Our Problem Lies in the Social Contract, Not the NEP
As mentioned in my earlier discussion of academic freedom, I attended the inaugural Malaysian Student Leaders Summit at the Nikko Hotel in Kuala Lumpur this past weekend. One thing we were supposed to do before the summit was sign up for a discussion group.
Each group would be assigned a different topic to discuss; at the end of the summit, we would issue a statement expressing our resolution on that topic. Despite my interest in the issue of Malay supremacy and the New Economic Policy, I figured I had an even stronger interest in the subject of education, and I was not let down.
I was able to put forth my unorthodox views on the subject of decentralising the overcentralised education system, and the importance of giving those involved in the educational process a choice, instead of subjecting them to the rigid will of the government.
The NEP group, as I should have expected, did not have much in the way of new things to me. Most of the points they hashed over are points I was making in internet forums two or three years ago, and points that were being made decades earlier by people from all over the political spectrum.
The most interesting part of the summit, though, was the discussion of the NEP by Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. I was expecting either the usual government tripe about how the NEP is all wonderful, or the usual opposition chant that we must revise the NEP. Pleasantly to my surprise, I got neither.
That isn't to say that I oppose revising the NEP, or that Shamsul opposes such an action. However, what he did was look at the situation from first principles — and those principles are found in the Constitution, which apparently paradoxically enshrines equality and yet propagates inequality.
The interesting thing Shamsul did was point out that Article 153, which points out that the Bumiputra are in a "special position" (contrary to popular belief, the only time it mentions "rights" are when it protects the rights of non-Bumiputra), is actually a means to accomplishing equality. It is meant to give the Bumiputra a leg up so they can compete with other Malaysians fairly — it is not meant to be a permanent crutch for them to lean on.
This interpretation is of course far from radical — it is exactly what the report of the Reid Commission stated. What is surprising is that Shamsul would bring this up, especially considering the apparent sacrosanct status of Article 153.
What Shamsul did next was rip into the hoax of a "social contract". Although he never explicitly criticised it, the tone and context of his presentation made it clear that he was not happy with the status quo. He tied Article 153 to colonialism, pointing out that the British were responsible for enshrining things like this.
Shamsul lashed out at unequal treatment of Malaysians, not only when it comes to race, but geographic locality. He pointed out the blatant unfairness of a Constitution which allows the East Malaysian states to demand that West Malaysians present identification documents when they enter — something which I have noted before as part of the East Malaysian question.
The most beautiful part of his presentation was that he never had to explicitly spell out his views. His rhetorical questions and manner of presenting the facts made it perfectly clear. In the final slide of his presentation, he pondered the answer to the question of whether the NEP was still relevant in modern Malaysia.
Without directly answering it, he pointed out that the proper questions to be asked before we could address this one was whether the Constitution and the "social contract" we have are still relevant, because our country cannot continue premised on inequality and with a temporary affirmative action provision enshrined as permanent law.
I thought what he had to say was brave enough — there are very few people who have dared to publicly criticise Article 153 of the Constitution. Even Lee Kuan Yew, who was famously thought to be against any sort of assistance for the Malays, declared that he completely supported Article 153 at the time of his campaign for a "Malaysian Malaysia".
Although Shamsul's rhetorical questions contained his answers, to my surprise, a student from the London School of Economics asked him to be absolutely clear about his stance. I momentarily wondered if Shamsul would come out and explicitly state what he had been so clearly stating implicitly throughout his presentation. I didn't have to wonder.
After a bit of hemming and hawing, he finally said something along the lines of "I believe we have to change it all." That perfectly sums up what must be done. We have to make it clear that the purpose of Article 153 and affirmative action policies like the NEP is to achieve equality of opportunity for all Malaysians, and not allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking this is a country for and ruled by the Malays or Bumiputra alone.
Later, a student from the University of Malaya asked Shamsul why he did not just stick to the subject of the NEP and point out (correctly, I might add) that it had just gone wrong in its implementation. Shamsul conceded that the NEP had been implemented wrongly, but did not apologise for leading us into the topic of constitutional law and the social contract.
Rightly so. What is the use if the NEP concludes, but the Federal Constitution still draws a line between Bumiputra and non-Bumiputra, or as some Malay supremacists would have it, "true Malaysian" and "kaum pendatang"? We cannot truly tackle this thorny issue unless we get our first principles in the supreme law of the land right.
To pass the time at the summit, some of my friends and I took to writing some traditional Malay poems — pantun. I make no pretensions about my lacklustre command of the Malay language, but I feel one poem I wrote is worth sharing. Any true Malaysian, regardless of colour or creed, should know what it means:
Melayu, Cina, dan kaum India
Semua mahu berkawan-kawan
Tetapi kenapa Perlembagaan Malaysia
Masih membahagikan rakyat dan bangsawan?