In early October, four of Malaysia’s public universities organized a weekend conclave called a “Malay Dignity Congress” calling attention to perceived levels of inequality for ethnic Malays, once again awakening the tensions that have preoccupied the country since disastrous race riots shook it in May of 1969, taking hundreds of lives.
After 48 years of the New Economic Policy (NEP) put in place as an affirmative action program for Malays and its derivatives following the riots, in fact, ethnic Malays are no closer to realistic levels of income generation and economic equality commensurate with richer segments of the population. Although real poverty levels are unknown due to manipulation of aggregate economic figures, the official level of 0.4 percent is almost certainly far adrift of unofficial estimates of 15-16 percent. There are still many pockets of chronic poverty in the northern and east coast areas. Some families cannot afford furniture, electrical items, a car is outside their dreams, and they struggle to buy necessities.
Official encouragement for Malays to have large families, in an unspoken bid to outbreed the ethnic Chinese, prevents many from getting their heads above water financially. The mother typically earns income from selling nasi lemak in the mornings or running a small stall, called a kedai runcit or sundry store, the father through taking on odd jobs when they come up. They struggle to send their children to school and often rely on the goodness of local doctors at clinics to subsidize medical bills. Dental care is almost out of the question.
The middle class are too often prisoners of consumerism and debt. They work hard to raise the family. Substandard awareness-campaigning by governments over the years since independence has led to obesity, diabetes and heart problems often leading to sickness, incapacitation and early death. Youth unemployment rates are high, with many youths turning to either using locally cultivated kratom leaves, which produce a mild high, or purchasing methamphetamines, if they have the money, despite draconian drug laws that prescribe hanging for possession of certain drugs.
The NEP in fact has acted as affirmative action programs too often do, creating a culture of dependency in which special privileges stifle any sense of innovation. For the past two generations, Malays have tended to look for rent-seeking activities such as leasing out taxi licenses or Approved Permits (AP), rather than developing entrepreneurial ideas.
Politics has created this culture of obligation. Malays have been told that they are obliged to the government for roads, electricity, water, health services, and education. In return people are expected to be grateful and not complain. This is a transactional relationship best expressed by former Prime Minister Najib Razak on the hustings who said directly to the electors ‘You help me and I will help you.”
Syed Saddiq, the current Minister of Youth and Sports in the 18-month-old Pakatan Harapan government, and a member of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Bersatu Bumiputera Malaysia, has shown the obligation card has been quickly adopted by the new government. He and Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Salahuddin Ayub rained money into a contested district prior to a by-election including upgrading fishing jetties, followed by Rural Development Minister Rina Harun, who presented financial grants for the constituency.
That is complicated by a culture of acquiescence, in which children in government schools are frowned upon for asking too many questions. Those who ask questions stand out. The aim of the education system has been to indoctrinate rather than to nurture people who can think and express themselves critically. This has created an envelope of ignorance that has prevented the emergence of an entrepreneurial community.
Arguments used by the nation’s leaders include saying ‘this issue is sensitive (read taboo),’ ‘the majority is more important than the minority,’ ‘don’t disturb the peace and harmony we have worked so hard to achieve.’ The 1969 riots, now 50 years in the rear view mirror, are often used to justify this attitude.
The elite see Malay unity as Malay unanimity. The symbolism of the ‘Aku Janji’ (I promise) pledge required of civil servants, academics, and students is reflective of the obedience expected of subordinates.
The perception of fatalism ensures acceptance of the notions of dependence and obedience towards authority. This is why politicians can offer money packets, fans, microwaves and sewing machines around election time to secure votes. The last thing on these kris-waving politicians’ minds is Malay dignity.
Malaysia is imprisoned within a feudal cocoon, one of only two countries in the world to maintain a title system of awards, the other being the UK. Feudalism has inhibited the nation from making the necessary transformation within the economy and society to nurture and grow with dignity, to escape the shackles of poverty, whether it be social, economic, or spiritual poverty.
