John Malott’s piece and a pretend response

He thought he raised relevant arguments re John Malott’s recent article, I believe…

What a load of croc – Umar spewed unmitigated poppycock. John was writing in the context of severe deterioration of racial relations and its economic impact in the past decade. I’d say if anything, John was being conservative in the sense that racial relations, along with many things decent which make up modern Malaysia, went to the dogs soon after the unfortunate – even tragic – ascension of Mahathir to the role of PM. The pre-eminent roles of Perkasa and Utusan in screwing the country are unparalleled. The role of vernacular schools and Chinese corporate behaviours in this context reminds me of the gnat screwing the elephant. I cant imagine how that can be compared with the twin terrors of demolition that Perkasa and Utusan constituted, most probably with the tacit approvals of UMNO and their cohorts. Maybe Umar was simply the product of the modern Malaysian education system. I say again – what a load of croc.

See this rubbish response (letter to Malaysiakini) to a critical piece written by John Malott, who was formerly a US ambassador to Malaysia.

Malott painted only half the picture of racism

Umar Mukhtar
Feb 10, 11

John Mallot has waded into the debate on Malaysian race relations with half an analysis when obviously a fuller one would have been of greater service to the discourse. Granted, his piece was intended more than anything else to be a critique of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s handling of the current situation in the country.

However, in doing so, he has highlighted only the non-Malay responses to what is described as Malay racism. This is very misleading and the reason for my saying that he had written only half an analysis of the situation.

A more robust and honest assessment of race relations in Malaysia would take into account the fact that what appears to be Malay racism is in itself a response to non-Malay racism against Malays.

Yes, two wrongs do not make a right. But as the saying goes, “It takes both hands to clap”. That is to say, Mallot’s article runs the risk of completely absolving non-Malays from any responsibility in the racial predicament that the country is in. That is nothing less than avoiding reality and counter-productive to any effort to improve race relations in Malaysia. Malays have their grievances, too, against the Chinese. The fact that they seldom get aired does not make those grievances any less legitimate or valid.

Education for the very young is one obvious area where racist attitudes can be nipped in the bud. The importance for racial integration to begin at a young age is recognised, so much so that in the 1960s and 70s, the US supreme court sanctioned the forced busing of students in order to break down the racial segregation between white and African-American schools. That was in America.

In Malaysia, a different approach towards early education was adopted. In concession to the non-Malays, especially the Chinese, vernacular education was retained as part of the national school system. The liberalism was well-intentioned and in line with the spirit of Malaysia’s constitution whereby minority communities are given the right to use and develop their own languages.

In practice, and perhaps this was unforeseen by Malaysia’s founding fathers, the national-vernacular dichotomy in the school system has resulted in precisely the kind of early-age racial segregation that the busing laws, upheld by the U.S. supreme court justices, sought to eradicate in America. While desegregation of schools may or may not result in greater racial integration, segregation virtually guarantees that there will be no racial integration.

The racial polarisation that we see so shamelessly capitalised on by politicians in Malaysia today is partly, if not wholly, attributable to that segregation in the school system. When you see not a few non-Malays unashamedly, even proudly, declaring that they cannot properly speak Malay, the national language, you can bet your life that these are the ones who graduated from the vernacular schools. This is forty-four years after Malay was declared the national language.

The Chinese community jealously guard the existence of the vernacular schools, implicitly reinforcing the message of their racial and cultural separateness and exclusivity, but yet insist that they should not be looked at as the ‘other’ by Malays. For many Malays, including this writer, that smacks of having your cake and eating it, too.

Often the excuse given by the Chinese for insisting that their children go to vernacular schools and for more such schools to be built is the poor quality of national schools. Surely the solution is not to build more racially-segregated schools but to join hands with Malays and Indians in insisting and ensuring that the quality of national schools be improved for the benefit of children of all ethnicities. Perhaps that is considered such an outlandishly ‘out-of-the-racial box’ thinking that I have never heard any Chinese make that call.

