Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Identification of Race with Economic Function

Written by johnleemk on 12:17:46 am May 10, 2007.
Categories: ,

One of the most damaging philosophies Malaysia has ever had to endure is the idea that race should correlate with one's function in the social and economic life of the country.

Unfortunately, this very idea was extremely in vogue at the time of independence in 1957. Tunku Abdul Rahman, our first Prime Minister, openly expressed his opinion that the Malays were to run the country's political life, while the Chinese would take care of the economic side of things.

Naturally, this state of affairs could not persist for long. The Malays might have been happy with holding political power, but the Chinese felt like second class citizens in their own country.

The result was that in the 1969 general election, the non-Malays overturned this silently understood agreement and voted against the pro-Malay government. Making matters worse, some of them decided that now they would exclude the Malays from the political life of the country — it is undeniable that at the much-maligned victory rallies, there were Chinese yelling chants about how the country or Kuala Lumpur belonged to them, and how the Malays should "balik kampung".

Putting yourself in the shoes of the Malays, it's not hard to see why they did what they did next. You have no economic power; all that's keeping your dignity alive is your political power. And now, you are going to lose that as well. The Malays will be associated with no greater economic function than tilling the fields. What do you do?

Regardless of whether the Malay extremists were justified in what they did next, they rioted. And the result was a state of emergency which lasts till today.

But even more catastrophic was the near-total reversal. Now the Malays wanted to not only dominate the political life of the nation, but our economy as well. Although the New Economic Policy only targeted a 30% share for the Bumis, and spoke of the need to end the identification of race with economic function, this has turned out to be a mere charade.

The irony of it is, the NEP hasn't even been successful. The Chinese are still associated with business, and the Malays are still associated with government. Virtually nothing has changed, except for the Malays filling tokenistic Ali Baba positions for the sake of appearances.

The problem is that the philosophies underlying our country and its society have been so varied — first division between two races, second all power to one race, and finally all power to another race — that people presume one of these paradigms is the right one.

The reality is, there is no such false dichotomy. What we can choose to have is a Malaysia where there really is no identification of race with economic function — where an Indian girl can aspire to be Prime Minister and a Malay boy can aim to be a CEO of a publicly listed company without relying on any special privileges to get him there.

Some might say this is an unrealistic scenario. But what do you think is more realistic — a society where you have to be Malay to be Prime Minister and Chinese to be a CEO, or a society where all you have to be is Malaysian?


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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