Like many, I always thought that the stumbling block to a Malaysian Malaysia is the rural constituencies; I have changed my opinion.
A little history lesson can be most illuminating. We don’t have to dig too deeply to see that the poor Malays have always been exploited by the ruling class elite of their own kind.
Munshi Abdullah (1796 -1856) the diarist of Malay Society refuted the common perception that the Malays were poor because they were lazy. He observed that it was the rapacity of the ruling class that could demand of the peasants whatever ‘extra’ they had (through their industry) that has demotivated the Malay peasants to not strive harder than to just get enough for their living.
Even during the colonial times the rural Malays knew enough about economic opportunities to ask for English-language schools in the kampongs. They were turned down by the British on the advice of the Malay Ruling Class. Raja Sir Chulan the Raja di Hilir of Perak, said that such English-language educated Malays will not follow their fathers on the land. Therefore it is best not to give them the advantage of English–language education. Even when the peasants planted rubber and fruit trees to improve their income they were made to chop them down.
The poor must know their place in life so decreed the Malay elite.
Nothing has changed except the methods and tools used to keep the poor in their place.
This exploitation of the Malay poor is still happening, but in more subtle ways.
Ketuanan Melayu cannot be questioned
How does the transferring to a group of Malay capitalists thriving businesses (which later had to be bailed out with taxpayers money) help the Malay have-nots?
How does the creation of monopolies for a few chosen Malays help the Malay masses? Surely open competition will benefit everyone more with better prices and delivery. You do not solve Malay poverty by creating Malay capitalists.
How has the privatisation of FELDA helped the stakeholders? On the other hand we know how it has benefited the elite power-holders.
How does discount on property purchases help the poor Malays who struggle to even own one house; while the rich Malays can own several.
How does discount in Amanah Saham Nasional shares help those who struggle to make ends meet – much less have money to invest. The list goes on.
None of this really benefit the Malay poor.
If Bumiputraism (with all that it embodies) is an exercise to help the poor Malays who form the bulk of the B40; then it has failed.
After 62 years, the number of Malay poor remain higher than the other communities’ however you look at it.
In reality Bumiputraism does not deliver much to the Malay masses generally. What it does is, it helps a small group of Malays to share the spoils with a small group of Chinese and Indians.
It disproportionately benefits the Malay elite and the Middle Class over the poor Malays. To use an analogy: It’s like the robber baron sharing the spoils with his men – one for you and three for me! You only have to look at the wealth gap intra the Malay Community.
Bumiputraism and Ketuanan Melayu have been promoted by the Malay Elite as a religious orthodoxy. It is sacrosanct; not to be questioned. It is put out as something Malays must defend against the rapacity of the non-Malays (especially the Chinese).
But from where does Ketuanan Melayu draw its strength? Most of us assume; from the rural population. Yes, to the extent that they are easily persuaded by race and religion and they have a feudalistic mentality. But even with them, ultimately it’s about food on the table.
The Malay poor (rural and urban) can be persuaded that there is a better way to a more prosperous life than the race and religion cards their leaders play. That it is not a matter of race and religion or else . . . with the implied threat of Chinese hegemony. That it is a case of them having a fairer share of the country’s wealth. Of policies which are focused on helping them instead of policies which focus on helping the elite and they get the crumbs from the table as it were.
In fact Lee Kuan Yew speaking in impeccable Malay (in parliament) took on the challenge that he can persuade the rural Malays that a non-racial solution can better deliver them a higher standard of living rather than the communal politics practised by the Alliance Party. He was preaching a Malaysia for all irrespective of race, as a better alternative than the ‘racial divide and rule’ of the Alliance Party.
(And well he might have, had he not been kicked out by the UMNO extremists and MCA and MIC who felt that they might be replaced).
The idea of a Malaysian Malaysia is not an invention of the Non-Malays. Even before independence, Dato Onn Jaafar’s Independence of Malaya Party, Osman Siru’s Labour Party and Ahmad Boestaman’s Party Rakyat talked of helping the needy without making any distinction on race or religion. In fact Osman Siru commented that the Malay, Indian and Chinese underclass were economically and politically underprivileged and were incapable of improving their position because of the overwhelming dominance of the elite – largely represented by UMNO, MCA and MIC.
Blaming the Chinese and Indians for the continuing Malay poverty is beginning to wear thin with the Malay poor. They can see for themselves that after 62 years they are not much better off while their leaders have grown fat on the lucre of office.
So if the rural Malays are not the bastion of Ketuanan Melayu, who is?
Ask yourself who is the biggest beneficiary of Ketuanan Melayu?
When you argue with a well educated, well exposed Malay for four hours (as Mariam Mokhtar said she did, in her column) and try to pin him down on the question of racial discrimination yet he wriggles free – with the limp parting shot “I don’t trust the Chinese”. What do you think it is all about?
He knows about the indefensibilty of racism, he knows what unfairness is, he knows about meritocracy, corruption, nepotism, cronyism but most of all he knows about Bumiputraism and how it has benefited him – and how much more it will continue to benefit him as long as his position as Tuan is not challenged. It’s about the opportunities that are open exclusively to him as a First Class Citizen. What the person who argued with Mokhtar does not say is he does not want to lose the perks he gets as a Bumiputra. It’s about self-interests; simple as that.
But really, no-one is asking the Malays to give up anything, It’s about giving everyone else the same opportunities. There’s enough for everyone’s needs but never enough for the greed of the few.
The problem is not in the kampongs but in Putra Jaya where the power resides. It is in Bangsar, Damansara and Bukit Tunku – the habitat of many of the Malay elite and their non-Malay cronies.
Talk to the Malay middle class and you will find them most agreeable and urbane. They will nod their heads in agreement about how terrible corruption is; on the need for a competent bureaucracy and transparency and accountability. They will even agree that racial discrimination is morally indefensible.
“So you agree that there should be no racial discrimination then? No Bumiputraism?” you pop the ‘inconvenient’ question.
You can hear a pin drop followed by the hasty retreat of footsteps as your friend takes his leave ever so politely as I am sure Mariam Mokhtar’s friend did having failed to wriggle out of a sticky question.
These are the closet racists we should beware of and not the rabid ones who shout their nonsense.
Rural Malays vs urban Malays
If the question is one of fairness, or what is the best way to alleviate poverty especially among the rural Malays, it is easy to resolve.
Many rural Malays can see how little they have gained in 62 years compared to their Tuans and they can be persuaded that a fairer and more egalitarian system is there for them through the principle of“each according to his needs”. After all, their grandparents were open to the message of leaders like Siru and Boestaman.
Most of the Malay elite will make polite noises about racial discrimination – until it touches their wallet.
To argue against self-interest and greed is a Herculean task.
Ultimately it’s about three square meals for the many, or banquets for the few.
The majority of the elite Malays will never invite the rest of us to partake of the sumptous smogarsbord of projects, land, GLC chairmanships, shares, sinecures and titles which they share with the few non-Malays at the top table.
We have to invite ourselves.
(The views expressed are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rebuilding Malaysia.)