Any sincere and honest effort to improve race relations has to take cognizance of the fact that racism exists in and racial discrimination is practised, to one extend or another, by all the races in Malaysia.

However, my own honest observation is that the Chinese never want to admit or acknowledge their own racism against Malays or other races.

Official and overt discriminatory policies can easily be criticised as institutionalised racism but covert racial discriminations by their very nature are harder to pinpoint. That does not mean they don’t exist or any less invidious than the former.

When a “Mandarin speakers only” requirement is stated in job advertisements, even for jobs which do not conceivably require much language skills, that surely is equivalent to saying “Chinese only”. But you will be hard put to find any Chinese who would admit that the practice is racially discriminatory.

When Malaysia’s most famous blogger, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, related some years ago in his blog how Chinese businesses ganged up to ensure the failure of his motorcycle dealership, none of his Chinese readers cared to acknowledge that he was the victim of racism. His was probably just the tip of the iceberg of similar cases.

And it’s always with a mixture of amusement and sadness when I read the many comments on the Internet from non-Malays complaining about the racial policies of the Malaysian government which scarcely conceal their own racism towards Malays in general.

If Mr Mallot doubts the truth of what I am saying, he should read the comments that followed the publication of his recent article in Malaysian news portals.

To many Malays, given the refusal of non-Malays to even acknowledge their own racism, the prospect of a rollback in whatever few affirmative action policies left on the plate appears to be concessions which are unlikely to be matched in a similar spirit by the Chinese in the spheres that they predominate, namely the commercial and economic.

If Najib can be accused of pandering to militant Malay groups, Chinese political leaders in the government and opposition, too, can be accused of pandering to their racial constituency.

In my lifetime, I have yet to hear of any Chinese leader asking that the Chinese to join in and contribute towards the betterment of national schools.

I have yet to hear of one calling for Chinese businesses to assist or at least not to gang up against their fellow non-Chinese businesses or to not practice discrimination in their employment policies.

Mallot failed to take into account one side of the equation in his brief exposition of the race relations situation in Malaysia. Hopefully, I have managed to redress that and allow a better understanding of why things are the way they are in Malaysia.

It would have been more gracious of Mallot if he had used his relationship with Malaysians during his tenure as a diplomat to impart his country’s experience and firm action with regard to vigilance against the emergence of the evil that is racism, than to make things worse by dogmatically adopting the attitude that sympathising with the minority makes one righteous.

And this was the piece by John Malott, published on the Wall Street Journal (I think)

Malaysia’s national tourism agency promotes the country as “a bubbling, bustling melting pot of races and religions where Malays, Indians, Chinese and many other ethnic groups live together in peace and harmony.” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak echoed this view when he announced his government’s theme, One Malaysia. “What makes Malaysia unique,” Mr. Najib said, “is the diversity of our peoples. One Malaysia’s goal is to preserve and enhance this unity in diversity, which has always been our strength and remains our best hope for the future.”

If Mr. Najib is serious about achieving that goal, a long look in the mirror might be in order first. Despite the government’s new catchphrase, racial and religious tensions are higher today than when Mr. Najib took office in 2009. Indeed, they are worse than at any time since 1969, when at least 200 people died in racial clashes between the majority Malay and minority Chinese communities. The recent deterioration is due to the troubling fact that the country’s leadership is tolerating, and in some cases provoking, ethnic factionalism through words and actions.

For instance, when the Catholic archbishop of Kuala Lumpur invited the prime minister for a Christmas Day open house last December, Hardev Kaur, an aide to Mr. Najib, said Christian crosses would have to be removed. There could be no carols or prayers, so as not to offend the prime minister, who is Muslim. Ms. Kaur later insisted that she “had made it clear that it was a request and not an instruction,” as if any Malaysian could say no to a request from the prime minister’s office.

Similar examples of insensitivity abound. In September 2009, Minister of Home Affairs Hishammuddin Onn met with protesters who had carried the decapitated head of a cow, a sacred animal in the Hindu religion, to an Indian temple. Mr. Hishammuddin then held a press conference defending their actions. Two months later, Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told Parliament that one reason Malaysia’s armed forces are overwhelmingly Malay is that other ethnic groups have a “low spirit of patriotism.” Under public pressure, he later apologized.

