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Malays are second-class citizens in their own country

By Murray Hunter

How the state has destroyed Malay dignity

When I was back in Setapak Garden during the Asian financial crisis, my bedroom window looked out onto a street where there was a Chinese coffee shop and a stall selling goreng pisang in the afternoons, nearby. The coffee shop was open until 4am every night. It was full of noisy beer drinkers, singing and occasionally smashing beer bottles on the street in the early hours of the morning. In the afternoons, a young Malay guy, who lost his job during the crisis, sold goreng pisang to feed his family. Then, one day the DBKL officers came in large numbers, confiscating the stall and fining the poor guy, in what could be best described as a humiliating scene for him.

Notwithstanding all this, the coffee shop continued to open unimpeded making a racket every night.

When I was living in Alor Setar, I used to regularly visit the old Pasaraya Peladang, at Wisma PKENK. I liked this outlet because they supported all the small Malay businesses which supplied traditional Malay food products made at home. One day, some health department officers came and gave a compound to a Pakcik and Mahcik from Kuala Kedah who were supplying Paladang with a kampong made balacan. No warnings or opportunities to correct the packaging were given by the officers. No advice and assistance on how to correct it. Just a nice big compound. I could see the Pakcik, who had probably never broken any law in his life crying in the corner of the store.

When I lived at Batu 9 Berseri in Perlis, I saw many houses within the area had earthen floors, and no furniture, fridge, or TV. The people there struggled so hard to make ends meet with the jobs they could get, some paying as little as RM 20 per day at the time, while the former YB for the state assembly seat drove around his electorate in his Merc. This was an area where the weekly donations at Friday prayers didn’t even reach RM200.

With all the kris waving and Ketuanan Melayu rhetoric, one would think that the above three situations would not occur within Malaysia.

Nonetheless, over the pandemic, there have been countless examples double standards, where struggling Malay hawkers were given excessive fines for breaches of Covid SOPs, while politicians have either got away without any fine, or given minimum fines.

Malays, second-class citizens?

Some of the major assumptions behind the Ketuanan Melayu narrative place Malays under the ‘care’ of their leaders. The 1971 book Revolusi Mental, published by UMNO portrayed Malays as weak and backward, and Mahathir Mohamed in his book The Malay Dilemma talked about the ‘lazy Malay.’ The UMNO politicians made themselves the guardians of Malay rights. However, history since the 1970s shows how Malaysia’s leaders have continually abused this self-given trust.

Ask those Malays who are self-made, and many will tell you how they feel berated, insulted and angry over such assumptions. The hardworking everyday success stories are ignored by the elite because it threatens their narratives.

The so-called privileges that Malays are supposed to get such as university scholarships, seem to go primarily to those who have connections. Many Malays feel these privileges are out of their reach and they must survive to pursue their careers and livelihoods without assistance.

One lady I spoke to at the pasar Yan in Kedah asked me around 2004, how would the biotechnology industry (launched with much fanfare at the time) benefit her community.

Ketuanan Melayu and the whole subject of privileges has divided society and created undue anger and disgust towards the Malay population. Gone are the old days when communities comprised of all races would celebrate each other’s festivals over the year together.

For the average Malay in Alor Setar, Muar, Rompin, or Taiping, they are ignored by the body politic, and they are scorned through social media by non-Malays for being proclaimed by the elite as the chosen people.

The Ketuanan Melayu narrative has destroyed Malay confidence and self-esteem. Malays have been told for generations to appreciate UMNO for all that has been done for them. The politicians expect this gratitude to be eternal. This is a demeaning way of soliciting political support, best described by the Malay word ‘ungkit’, meaning expecting something back for kindness, something contrary to the true Malay culture of ‘ihklas’.  

The concept of ‘hamba’ or subordinate is embedded into everyday life. Getting overseas university scholarship, employed by the premier GLCs like Petronas, Sime Darby, and Maybank require knowing people in the right places. Being promoted also requires connections to get to the very top.

In meetings, Malays dare not outshine the boss, don’t show they are more intelligent than others, maintain subservience to superiors or be ostracized by the rest of the group as punishment. There is no recognition of meritocracy for upward career mobility. In fact, a Sime Darby company manager told me once, that if you don’t have a ‘godfather’ higher up, your career will most likely stall at managerial level.

