Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Who Has It Worst in Malaysia?

Written by johnleemk on 12:27:39 pm Jan 26, 2008.
Categories: ,

Chinese Malaysians love to complain about how they have it so bad in Malaysia. They point to all sorts of discriminatory policies implemented by the government, and quite correctly bemoan their status as second-class citizens. The Malays, of course can point to a thousand-and-one instances of discrimination from the entrenched Chinese business establishment. These are valid concerns. But to me, these justified complaints have always rung a bit hollow.

Just down the road from the primary school I went to was a squatter village, mostly populated by Malays, Indonesians and Indians. Literally a stone's throw away was a Tamil school. On days when I had nothing to do while waiting to go home, I would go down to the village to buy a snack, passing the squalid school (which has since been closed), walking down dirt paths which almost made you feel that you couldn't possibly be in one of the richest regions of the country.

I don't like to exaggerate, but I've seen poverty. I've seen people without much chance to move beyond the status they were born into in life. The Chinese correctly complain that our chances are hampered, but our selfish lamentations are rarely put into perspective.

I had quite a few intelligent and talented friends — friends from every major ethnic group, representing virtually every income level. But the unspoken thing between us all was that some of us were more likely to go farther with the same ability than others, because of our race and because of our wealth.

A lot of us probably didn't give the HINDRAF rallies much of a thought. It's another unspoken fact of life in this country that despite all the crap Indian Malaysians have to put up with, nobody makes a big fuss about it. You shrug your shoulders, and go back to what you were doing before.

This ChannelNewsAsia report, however, struck a chord with me:

It's not just that it's a bit of a shock to see people being tear gassed and handcuffed in a shopping centre you've eaten at, or that the spectre of racial violence has just been waved before us again by a government quite eager to push this issue of race.

About fifty seconds into the video, the report cuts to a frustrated man declaring that Indians are "like slaves in this country. We [were] born here, our children born here. What is going on in this country?" Apart from the slight exaggeration about slavery, his outburst could have come from any Chinese frustrated about not getting a scholarship, or a Malay frustrated about failing to land a corporate job.

Now, my position on this whole entangled issue of race and access to opportunity is very simple: the present system screws over everyone who is not well-connected or already wealthy, regardless of race. There are slight (though real) differences in who gets screwed over, based on race, but the overriding factor is income and connections.

Nevertheless, this double whammy of racial and wealth-based social immobility means that the Indian community is disproportionately likely to suffer as third-class citizens — slaves, one might be easily tempted to exaggerate.

We all learn in school about how the British brought over Indians to work in the civil service and in the plantations, and never allowed much mixing between the different races. What we don't learn is that our government has never done anything serious to address this — a plantation worker's son would probably grow up to be a plantation worker.

And, of course, since you can only have so many civil servants, the vast majority of Indians are the "hardcore poor" of the plantations around the country. The Malays have a government to back them up; the Chinese have a corporate base which often helps them (private individuals, for instance, can step up to fill the void of government scholarships or welfare). What do the Indians have? A minuscule minority of well-educated and well-off Indians who cannot relate at all to the sufferings of those on the plantations.

Urbanites invariably have greater access to opportunity than those in the rural areas. This definitely accounts for a substantial amount of the disparity between Malay and Chinese access to opportunity — it is not nearly so much because of race, but because the proportion of urbanised Chinese by far exceeds the proportion of urbanised Malays.

What really screws the Indians over is that they have a huge rural population which everyone — including the well-off Indians, mostly — ignores. Without assistance, there is not much they can do. The Malays are lucky — in the city they have opportunity, in the village they have government. The Chinese are lucky — most are in the city, and the handful that aren't can take advantage of clan associations and the like to reach out for help from their Chinese peers. What of the Indian Malaysian? What can he have, what can he do?

The Malays and Chinese have every right to complain about discrimination against them (though I have my doubts about how much of this discrimination stems directly from race). It is absolutely clear that the deck in this country is stacked against you if you do not know and cannot bribe the right people.

But now, every time I come back to this issue, I think of that man — a citizen of my country, who feels like and virtually is a slave in his own country, without prospect for advancement because of history, economics and race. A man whose own suffering has no government, no clan association, no altruistic tycoon to even try to uplift him.

Should we really obsess over getting the most for our race? Ought we to structure our government on some distorted policy of "justice" which levels the playing field such that those who never had the chance to get to the field will never have a chance to play? Should we structure ourselves instead to provide justice for those discriminated against, by in turn discriminating against everyone else? Is it right to continue arguing back and forth in abstract discussions of what is most fair, when most of our proposals will not be fair to the cut-off Indian rural community?

Let us be fair. We would not take a prisoner chained up for years, drag him to the starting line, and have him compete on a "level playing field" with star athletes. We would not discriminate against well-trained runners by placing a speed limit on them. Let us try to raise everyone to the same level of opportunity. Let us give everyone a chance to do their best. Let us have justice for all.

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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.

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