Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Why Are Malaysians Unhappy?

Written by johnleemk on 2:11:00 pm Jul 17, 2007.
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Yes, that's right — one of Malaysia's worst fears has come back to haunt it. The Minister in the Prime Minister's Department in charge of national unity, Maximus Ongkili, has revealed that there were 950 racially-motivated fights reported to the police in 2006 (a 15% increase over 2005).

Is this a reason to sound the alarm of an impending repeat of the May 13 incident? Of course not — many of the fights were small-scale. But that we are seeing an upward trend here is hardly something to balk at, especially when the 15% increase is likely to be outside the realm of statistical insignificance.

Obviously, there is no way to be sure about the cause of these racial clashes. But according to the National Unity Advisory Panel, which has been briefed on the clashes, many of them occur in economically-deprived areas, among youth who "harbour resentment and anger" (in the words of Ramon Navaratnam).

But the fact is, a lot of people harbour resentment and anger, regardless of what class we are from. Although class plays a role in these conflicts, the main problem is stereotyping of whole communities.

I know a lot of smart, educated and upper middle class people who have rarely had problems getting along with those from a variety of racial backgrounds. Yet, these same people seem only slightly less likely to stereotype those from other ethnic backgrounds than someone who has been totally unexposed to those outside his own ethnic community.

Take the simple problem of being refused admission to a movie because of age-based censorship. A purely economic consumer rights issue, right? What happens when those refused admission are Indian and Chinese, and the staff refusing admission are Malay? A racial incident. And this is among people who are well enough to afford a good education and luxuries such as movie tickets — how much worse would it be if both parties are economically deprived?

By focusing on economic outcomes — how rich are those involved? — we overlook the main cause of most our ethnic discontent — a deprivation of opportunity. Humans are not satisfied by having their basic needs met — we learnt that from the communist experiment.

Man is only satisfied when he becomes the best he can be — when he is unfettered by discrimination based on things he cannot control. Throughout history, discrimination has always existed along at least economic lines — if you are born into one class, you remain there. There is little social mobility.

This is why the poor are always the most likely to stir up trouble for those in power — because they are those with the fewest opportunities (the rich and well-connected can pay their way to a good education or secure a scholarship from a crony; what can the poor but bright student do?).

Malaysia, and in general any country which discriminates along racial lines, suffers doubly because opportunities are deprived on the basis of not just class but race.

The rich and well-connected Malaysians — those at the real top of the heap — can try anything they want, have all the opportunities they could ever dream of, regardless of race.

The rich but not well-connected Malaysians are the dwindling middle class who have some opportunities, but are stifled first by the lack of social connections and second by race. For the Malay middle class, this problem is ameliorated by the generous government preferences given to Malays, but there is huge discontent among the other Malaysian middle class communities — they may be able to surmount these obstacles, but not without unnecessary wastage. Why should a Malay with 2As in the SPM get a full scholarship while a non-Malay with 9As be forced to study at a private institution on her own money?

The poor and poorly-connected Malaysians have the most racial fights and express their discontent most openly, all because they have no routes open to them. What are these Malaysians to do?

They cannot rise too far because they don't know anyone important, and cannot exploit the opportunities open to richer Malaysians because they don't have the requisite knowledge or capital. A middle class Malaysian knows how to fill forms correctly and jump around the bureaucracy to open a business or secure a scholarship; what can the poor and simple Malaysian do?

Even the Malays do not benefit significantly from the preferences given to them here because the middle class Malays are better placed to snap them up. What would the fisherman in the kampung know about share allocations for Bumiputra?

The result is that the rich and well-connected Malaysians are happy — they know the rest of the country is going to hell, but most of them just carefully open a foreign bank account and secure a permanent residence visa. A select few like Nathaniel Tan choose to utilise the opportunities open to them to stop the country's decline, but they are far and few between. (A number are surprisingly even ignorant of the country's problems.)

The middle class non-Malay Malaysians experience significant discontent because they are discriminated against unnecessarily — they could not complain so much if it were a poor Malay receiving a scholarship, especially if that were a qualified Malay who secured it by virtue of his competence rather than connections. However, they do nothing more than complain about it anonymously online and in mamak shops, because they have enough money tucked away to open doors elsewhere, and perhaps join the richer Malaysians in emigrating.

The poorest Malaysians are discriminated against doubly, both on grounds of race and class. They don't see the rich very often, and the rich often pretend to sympathise with them and help them in some totally useless token way. So what happens? These poor Malaysians fight other poor Malaysians who don't look like them, because they don't feel like fighting the rich.

If we want a better Malaysia, we have to eradicate this discrimination on both grounds of race and class. Ending the latter may be harder, but the former is definitely doable. We do not have to do away with affirmative action; all we have to do is set a class barrier for access to special privileges. Malays from households with an income of RM1,000,000 or more, for example, should be barred from applying for public scholarships, special share allocations, real estate subsidies, and basically all benefits they don't need anyway.

But if we really want to end discrimination on both grounds, all we have to do is implement an affirmative action policy based on class — help the poor Malaysians up, regardless of race. The Malays will not lose out because they make up the majority of poor Malaysians anyway — the Chinese are largely middle-class and the Indians are too small to make up a majority of the poor.

If we want to understand why there were 950 racial clashes in the past year, most of them representing the latent undercurrent of discontent harboured amongst Malaysians of all races, we must understand the discrimination that Malaysians of all races suffer. We must be committed to true equality of opportunity for all Malaysians, and to ending the identification of race with economic function.

Then, and only then, can we see a Malaysia free of its hang-ups about race. As long as we continue to allocate opportunities on the skewed basis of social influence and race, rather than on the equal basis of our birthrights as Malaysian citizens, we can never hope to see a dynamic and united Malaysian nation. We must work towards a Malaysia where any Malaysian can dream of being Prime Minister, and any Malaysian can dream of heading a world-class Malaysian corporation, for that is the Malaysia which will be finally able to erase this dreadful spectre of race — the dreadful spectre of May 13.


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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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