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The Struggle To Revive Multi-Culturalism: The Lost Malaysian Dream – Analysis

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The Tourism Malaysian highlights Malaysia’s ethnic diversity as a unique strength. The website proudly espouses Malaysia as the only “one place where all the colours, flavours and sights of Asia come together.”  Yet the dominating Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) narrative advocates a Malaysian mono-culture, where anything non-Malay is a portrayed as a threat to the existence of the Malays and their way of life. 

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This paradox in what is espoused and what is the political reality on the ground is very quickly turning the concept of Malaysia as a multi-cultural nation into a myth. Multi-culturalism existed long ago, and is only remembered by the Merdeka generation today. 

Their Malaya was a nation that had struggled to pull together a sense of mission about what Malaya, and later Malaysia would stand for. 

It is far too simplistic to argue that the Chinese at the time did not see Malaya as their home. Many within the Chinese population had a strong anti-colonial sentiment and wanted to see an independent Malayan nation. At the same time, many of the parents of today’s Bumiputeras had only just migrated to Malaya from Indonesia over the last couple of generations. 

As Dr. Lim Teck Ghee pointed out in his recent article “Muda, younger generation should start with our real history”, the Reid Commission, which had the responsibility of drawing up the Malayan constitution didn’t see a two-tier system of citizenship for the new nation. The commission in Section 165 of their report saw the need for certain Malay privileges for a period of time, so as their position within the new nation doesn’t fall behind other races or communities. This was a safety net rather than an ideology. 

In Section 168, the Yang di-Pertuan Besar should have the special responsibility of safeguarding the special position of the Malays.

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The first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman ruled the country supported by a coalition comprising the major races. The cabinet was made up of Malays, Chinese, and Indians, even though UMNO could have governed on their own, winning 34 out of 52 seats in the 1955 general election. 

After Merdeka, the old colonial restrictions upon Chinese business were eased. This allowed ethnic Chinese to enter most fields of business, especially those previously dominated by the British. Chinese businesses and conglomerates played a major role in the economic development of Malaysia throughout the 20th Century. Foreign direct investment was also buoyant between the 70-90s in what was then seen as a promising multi-cultural Malaysia. 

At this time, Malaysia had the potential to become one of the leading powerhouse economies in the region. However, development became a very top-down initiative. There were often other agendas sewn into development plans, leading to massive financial scandals that are now symbolized by 1MDB. GLCs were pushed into the front of the economy, dominating equity holdings in the KLSE. Massive corruption, which has been estimated by some to cause in excess of 30% leakage from government spending has been covered up, through cash-cows like Petronas that supplement government revenue. 

Although Malaysia developed a massive middle class, which is now stuck in the middle-income trap, a super wealthy elite class also developed. The governments they controlled set down discriminatory regulation, quotas, and restrictive licensing. This has played a major role in creating a poorly diverse rent-seeking orientated economy. 

It has long been argued whether the New Economic Policy (NEP) actually did what it was designed to do. One major spinoff flowing on from the policy, was the manifestation of the old ketuanan Melayu ideology into what it is today. This became the foundation of public policy for decades to come, where the civil service became the custodian of the mythical ‘Malay agenda.”

The push towards Islamization and the education system over a number of generations has undermined the concept of multi-culturalism.

The Malay language has been “Arabized,” Rukun Negara has all but disappeared from official functions, non-Malays have been alienated by institutionalized discrimination, and Malays have been told that Malaysia is their land by numerous opinion leaders.

Multi-culturalism has died. The Malay polity are bickering and fighting not for the country, not for an ideology, but simply about who should rule. Although the Ismail Sabri Barisan Nasional government is trying to return to the old multi-racial coalition with the MCA and MIC playing a larger role than before, policy actions are still very much based on the Ketuanan Melayu ideology. 

Malaysia is very much a divided nation after nearly 70 years of statehood, and the shackles of state intervention upon the economy, rampant crony capitalism, corruption, and discriminatory policies are now showing many undesirable residual effects.

National creativity and innovation are stifled by discriminatory regulation. This is not only perpetuating a brain drain, but a flight of success businesses, and business ideas. Just look at the Grab start-up by Malaysian entrepreneurs in Singapore, to get an indication on what is happening. Business is hindered by unjust regulation and rules that denies equality of entrepreneurial opportunity. Some of these pro-Bumiputera policies are actually disguised advantages for crony capitalists, who have the capital to take advantage of a market due to skewed rules. Ordinary Malays don’t, therefore don’t benefit. Thus, the orientation is very much towards rent-seeking rather than taking risks with innovation. 

Malaysia is facing an innovation gap. This is leaving Malaysia with few potential sunrise industries to rebuild the economy and compete on a regional basis. Malaysia risks falling relatively behind other Asian economies within the region, before the decade is out. 

Freedom of religion is restricted in Malaysia. This is especially the case for Muslims, who are restricted in the way they can practice Islam. Poverty is growing once again, which is dividing society even more. The different ethnic communities in Malaysia have become estranged from each other due to the divisive social engineering undertaken by governments over the last decades. 

Social integration has been blocked. Orang Asli, Dayaks, Kadazans and the Orang Asal have been encouraged to assimilate with Malays or face marginalization. Many Malays today, mimic the Arabs, being shy of their own colourful culture, which is widening the divide with others. 

Malaysia today has a suspect education system which borders on indoctrination. Islamization has destroyed secularism in government. Meritocracy has flown out the window. With the loss of multi-culturalism and rise in Islam within government, there has been a correlated rise in the level of corruption. This has created strange paradoxes where even the halal integrity of food is at risk because of the greed of a few. 

The short lived Pakatan Harapan government did very little to re-establish and promote the concept of multi-culturalism. Rukun Negara wasn’t brought back. The ICERD Convention wasn’t ratified. Education minister Maszlee Malik Islamized the education system more, further than any Barisan Nasional government did. The Religious minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa and deputy minister Fuziah Salleh both defended JAKIM over allegations of corruption. The PH government even bailed out a crony company, injecting RM2.7 billion funds into Sapura, turning it into a GLC. 

Which political parties are committed to creating a society based upon rebuilding meritocracy, a safety-net for the needy and vulnerable, and true multi-culturalism, in accordance with Malaysia’s heritage? Which party is really committed to stamping out corruption? Which party is committed to creating equality of entrepreneurial opportunity in the economy? Which party will wind down the influence of GLCs and crony conglomerates, so there is a level playing field?

Where is the party that believes in a single tier of citizenship, where all Malaysians are seen as equals? Where is the party that is prepared to work hard to eliminate poverty?

The symbolism of convicted felons running free is not a healthy precedent for the nation. This shows that Malaysia is in a moral quagmire. Malaysia needs a political grouping with a real dream for Malaysia. A dream to pursue a path that will not see the country decline even more. 

This needs a true commitment to multi-culturalism. Is there any party willing to do this? 

Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here 

Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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