Tag Archives: Bumiputera

I Have a Dream

Martin Luther King once began: ‘I have a dream…’

I, too, have a dream. In my dream racial discrimination in Malaysia is a thing of the past. In this dream my homeland, Malaysia, has transformed into a country known for good governance. In my dream Malaysia is a beacon: a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural country in which I, though largely of Chinese descent, am treated as an equal citizen.

With each passing day this dream recedes further into the abyss. Racial discrimination in Malaysia is now entrenched. The country’s governance gets from bad to worse. And its list of scandals grows longer.

When it comes to corruption, Malaysia competes well with the likes of China and Mexico – a staggering feat for a country of only 30 million. According to Global Financial Integrity, the developing countries with the largest illicit outflows between 2001 and 2010 were China, Mexico and Malaysia. No surprise, then, that US$1.2 billion found their way into the Prime Minister’s personal bank account in the scandal known as 1MDB. How such an astounding amount arrived there is something which Najib Razak, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, has still not explained properly, yet the man remains Prime Minister and looks unlikely to be deposed!

Hand-in-hand with corruption have come increasing Muslim fundamentalism and concomitant attacks on religious freedom, the latter always carried out under the guise of ‘protecting Muslims’. Several years ago the word ‘Allah’ was proscribed for use by non-Muslims when referring to God. Emboldened by this poisonous atmosphere, extremists have attacked churches, cast aspersions on the adherents of other religions, and routinely made racist comments that would not be tolerated in a civilised country. These disturbing trends date back years. The culprits behave with impunity and with the connivance of the ruling political party – the United Malays National Organisation – or UMNO. This party, which has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957, uses Islam as an electoral tool with which to acquire the Muslim vote.

A new low was reached recently. Now activists have begun to disappear. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) finally took note and placed Malaysia on its Tier 2 list, alongside such luminaries of religious freedom as Afghanistan, Cuba and Turkey.

How did Malaysia, a once tolerant and moderate country, get to this point?

First, if we strip everything away, I believe the crux of Malaysia’s problems lies in something we are not supposed to discuss: its racist policies. The country’s descent has been gradual. But the slide actually began a long time ago – with the principle that not all Malaysians are created equal.

The idea that some Malaysians, namely, those of us who are ethnically Chinese or Indian, are somehow ‘squatting’ on land that rightfully belongs to Malays is pernicious but long-standing. I first heard the idea expressed in Mahathir Mohamad’s infamous book ‘The Malay Dilemma’. In the blog-post Where is Home? I describe how being called a squatter made me feel. By 1973 when I learnt about Mahathir’s book, the concept had already been codified into so-called affirmative action policies with no time limitation. The beneficiaries are a special breed of Malaysian, one who deserves extra rights, not through merit or because of need, but because the ancestors of this type of Malaysian arrived in the country earlier. The logic is so spurious that a special term had to be invented: bumiputera, or the prince/princes of the earth. (See The Malaysia We’ve Lost.)

Imagine the first pilgrims to the United States calling themselves the ‘princes of the earth’ and giving themselves and their descendants ‘special rights’, over and above those enjoyed by all the other waves of immigrants who helped build America. Bumiputera ‘rights’ in Malaysia are eye-watering; they include: entitlement to a disproportionate share of university places, discounted property, quotas in government departments, 30% equity stakes in companies and government scholarships. At one point, there were even universities reserved for bumiputera! This has been the situation in Malaysia since the 1970s, when the concept of the bumiputera was written into government policy.

The question of who is a bumiputera is a minefield, because there are people who are truly indigenous to Malaysia. Even in the Malay language they are called Orang Asli, or the original people. Naturally Orang Asli have bumiputera status, though this is more lip service. The crucial point is that Malaysians of Malay ethnicity, who are believed to have come to Malaysia from Yunnan in southern China and more recently from India and Indonesia, are all deemed to be bumiputera.

