By Ahmed Ameen
Islam Online, Kuala Lumpur
They call it “positive” discrimination, but that depends on your perspective. An official government policy of such positive discrimination means that Malays, students and faculty, get the advantage when it comes to education. The Chinese Malaysians feel the brunt of this.
While many Southeast Asian countries, especially Indonesia and Thailand, have a background of Sinophobia, only Malaysia has instituted an official policy against its own Chinese. The Chinese make up almost one-third of the overall population, more within the colleges.
Malaysia has always faced the challenge of maintaining a somewhat fragile balance between its main three ethnicities. The ethnic Malays, who are by definition Muslims, the Chinese and the Indians make up this triad.
The policy roots go back more than thirty years to the infamous race riots of 1969. Thousands of ethnic Malays went through Kuala Lumpur’s downtown area, attacking Chinese and destroying their businesses. This was due to a historical disadvantage of Malays in the business sector. Over 250 Chinese Malaysians were killed, and the country was in shock.
The government, an emergency administration set up in the wake of the riots, reacted strongly. In 1971, the adoption of the New Economic Plan was intended to ease ethnic tensions. This would be done by improving the economic situation of the majority Malays over those of the Chinese.
Also included in the legislation was the outline of a radical quota system that gave Malays preferential treatment in the selection process for state-sponsored education, business jobs and the elite civil service. By law, these sectors are all supposed to show favoritism toward the Malays. The legislation promises to “ensure the creation of a Malay commercial and industrial community in all categories and at all levels of operation, in order that within one generation Malays and other indigenous people can be full partners in the economic life of the nation.”
Using this and the fact that Malays make up some 60 percent of the country’s population, state schools have set up a system that reserves a “reasonable proportion” of seats for Malays. This is done for both students and faculty. Instead of choosing the top students throughout the nation, the top students within each ethnic group are chosen.
Some institutions take this system even further, limiting their courses to Malay students only.
Mohamed Yahya, a former deputy director of Malaysia’s Department of Higher Education, admits the situation is not ideal, but that it is “the best solution for Malaysia to fully develop as a nation.”
Along with this positive discrimination policy came the law that no citizen is allowed to speak critically about this or any other negative consequences of the government’s pro-Malay policies. Those who do risk facing charges of sedition. The government has absolutely no interest in seeing ethnically-based violence such as that of 1969 repeated, and has therefore taken a very staunch stand in its policies.
And these policies have had a major effect. The percentage of Chinese students enrolled at degree courses in Malaysia fell from almost 48 percent in 1970 to 26.2 percent in 1980. There are no official statistics after 1980, however some estimate the number to now be as low as 10 percent.
All these students that are no longer attending school in Malaysia are now going to Australia, Hong Kong or the United States for their education. Meanwhile, the brain drain that Malaysia is experiencing due to this increases.
The affects are also felt among those students who are studying in Malaysia. Interaction between Malays and Chinese is somewhat minimal, or at least superficial. For Chinese faculty, it is often too much to bear. One assistant professor described watching a former Malay student of his surpass him and become a full professor. In the entire country, there is not a single Chinese vice chancellor.
Malaysia is rare in that its discrimination policy is one that so blatantly profits the majority. It remains to be seen how much it will harm the minority.
Source: Islam Online
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