After two years of 1Malaysia, it is obvious that certain segments of society are sceptical whether the concept is capable of fostering national unity. While there may be many reasons for this, we shall highlight two major concerns often articulated by these sceptics.
A section of the Malays on Peninsular Malaysia (and a few Indians and Chinese) wonder whether 1Malaysia is achievable when we have separate language streams at primary school level. Ninety per cent of Chinese children and fifty per cent of Indian children,at the most critical phase of their lives in terms of the formation of fundamental values and attitudes, donot have the opportunity to interact with Malays in the same age category. The situation has been aggravated by the increasing number of Islamic religious schools. How can an ethnically polarised primary school system create an environment that is conducive for integration?
At the same time, among a lot of Chinese and Indian Malaysians, there is a pervasive sentiment that ethnically skewed policies in education, the civil and public services, and the economy hinder and hamper the 1Malaysia ideal. They feel that the Special Position of the Malays and Bumiputras, as provided for in the Malaysian Constitution, and the way it has been implemented, are a stumbling block to national unity.
Both an ethnically polarised primary school system, on the one hand, and Special Position, on the other, will remain with us for a long time to come. For the Chinese community in particular, the Chinese school has become the bastion of its identity. Similarly, for many Malays and Bumiputras, Special Position is that entrenched constitutional provision that protects their rights within a competitive capitalist economy in which real power lies with the upper echelons of the Chinese community. These are perceptions which cannot be ignored in our endeavour to evolve a united nation. Our challenge is to transform these perceptions without causing a major upheaval in ethnic relations.
As far as the school system is concerned, we should adopt a two-pronged approach. Avenues for effective interaction among pupils in the different language streams should be enhanced. Establishing a common football or badminton team or setting up computer clubs that will draw pupils from the different streams and even those in religious schools together are some of the yet untapped avenues for interaction. What about a common monthly school assembly or a shared sports day or a shared annual concert? The Wawasan School idea mooted in 1985 aimed to do some of these things but it evoked strong opposition from sections of the Chinese community and was subsequently abandoned. The time has come to revive and refurbish the concept.
The second prong would be to make our national Bahasa Malaysia based primary school more attractive to all Malaysian parents regardless of ethnicity and religion.Yayasan 1Malaysia in fact submitted a 10 point proposal to the government in February 2010 aimed at improving the quality and image of national schools. Among our recommendations were the rebranding of the national school so that it is perceived as “multi-religious and inclusive”; the recruitment and employment of quality teachers; teacher training programmes that strengthen awareness of what national unity entails; improving the standard of English; effective teaching of Chinese, Tamil and other vernacular languages; emphasising shared moral values; reducing bureaucratisation in the administration of schools; and ensuring that education departments and the Ministry of Education become more representative of the multi-ethnic population mix. If these reforms are implemented with the sincere support of all communities, it is quite conceivable that over time the national school will emerge as a truly national institution.
With Special Position, it is so important for Malaysians to understand its roots, its evolution and the real reasons for its institutionalisation. Not many people know that the constituent elements of the Special Position of the Malays--- land reservations; public services positions; educational scholarships; and trade licences--- were spawned during British rule as a way of protecting the people of the land who were being marginalised by the colonial economy. They were integrated into the Constitution of independent Malaya in 1957 mainly because the conferment of citizenship upon a huge segment of the non-Malay populace on incredibly liberal terms --- in the twinkling of an eye, from 15 % of the citizenry, Chinese and Indians became 40%---- intensified the vulnerability of an abysmally poor people.
It is irrefutably true that the expansion and enhancement of Special Position through the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1970 was a major factor in the economic and social transformation of the Malays. Within 40 years, absolute poverty within the community has been reduceddrastically (in 1970, 49.3% lived below the poverty-line; in 2010, it was 3.2%) and the Malays have emerged as a significant component of the middle and upper echelons of society. It is this massive transformation that has brought stability and relative peace and inter-ethnic harmony to the country. It has allowed a functioning, though fettered, democracy to take root.
But the implementation of Special Position and the NEP has its downside. The wealth gap within the Malay community has widened considerably partly because some individuals have exploited and manipulated the NEP to further their own interests. The NEP has also had a negative impact upon sections of the non-Malay communities. It has curbed and constrained educational opportunities and social mobility for some of them.
In order to address both these shortcomings, the government should give greater emphasis to social justice in the policies and programmes emanating from Special Position. Only those who deserve assistance, from the perspective of justice, should be helped. Likewise, if justice demands that a non-Malay is given a helping hand or that his accomplishment is recognised and rewarded,the State should not hesitate to respond, in accordance with the constitutional provision on “the legitimate interests of the other communities.”
But justice itself should not be viewed through a communal lens. This is the bane of many a multi-ethnic society, including ours. If national unity is to be achieved, if 1Malaysia is to become a reality, we should approach justice from a more holistic and balanced perspective.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Yayasan 1Malaysia and Professor of Global Studies, UniversitiSains Malaysia.
6 August 2011.