Why is this important? To start with, there is the issue of moral dubiety. In Malaysia it’s well-known that part of Mahathir Mohamad’s own family came from India. Ergo, the man who calls me a squatter in The Malay Dilemma is himself squatting on land which belongs to Malaysia’s original people, the Orang Asli. Then, there is the groundswell of resentment which the creation of the bumiputera has caused. How can you have a unified nation with such blatantly racist policies? The answer is that you can’t. A million Malaysians have left. I am part of that exodus. I left with a heavy heart – and anyone who has read The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds will know that my love for Malaysia remains strong.

What do you think happens when a government tells one section of its populace – the bumiputera – that its members have rights over and above others? It’s almost inevitable that those who are mollycoddled become spoilt. They start to feel as if they’re above the law and can do whatever they want.

Worse than that, dishing out special rights anaesthesises those who are privileged – in this case, the bumiputera population, the Malay recipients who form the country’s majority. UMNO, the ruling party, has been purchasing their acquiescence for decades and in so doing, has fundamentally distorted the democratic process. For as long as a majority in the electorate is numbed by handouts, UMNO can do whatever it wants.

Except… it’s now harder, even for UMNO. After nearly sixty years in power there is discontent, especially among urban Malays. UMNO’s excesses have become so electrifying, they’ve hit world attention. Part of its electorate is restless. Some bumiputeras recognise the harm which Malaysia’s racist policies have done. A columnist, Wan Saiful Wan Jan (a bumiputera), with two friends (also bumiputera), began the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) several years ago. In a recent article, Wan Saiful pointed out the immorality of Malaysia’s bumiputera policy. ‘Why not then steal from the rich and give to the poor?’ he wrote rhetorically.

Wan Saiful should be applauded. No one else has had the guts to be as blunt. He and groups like IDEAS and Bersih (the group that is fighting for clean, fair elections) – and all the people campaigning for an open, progressive Malaysia – must be supported.

And here’s the second part of my answer: Malaysia did not arrive at this point by accident. We Malaysians have allowed it to happen. We have allowed it through our collusion and our silence, and by our refusal to venture outside of our comfort zone. When I was growing up, how many times did I hear a fellow Malaysian-Chinese say, ‘Ai-yahh, why bother with politics? Let’s just make money-lah…’

Fast forward to 2017, when we can see where such attitudes have led us. Malaysia is poised at a crossroads, and what I hear now is a lot of grumbling. Mutterings too, along the lines of, ‘What’s the point? I can’t do anything. I’m not bumiputera.’

In this way, all blame is passed on to the bumiputera, as if we do not bear collective responsibility for the state of our country. As if our national obsession with food, gossip and shopping, to the exclusion of much else, is not a contributory factor. I know I’m guilty, too. I took the easy option and left, instead of staying on to fight. I now do what I can, by supporting Bersih and IDEAS and all the people who are willing to stand up for a better Malaysia. I also write. Both in this blog and in the novels forming The Malayan Series, which will carry on after the second book, When the Future Comes Too Soon, is published this summer. Fiction is a powerful tool, one which I intend to use. (Foreign readers don’t need to know anything about Malaysia. The Malayan Series is first and foremost an epic family saga, a story about people. What happens will be experienced through the characters themselves.)

There are plenty of Malaysians who tell me, ‘Malaysia is still a good place to live.’ And then they ask what I can find elsewhere that I can’t have in Malaysia.

Here are a few of the things I enjoy in the West. Equality in the law. The chance to compete on merit. A vote which counts. And when things aren’t right, I have the ability to protest, to get things changed. Anyone who has read The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds will understand that I have not been brainwashed by the West. No human system is perfect; both Britain and America have flaws.

Within the cracks of their flaws, however, lies a gem: the cliché known as freedom. In the West, I have the freedom to be whoever I want and to live my life exactly as I choose. This is so precious and priceless that once experienced, is almost impossible to give up.

