, stating that the academically inferior Malay students were given places because they had a ‘better record of extra-curricular activities’ than Chinese students.

To add insult to injury, it was revealed that candidates sitting for the compulsory PMR (Primary School) and SPM (High School) examinations were required to state their religious affiliations on their examination slips, with non-Malays asked to identity themselves as ‘Bukan Islam’ (not Muslim).

Many Chinese and Indian parents suspect that religious affiliation question will be used for racial discrimination purposes. On top of this, a primary school in Port Klang in Selangor, the most urbanised State in Malaysia, was exposed for streaming their students according to religion from primary one, the first year of formal schooling. All the top classes were reserved for Muslims, meaning Malays since constitutionally a Malay has to be a Muslim, while the non-Malays were sent to lower classes. The cumulative effects of these revelations have made the Indian and Chinese population of Malaysia, accounting for about 36 per cent of the population, aware that on the basis of race they are effectively treated as second-class citizens by the State. Bangsa Malaysia (Malaysian race), much touted by Mahathir, sounds hollow in the light of these harsh realities.

WATCHPOINT: Expect Mahathir and other UMNO leaders to maintain that the government will not tolerate ‘racism’ and that its pro-Malay policies are merely ‘affirmative actions’ to correct the ‘imbalance between the races’.


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