Even the poor Malays in Berseri Perlis had to lease stalls that were developed by the federal government, especially for them, in a poverty alleviation project at Empangan Timah Tasoh. The people who got the leases for the gerai were connected rent-seeking Malays who had strong connections with a former chief minister in Perlis. They rented out the gerai to the poor Malays in Berseri at rents they couldn’t afford to make their micro-businesses viable.

Malaysia has become a social-economy designed so the rich, connected and powerful can exploit the rest.

Malay society’s feudal hierarchy

Malay society is formally structured. At the top are the royal households, followed by political leaders, political warlords, senior civil servants, the professional class, middle class, with the rural Malays at the bottom.

The upper classes rarely mix socially with the bottom classes. The entrenched position of the upper classes is full of symbols and artefacts like royal titles, VVIP customer rooms in government buildings, VVIP car parking spaces in hotels, and exclusive motor vehicle number plates. Although dark tinted windows are prohibited in Malaysia, many luxury cars with special plates and tinted glass can be seen along the roads each day.

There are signs of feudal Malaysia everywhere.

Religion has taken away Malay citizen’s rights

With the rapid spread of Islamic quasi-government bureaucracy and Syariah jurisprudence, the relative civil and legal rights of Malay Malaysian citizens are actually less than non-Muslim citizens. Syariah courts put extra legal restrictions upon Malays and regulation prevents Malays taking up certain jobs within the entertainment and tourism industries. In addition, state religious authorities have their own ‘morality’ officers who proactively seek out Malays who have broken religious codes, often breaching the right to privacy.

Public speaking about issues related to Islam are subject to strict permission. Some forms of beliefs and practices of Islam that differ from state sanctioned Islam are suppressed, banned, or harassed. Islamic authorities have become so strict, the very freedom to practice Islam in one’s own spiritual way is regulated. Religion has been turned into state sanction and law. Islam has become an instrument of domination, rather than a spiritual experience.

Yet this enormous Islamic bureaucracy cannot even guarantee the food Muslims eat is actually truly halal. There was the meat substitution scandal and allegations of corruption within the JAKIM halal protocols that have been covered up by both Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional ministers. No MPs from PAS, UMNO, or Bersatu have taken up the cause of halal integrity.

The arts and media industry are now subject to so much moral censorship, even the old P. Ramlee films made back in the 1960s would not pass the censor board today. Even investigative journalism that exposes the excesses of the crony capitalism and corruption are clamped down upon.

Malay inequality is most evident within the business sector

The inequality of Malays is most evident within the business sector. Connections are needed for almost everything. People need ‘cabals’ to get licences, approved permits to import a wide range of items, and even bank loans. Not all Malay enterprises can obtain contracts with ministries, government departments, and agencies. There is usually a single firm or person as a gatekeeper, monopolizing and/or blocking fair trade.

Getting a bank loan, or an occupation or business license isn’t always straight forward, where most often extra payments are required to process applications. Small businesses, taxi drivers, importers, and traders most often require ‘middlemen’ who hold approvals and licenses they need to work or operate their businesses.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) has totally failed to provide equality of opportunity for all Malays. It has been manipulated to favour an elite business class over the rest of the Malay population. The NEP must be seen for the instrument it really is. Its an instrument to maintain the domination of one group over another. The major attribute that leads to success in Malay business is not what you know, but who you know. Only those connected Malay contractors in the state could obtain business from the state government, leaving those without these connections without any share of the work.

The proof of the pudding is that government, no matter which side of politics is in control, is run by the same privileged group of politicians who are keeping out young blood from rising in the ranks of politics and government. One of the recent insights into this privilege, is the RM76.4 million land given to former prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for services to government. His lifetime salaries and pension as a former prime minister wasn’t enough.

The NEP did contribute greatly to the creation of a Malay middle class over the last fifty years. However, those who benefitted most were Malays who were connected or able to join the ranks of the establishment. The issue today is the marginalized communities comprising of all Malaysians. This is why poverty alleviation policies must be based upon need in the future.

The biggest problem in Malaysia is not race politics. The biggest problem is class domination. This is a subject the politicians don’t want you to talk about.

(The views expressed are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rebuilding Malaysia.)

First published on 10 March, at this link

Murray Hunter is a retired professor, and professional runner, who spent the last 30 years in South East Asia, as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, author and researcher, whose speciality is in community development and biotechnology.

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