Instead, Malaysia is seen as pariah state more and more internationally, especially given statements made by the country’s leader. Civilizations that have perpetuated class systems, extreme wealth inequality, domination of a single power elite, racism, conformity, and class-based work systems as exists with foreign workers in Malaysia today, will not be able to adapt to a changing world and will eventually implode some way or another.
Universities have invited alleged rapists and evangelists who stir up racial instability as a tool of repression. Where Islam was once embraced freely and enthusiastically, complementing the Malay identity, Arabism is now destroying the culture and language. Today people are being told being a Muslim is not enough. One must be a Muslim the way the state specifies.
The government assumes it has the power to interpret and define what is Islam. The grand icons and Islamic infrastructure in Malaysia today are not symbolic of an enlightened Islamic society, but rather a symbol of the gulf between the empowered and powerless.
Malay history has been reinterpreted for the benefit of the myth of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy). The old empires of Srivijaya and Majapahit that had trade, social, and religious connections with the Arabs, the Indian subcontinent and China has been covered up for the myth of the lazy Malay.
The old British colonial narrative that was once used to promote the superiority of the white man so they could control the Malay states has been reinvented. Mahathir Mohamed in his explosive 1970 book “The Malay Dilemma’ used the lazy Malay myth to create the rationale for a neo-feudal society in which one group of Malays are the custodians of the populace.
The hantu (ghost), so important in Malay storytelling such as fables about the hantu raya (grand ghost) to frighten children into obeying their parents has been reframed to use imaginary enemies such as the Chinese, Jews, globalism, Christians, or kafirs (Non-Muslims), to promote so-called Malay unity.
This has resulted in an insular society of ignorance, a belief in what the power elite tell them. A sense of obedience, obligation, fatalism, conformity, and dependence protects feudal society from being questioned.
The irony is that those who peddle these myths live in palatial homes, have fleets of cars, live ostentatiously and gain their wealth through political patronage. Today’s leaders are sons of former leaders, nephews, wives, and extended family members. It really doesn’t matter whether BN, UMNO-PAS, or Pakatan Harapan are in power, the people are the same.
The aspirations and goals of the leaders are not the same as the people, as those who voted for PH last election are finding out. Corruption is the same, the bankrupt ideas are the same, abuse of power is the same, and the cover ups are the same.
Race politics have spilled into to the mosques, into the universities, and into the daily media. There is now a nation that some Malays don’t even want, seeing themselves as Malay and Muslim first and Malaysian second. There are even signs that Malays are dividing into their own sub-identities as Kelantanese, Johorians, and Kedahans, etc. Islam is becoming so authoritarian that a spiritual backlash is occurring, where some Malays appear as Muslims on the outside and reject it on the inside.
Ketuanan Melayu is really a code for Tadika Melayu, a child’s creche in which self-appointed protectors create mythical enemies that project these self-appointees as the saviors of the race. Protection is a code word meaning keeping the populace in their place so the protectors can continue to plunder unabated.
Race based politics have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Go into any kampung and talk about the issues that concern people and you will hear it’s about infrastructure, job opportunities, social and economic wellbeing, and the freedom to live one’s life in peace and harmony. In the coming Tanjung Plai by-election these are the issues that will come up at the grassroots. Ketuanan Melayu is a failed political philosophy that has only benefitted a small elite.
The only way to break the nexus of race-based politics, state defined Islam, and neo-feudalism which is holding back the progress of Malaysia is to replace Ketuanan Melayu with a return to the Nusantara dream. Go back to the original Malay culture free of Arab customs, purify the Malay language of its pollutants, and return to some of the wise philosophies Malays once had.
Remember the history, being proud of coming from an ancient culture that was more globalized than Malays are today. Return to the accommodating integration that propelled Malay culture across the seas. This is the way forward where the nation of Malaysia can be built as it was once dreamt to be.
The people have a common heritage based on an ancient archipelago Malaysia is geographically set within going back around 1,200 years to Srivijaya. If this common heritage can be accepted, then Malaysians have a common destiny. Malay dignity starts with a sense of history.
This article was originally published in the Asia Sentinel