Saturday, June 21, 2008

First impressions of communal preferences in Malaysia: pros and cons

Saturday June 21, 2008
With kind assistance from a professional colleague of my son, I was able to secure a car and driver for two days of on-and-off-the-beaten path explorations in Malaysia. Thursday, we drove to Malaka, a seaside destination about three hours from KL. Friday, we began, at my request, with a sociological tour of KL, visiting areas occupied by a variety of social strata and in each of Malaysia’s three major communal groups - Malay, Chinese and Indian (predominantly Tamil). Later we stopped briefly at some more traditional tourist destinations. We lunched at a very modest noodle shop, owned by the same Chinese family for forty years and now being managed by the third generation. My Thursday’s driver was an Indian man in his late thirties. Friday’s driver was a Chinese man in his sixties. The other individuals with whom I socialized have been either Chinese and expatriate and, of course, I have been living in the heart of KL’s Chinatown.

I mention the communal identities of my several informants because my first, necessarily superficial impressions of Malaysia’s communal (Bumiputra) preference system are obviously reflect the minority vantage point of those with whom I have spoken. Also, they reflect the my recent readings of Malaysian historyl about half the first volume of Lee Kuan Yew’s massive and engagingly written autobiography. More about Lee Kuan Yew in another blog. Unfortunately, I have yet to gain any deep exposure to the culture and vantage point of Malaysia’s dominant community.

In academic reading I had done previously, Malaysia’s system of preferential treatment for ‘sons of the soil,’ implemented after the 1969 communal riots, was presented as a source of social stability. In my American University course, “Conflict and Development’ I contrasted this with Sri Lankan government policies that have contributed to more than twenty years of intense communal strife. But pro-Malay policies have been a driving force in Malaysia’s political culture since before the time of independence. In particular, according to Lee Kuan Yew, it was fear of Chinese domination, in a democratic polity, that lead Malaysian independence leader, Tunku Abdul Rahman, to press for Singapore’s detachment from the Malaysian Federation.

The ‘success’ of the policy can be seen by contrasting Malaysia’s vibrant modern capital city with Colombo, now partially paralyzed once again by the reality and threat of militant terrorist bombings. But the resentment of the Malaysia’s minority communities, as communicated by my Chinese and Indian informants is real. Preferential university admissions, they report, mean that qualified Chinese and Indian students are denied admission and qualified Chinese and Indian faculty members are denied appointments. The same is true in the government services. The security forces - army, navy and police - are almost entirely Malay. Minority community members do not join because they know that even if they are accepted as recruits, they will be denied promotions.

The contrast between Malaysia’s system of communal preferences and Singapore’s meritocratic system is widely cited. One informant told me the story of a talented young Chinese woman who was denied admission to a Malaysian university and then accepted a scholarship to Singapore’s national university. He told me that such scholarships are available, on the basis of competitive examinations to all Malaysian secondary school graduates. There are three requirements. First, candidates must past a rigorous competitive entrance examination. Second, candidates are subjected to weekly performance tests. If their work falls below a required standard, they are sent home. Third, after receiving their degree, graduates must work in Singapore for at least two years. The hope, my informant told me, was that the ‘best and the brightest’ would remain in Singapore, and many do.

Contrasts between Singapore and Malaysia were frequently cited by my informants, though one told me he had chosen to remain here because of its slower pace and less intensely competitive culture. One was the public transport system. KL has three systems of public transport, an elevated light rail, a monorail, and a train to the airport. But, I was told, the systems are run by independent companies, have different fare systems and do not connect with one another. Also, I was told that there are many public transit stations in areas occupied by Malay community members and far fewer in those occupied by the minorities. When visiting KL’s magnificent Chinese temple complex, I was told that the construction and maintenance of Mosques is supported by government funds. The Chinese and Indian communities must construct and support their own places of worship. I was told that government sponsored family planing services are pressed on minority community family members but that Malay families are encouraged to have as many children as possible. I was told that at the time of separation, the Malaysian Ringit was worth more than twice as much as the Singapore dollar. Now the reverse is true. I was also told, however, that the preference system has worked in at least one respect. Malays now hold influential positions in most of Malaysia’s large business enterprises and are reaping the wealth that such positions provide. This makes it much less likely that Malay community leaders will collude in orchestrating attacks against the Chinese community than was true in 1969.

From studying Sri Lanka for more than 20 years I have learned that first impressions can be misleading. Gaining a deep understanding of a culture requires one to live ‘on the ground’ and years of intensive study. Even then, there always seem to be new ‘layers of the onion’ to be peeled.

All that can be said at this point is there may may exist potential problems that could threaten Malaysia’s political-economic well being and the long term sustainability of its communal preference systems.

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Blogger LFC said...

Interesting post. I know nothing about Sri Lanka's communal policies (or lack thereof), but I do know a tiny bit about India's system of preferences (for certain scheduled castes and minority groups). Completely different context from Malaysia, of course, but this post leads me to think there has probably been some (or even a lot) of comparative work done on communal preference systems in different countries.

2:43 PM  

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