Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Can We Fight Race with Race?

Written by johnleemk on 11:24:22 pm Feb 1, 2008.
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It is generally accepted that racial discrimination exists in Malaysia. Whether you believe it comes from big government, big business, or society in general, it is almost certain you do not think we're one happy "muhibbah" family.

The Malays can tell you all about how they feel discriminated against by the Chinese-dominated commercial establishments. They talk about being turned down for jobs because they can't speak Chinese, and complain that their skills and ability are not recognised by the private sector.

The Chinese on the other hand speak of discrimination in scholarships and public sector jobs. They grumble about their schools being underfunded; they fear further encroachment on their religious and cultural traditions.

The Indians have fundamentally the same problems as the Chinese, but the rural plantation workers are just as liable to suffer the same problems as the Malays do. It seems quite clear they are the worst-off racial community in the country.

The typical explanation of why these problems exists typically assumes there is some racist to blame. The Malays blame racist Chinamen; the Chinese blame racist Malays in the government; the Indians are so frustrated, all they know is that someone is being racist towards them.

Although there are obvious racial factors involved in why we are where we are today, I posit that it is counterproductive to constantly play the blame game, especially with regard to racism. Although racism may have initially sparked our problems, ending racism is not necessarily the solution to them.

After all, even if racism was the clear precipitating factor, how much can be done to erase its spectre? Even today, over a third of Malaysians have never had a meal with someone from another race, while a vast majority have not done so in the last three months. Voluntary racial segregation and racial polarisation is openly practiced in this country, and short of a dictatorship taking complete control over our lives, there is nothing the government can do to directly address this.

What we can do, and what we should do, is approach the problem from an oblique angle. Take interethnic violence, for example. It is extraordinarily easy to jump to a conclusion about this and say that we need to solve the problem of racial hatred.

This simplistic explanation is what makes everyone unnecessarily tfear a second May 13. The problem is, can you think of anyone you know who would kill someone else because they are of a different race? You can't, of course. Most of the killing on May 13, and most of the racially-motivated killings in this country have originated from criminals and gangsters who, had they not found race a suitable excuse for killing people, would have found some other reason to commit the crime.

If you follow this argument to its logical conclusion, the solution is not to lock up innocent Malaysians who want to speak honestly about the problems this country faces. The solution to racial violence is to lock up the criminals who want to find an excuse to murder people and start a riot. The presumption that most Malaysians are prone to violence, especially racially-motivated violence, hardly seems justified.

Likewise, there is a tremendous disparity in opportunities for social mobility amongst Malaysians, often hewing closely to racial lines. As noted earlier, the Malays complain of discrimination in the private sector, the Chinese bemoan discrimination from the government, and the Indians feel as if they are slaves in their own country.

Is this because the government, either the pre-independence colonial administration or the post-independence government, decided to discriminate and divide our society along these lines? Very probably. But looking at the factors for this disparity today, the issue is not so much race as geography and class.

If we divvy up Malaysians along the lines of geography and class, the same dichotomy emerges. Those in the rural areas suffer from tremendous lack of opportunity — they can't get jobs easily, they can't establish new businesses easily, they can't learn new skills easily. Those in the urban areas, however, can do all of these things.

The other factor involved is wealth — it's pretty damn obvious that if you're the son of Khairy Jamaluddin, Ananda Krishnan, or Lim Goh Tong, it doesn't matter what bloody colour your skin is — you'll be pretty well off in life. Wealth governs access to opportunities significantly in this country.

It just so happens, of course, that proportionally more Chinese are wealthy than Malays and Indians. If you need an idea, the mean Malay commands RM6,500 worth of capital; the mean Indian, RM2,500. And what of the average Chinese (bear in mind that this average is distorted by the fact that a small amount of Chinese are obscenely rich)? The mean Chinese owns RM34,000 of share capital.

Likewise, the Chinese have always been the most urbanised ethnic group in Malaysia. The Malays have increasingly migrated to the cities in recent years, and there has also been a sizable Indian elite in the cities, but the rural areas are mainly Malay. The vast majority of Indians are also rural plantation workers.

It should hardly come as a surprise that the Chinese have had the best of a rotten deal, while the Malays and Indians continue to bemoan discrimination. But is the solution to implement more explicitly race-based policies? I contend that the answer is no.

What we want to do is to erase the urban-rural gap, either by encouraging urbanisation, or by further developing the rural areas. It is not enough to build roads and playgrounds; we need teachers, libraries, tutors, the fundamental necessities of improving access to opportunities for self-improvement.

Likewise, we need targeted economic policies which will erase the gap in economic opportunity between poor and rich. Awarding scholarships and building schools on the basis of race, instead of need, totally defeats this goal, and does little to address the interethnic income gap — all it does is reward the rich Malays.

That certain ethnic communities have certain problems is undeniable. But to assume that the solution to these problems lies in simply addressing an obvious racial problem is to ignore the multitude of other factors at work which may equally be responsible.


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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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