To those who say that Malaysia is still a great place to live in, I have the following questions.

  • Do you think this is the country our predecessors fought for in 1957?
  • Is today’s Malaysia really the country you want to see?
  • Does this Malaysia make you proud?
  • And what are you going to do about it?

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An Unexpected Discovery

A few days ago, when I told a Frenchman that I came from Malaysia, he said, ‘Ah, you have a simple language.’ It was not the first time someone had told me that s/he thought Malay “simple”. The sub-text, albeit unarticulated, was usually: “simple language, simple people”.

I felt it again with this Frenchman, a European condescension towards my Asian culture. I thought to myself: what does he even know about Malay?

Malay was a language of my childhood, one of three. My family spoke English and Cantonese at home but I was taught in Malay at school – part of the first intake of students to be educated exclusively in the Malay language in what had previously been English-medium schools.

I learned the language, but failed to appreciate its poetic beauty. This was partly because in Malaysia, Mathematics and the Sciences are more highly regarded than the Humanities, and partly because of the political context in which the switch from English to Malay took place.

It occurred in the aftermath of May 13 1969,  a day on which Malaysians of Chinese origin were targeted for slaughter at the hands of mobs of Malays in Kuala Lumpur’s streets. The killings occurred after UMNO – the political party which has ruled Malaysia since its independence from Britain in 1957 – and its allies lost the popular vote and many parliamentary seats in a general election.

The period afterwards was a time of radical change. Within about a year, Malaysia had a new Prime Minister; within two years, a raft of racially discriminatory measures was put in place. It was then that Malay was imposed as the medium of instruction in previously English-medium schools.

Language, of course, is not only a means of communication: it is also a political tool. In Malaysia certainly, language and religion are used adroitly by UMNO. UMNO understood early on the power of language. It has been uncommonly adept at choosing emotive words and at using these words to craft an insidious political narrative.

Thus I grew up hearing that I was pendatang yang tumpang sahaja di Malaysia, a newcomer who was only squatting in Malaysia. This was the backdrop in which I was taught Malay. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I never stopped to think about what a beautiful language Malay actually is. If French (which I speak) is romantic, then Malay is poetic. It was only when I started writing a novel and began filling my landscapes with characters who ran around speaking different languages that I was struck by just how poetic the Malay language is.

Take for instance the simple concept of homeland. The Malay equivalent is tanahair, literally translated as “soil (tanah) water (air)”, in other words the earth and water from which you come. I hope you will agree that the expression “my soil and water” is much more evocative than “homeland”.

Or take that well-known beast, the “orang-utan”. In truth, the latter is a bastardisation of the words orang, meaning a person, and hutan, meaning forest. Orang hutan is actually “a person of the forest”. The phrase, if you think about it, is immensely inclusive; it says, “Here is the forest, we share it with this creature which is not so different from us – a person of the forest.” For me, orang hutan captures the essence of traditional Malay culture, which was at once utterly respectful of others and very gentle towards them.

Even that wonderful political creation, the bumiputera – the prince (putera) of the earth (bumi) or son of the soil, a person who by dint of race or religion is privileged in Malaysia – has a certain ring to it. From a purely linguistic standpoint, the word bumiputera is really rather beautiful.

There are many other examples, and yet poetic beauty is not what people think of when they mention the Malay language. Instead they say what the Frenchman said to me: Malay is “simple”.

What he and others don’t seem to realise is that Malay was written using the Arabic script, a form known as Jawi, until quite recently. I discovered this for myself while carrying out research for my second novel (for which incidentally I have completed a first draft). Most of this research took place at the National Library of Singapore (whose generous opening hours of between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. allowed me ample time to work). There, shivering in the ultra-cold air-conditioning which Malaysians and Singaporeans seem to favour, I found that the Malay language newspapers I wanted to read had been published solely in the Arabic script. On further digging, I could not find a single Malay newspaper which had not been printed in Jawi up to the Second World War. I was of course unable to read any of them; the Jawi which we had been taught in school was rudimentary, because Jawi was already not in everyday use by the time I went to school.

