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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Indian Malaysians Should Avoid Trap of Special Privileges

Indian Malaysians Should Avoid Trap of Special Privileges
M. Bakri Musa

[Reprinted from Malaysiakini.com July 5, 2005]

Indian-Malaysians are falling into the same trap as Malays; they refuse or are unable to view their community’s problems beyond the parameters of race. Indian-Malaysian leaders and intellectuals are even clamoring for their own special privileges a la Bumiputras. That would be a regressive move.

The recent controversy over not recognizing Crimean State Medical School is instructive. Indian-Malaysian leaders vehemently protested, to the extent that one of them was suspended from his cabinet position. Their objection was because most of the Malaysians affected are of Indian origin. I would have thought that the debate would be on how to ensure that our future doctors get the best training.

As for special privileges, we should strive to restrict (with a view of eventually eliminating), not expand them. Having special privileges for Malaysian-Indians would create the same problems for them that Malays now face: increased inequities within the community, reduced competitiveness and productivity, and worse, perpetuation and aggravation of already rigid social classes. There is no indication that Indian-Malaysians (or any other group granted privileges) have any special qualities that would spare them these blights. Indeed the problems would be worse for them.

Disproportionate Flow

Unlike the relatively homogenous Malays, Indian-Malaysians are very diverse. The problems faced by Maniam on the rubber estate are very different from that of Maidin anak/lelaki Mahmood who runs the neighborhood mamak stall, which in turn are vastly different from the tribulations of Dr. Menon of Bangsar. Rest assured that with special privileges, the benefits would flow disproportionately more to the advantaged over the disadvantaged, just as they are with Malays. Meaning, the Menons would benefit far more and at the expense of the Maniams.

Special privileges quickly breed in their recipients an undue sense of entitlement that is difficult to eradicate. The more privileged the group, the greater is this sense of entitlement. Among Malays, members of the royalty, being the most privileged, are the most insistent in demanding their “rights.” For example, the sultans insist that state land is theirs for the taking, no questions asked, not even by the chief minister. A few have been known to take the law into their own hands. When these sultans incur gambling debts on their frequent trips abroad, they expect the ambassador and the state treasury to bail them out.

Next are members of the political elite, specifically the “UMNO Putras.” Multimillion dollars are exchanged in UMNO’s money politics; none asked where the bounty originates. Of course it comes from rent-seeking activities made possible through special privileges.

Those poor folks in the kampongs and squatter settlements remain underprivileged. They do not demand anything and are resigned to, “It’s just our fate!”

As in India, Indian-Malaysians are rigidly stratified socially despite the lack of an overt caste system. With special privileges, the fate of the Tamils on the rubber estates will remain unchanged and be no different from those of kampong Malays.

One of the smartest things Nehru did on India’s independence was to pension off the maharajas and nawabs, and deprive them of their special privileges. He knew that such privileges in a rigidly stratified society would only aggravate class differences and be socially destabilizing. The social turmoil and instability in Malay society today is in part attributable to the skewed distribution of special privileges.

Indian-Malaysians constitute less than seven percent of the population, a very small minority. Their problems are further compounded by the fact they are also divided ethnically, socially and politically.

Preoccupation of Leaders

As if those were not enough, their leaders are derelict in their duty to champion the causes of their followers. These leaders are more concerned with being accepted into the Malay establishment. Give them a datukship, and these Bumiputra wannabes become “more Malay than a Malay.”

While these leaders are consumed with integrating and ingratiating themselves to the Malay elite, the message they urge upon their followers is the very opposite. “Maintain your identity, language and culture!” “Send your children to Tamil schools!” Never mind that these schools are dilapidated, poorly funded, have declining enrolment, and are dead end as an institution. They themselves do not send their children to such schools; they know better. Besides, their children deserve more!

Indian-Malaysians should learn from successful minorities elsewhere. American Jews would not have been successful had their leaders insisted that their followers send their children to Hebrew schools. Even traditionally Jewish institutions like Brandies University use English. Visit its campus and you could not distinguish it from any other American university. Many Jews even anglicized their name in order to blend in with the mainstream.

In the past, some Indian-Malaysians, especially those who were Muslims, had successfully integrated. While they may not openly acknowledge it, today many ministers, including a former prime minister, are descendants of such Indians. Ironically, they are among the most strident champions of “Ketuanan Melayu!” (Malay supremacy).

Indian-Malaysian leaders would be doing their community a great service if they were to close these Tamil schools and encourage parents to send their children to national and other schools. At the very least, their children would then have a far superior education than they would have had at their vernacular schools.

Indian-Malaysian leaders are preoccupied with building a local university and medical college. This is nothing more than an exercise at stroking their massive egos. These leaders should instead focus on improving the schools. Those children need much more help than the students accepted into medical schools. It would also be considerably cheaper and produce far greater benefits.

Contrary to the chauvinistic chanting of their leaders, the Tamil language, culture and way of life would not disappear with the closing of Tamil schools.

The ways to improve the plight of Indian-Malaysians lay less with communalistic appeals and more with adopting the insights of modern development economics. Improve their education through good schools, equip them with marketable skills, give them their freedom to practice their trade, and most of all be less paternalistic towards them. On second thought, we could also usefully apply those lessons to Malays.


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