The leading Malay language newspaper, Utusan Melayu, prints what opposition leader Lim Kit Siang calls a daily staple of falsehoods that stoke racial hatred. Utusan, which is owned by Mr. Najib’s political party, has claimed that the opposition would make Malaysia a colony of China and abolish the Malay monarchy. It regularly attacks Chinese Malaysian politicians, and even suggested that one of them, parliamentarian Teresa Kok, should be killed.

This steady erosion of tolerance is more than a political challenge. It’s an economic problem as well.

Once one of the developing world’s stars, Malaysia’s economy has underperformed for the past decade. To meet its much-vaunted goal of becoming a developed nation by 2020, Malaysia needs to grow by 8% per year during this decade. That level of growth will require major private investment from both domestic and foreign sources, upgraded human skills, and significant economic reform. Worsening racial and religious tensions stand in the way.

Almost 500,000 Malaysians left the country between 2007 and 2009, more than doubling the number of Malaysian professionals who live overseas. It appears that most were skilled ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians, tired of being treated as second-class citizens in their own country and denied the opportunity to compete on a level playing field, whether in education, business, or government. Many of these emigrants, as well as the many Malaysian students who study overseas and never return (again, most of whom are ethnic Chinese and Indian), have the business, engineering, and scientific skills that Malaysia needs for its future. They also have the cultural and linguistic savvy to enhance Malaysia’s economic ties with Asia’s two biggest growing markets, China and India.

Of course, one could argue that discrimination isn’t new for these Chinese and Indians. Malaysia’s affirmative action policies for its Malay majority—which give them preference in everything from stock allocation to housing discounts—have been in place for decades. So what is driving the ethnic minorities away now?

First, these minorities increasingly feel that they have lost a voice in their own government. The Chinese and Indian political parties in the ruling coalition are supposed to protect the interests of their communities, but over the past few years, they have been neutered. They stand largely silent in the face of the growing racial insults hurled by their Malay political partners. Today over 90% of the civil service, police, military, university lecturers, and overseas diplomatic staff are Malay. Even TalentCorp, the government agency created in 2010 that is supposed to encourage overseas Malaysians to return home, is headed by a Malay, with an all-Malay Board of Trustees.

Second, economic reform and adjustments to the government’s affirmative action policies are on hold. Although Mr. Najib held out the hope of change a year ago with his New Economic Model, which promised an “inclusive” affirmative action policy that would be, in Mr. Najib’s words, “market friendly, merit-based, transparent and needs-based,” he has failed to follow through. This is because of opposition from right-wing militant Malay groups such as Perkasa, which believe that a move towards meritocracy and transparency threatens what they call “Malay rights.”

ut stalling reform will mean a further loss in competitiveness and slower growth. It also means that the cronyism and no-bid contracts that favor the well-connected will continue. All this sends a discouraging signal to many young Malaysians that no matter how hard they study or work, they will have a hard time getting ahead.

Mr. Najib may not actually believe much of the rhetoric emanating from his party and his government’s officers, but he tolerates it because he needs to shore up his Malay base. It’s politically convenient at a time when his party faces its most serious opposition challenge in recent memory—and especially when the opposition is challenging the government on ethnic policy and its economic consequences. One young opposition leader, parliamentarian Nurul Izzah Anwar, the daughter of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, has proposed a national debate on what she called the alternative visions of Malaysia’s future—whether it should be a Malay nation or a Malaysian nation. For that, she earned the wrath of Perkasa; the government suggested her remark was “seditious.”

Malaysia’s government might find it politically expedient to stir the racial and religious pot, but its opportunism comes with an economic price tag. Its citizens will continue to vote with their feet and take their money and talents with them. And foreign investors, concerned about racial instability and the absence of meaningful economic reform, will continue to look elsewhere to do business.