If Malay were still written today the way it used to be – in the Arabic script – would people go around denigrating it as a simple language?

I grew up hearing and speaking Malay every day but I took the language for granted, in the same way Malaysians assume they will see the sun every day. Only recently have I rediscovered Malay. At the same time, I began to appreciate the richness of Malaysia’s multilingual environment. I can easily recall the distinctive sounds of my native country: Malay, with its elegant smoothness; the no-frills brand of Cantonese I grew up with, rough and ready, a far cry from the haughty Hong Kong version but more in tune with the go-getting entrepreneurs who spoke it loudly and merrily; and the energetic, tongue-rolling Tamil used by our Indian friends, full of indecipherable syllables at which I could only shake my head.

We in Malaysia are fortunate to have this wealth as our heritage. But I have yet to hear a Malaysian adoring any of our languages the way the French adore theirs. The French are happy to debate the intricacies of their language for hours and will happily tell you how wonderful French is. This is something I wish Malaysians could also do, starting with our national language, Bahasa Malaysia. I would love to see Malaysians not only owning Bahasa Malaysia and learning it with enthusiasm, but also acknowledging its inherent poetry and being proud of it.

 

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The Malaysia We’ve Lost

My novel, set in Malaya (now called Malaysia) is multi-layered. I’ve written it in such a way that a reader can enjoy it without knowing any Malaysian history. Of course, the story would be richer for those with some knowledge of the country. Malaysians will see more to the story than Westerners…perhaps even controversy and criticism of present-day Malaysian racial politics.

It’s not intended as such; I simply wanted to tell a powerful and entertaining story. Yet, there’s no denying that at the time the story begins, Malaya was more truly one country than it is today. Which is ironic, because the current Prime Minister has initiated a campaign called “One Malaysia” – 1Malaysia, supposedly to ‘preserve and enhance the diversity which is our strength’. I will explain in this blog-post why the slogan 1Malaysia is farcical when used in today’s Malaysia. Below, I write from my personal experience and understanding.

First, I have to tell you more about Malaysia. Let’s start with where it’s situated. The map below should help. Malaysia is coloured orange and comprises two parts: a western peninsular, and the northern part of Borneo (the island on the right, which belongs mostly to Indonesia). The point to note is Malaysia’s strategic position. India lies to the north-west, China to the north and north-east. Siam (now Thailand) neighbours it to the north, while Indonesia lies directly south. That narrow bit of sea which separates western Malaysia from Indonesia, known as the Straits of Malacca, provides a sheltered channel for ships and is still famous for pirates.

Because of this fortuitous position, Malaysia has been at cultural cross-roads for centuries. Malays themselves are thought to have come from Yunnan in southern China. Traders from as far as Arabia also came, as did Indian princes and of course, some of my ancestors, the Chinese, who arrived in their junk-boats. Nearer home, Malays from neighbouring Indonesia migrated in regular waves, not to mention the south-bound Siamese (modern Thais) on the backs of elephants.

Many of these early immigrants settled in Malaya, which is not surprising – the land I come from is glorious, its people hospitable. It has everything: stretches of sand where palm trees sway, pristine waters always warm to the touch, but also mountains crowned in luscious green.

It’s a piece of paradise on earth. As a result, new communities grew, including mixed-heritage peoples like the Nyonyas.

Then, the British came. (Though there were other Europeans before – Dutch, Portuguese, they’re not important to this narrative). The British arrived in the late 1700s, but their influence reached its nadir during the late 1800s where my novel begins. Under British rule, the waves of migration – which had happened naturally in Malaya until then – were disrupted by the large-scale organised import of labour from India and China. The new workers were needed for the rubber plantations and tin mines which the British opened up. 

With all this migration, you might have thought that nobody lived on these lands until the waves of immigrants arrived. Not so, because there are indigenous peoples in Malaysia– the Orang Asli (which incidentally means the ‘original people’ in Malay).

The racial composition of modern Malaysia is: Malay (50%), Chinese (24%), Orang Asli (11%), Indian (7%), others (8%).  As with many multi-cultural societies, each community is famous for certain things – except for the Orang Asli, who have been marginalised. Malays have a refined sense of beauty; just look at their traditional dresses and houses (picture on right, below).

Indians are entrepreneurs and professionals, especially in law and medicine. As for the Chinese, well, shrewd business people who work hard, with many self-made millionaires from among the coolies who arrived during the tin years. In fact, the Chinese diaspora in Asia are called the Jews of the East, our priorities being family, children’s education and business. I know quite a few who say, “Let me do my business. I don’t care about politics”.

With such rich heritage and diversity, Malaysia must be the perfect place to live, right? Just like in that world-famous song from the Malaysian Tourist Board ad campaign – Malaysia, Truly Asia  –where people of different races dance and smile happily? Unfortunately, not quite.

In the late 60s just after I was born, a series of Chinese pogroms happened. Many Chinese were murdered. Actually as soon as I was born, I had to flee Singapore: my grandmother and her maid took me away from my parents to a safer place (near Ipoh), many hours away by train at the time. For two women travelling alone in that time of calamity, it was heroic, and I am so grateful…

And then, on the infamous day 13 May 1969, I remember my father returning early from work. He rushed up, shouting in Cantonese, “They’re killing us!” “Who, who?” my mother asked, and when we heard that Malay mobs were attacking Chinese with scythes and knives, we could hardly believe it. We’d had Malay neighbours, Indian neighbours, all sorts – people who came to our house and drank from the same glasses. In fact, we were living in a predominantly Malay area then, and almost all our neighbours were Malay. We were terrified: if a mob had come to our house, we could have been killed….

No one really knows who caused the incitement which led to these so-called ‘racial riots.’ However soon after – in order to ‘manage racial tensions’ (i.e. to make Malays as rich as Chinese were), racially discriminatory policies commenced which are still in place today. Note that these policies are supposedly justified on the grounds that the Malays arrived in Malaysia before the other immigrants did. Therefore, they are entitled to ‘special rights.’ They’ve even invented a term to enshrine this quality of specialness: bumiputera, which means the Princes of the earth. (Obviously, they couldn’t call themselves Orang Asli, since there were already indigenous peoples.)

These discriminatory policies have been sold as a programme of ‘positive discrimination’ to allow the Malays to catch up economically with the Chinese and Indians. Policy examples:

  • Any listed company to have at least 30% of equity ownership in bumiputera hands.
  • University places reserved for bumiputera, regardless of the academic performance (now modified, but still a two-tier system).
  • For a limited period, a certain percentage of new housing in any development reserved for bumiputera buyers, with developers required to provide a minimum 7% discount to these buyers.

There are plenty of others, but I’ll be restrained here.

Such blatantly race-based policies are bound to have consequences. They have changed Malaysia – and not for the better. Races have become more separated, less friendly to each other, with a cultivated list of grudges. Nyonya culture – that colourful mix of Malay and Chinese traditions, values and beliefs which emerged through centuries of living together and inter-marrying– could never happen in modern Malaysia.

Policies based solely on race are unjustifiable for other reasons.

First, they de facto assume that Malays would be incapable of competing on merit. As a person with Malay blood somewhere down the line, my Great-Grandmother being a Nyonya, I find this insulting (as no doubt do my mixed Malay-Chinese cousins).

Secondly, who cares whose ancestors arrived first on our shores? Surely what is more important is what we can each contribute to building up our country.

Thirdly, it creates the indescribable reality that not all Malaysians are equal. Which is sad, but true. This has played a large part in making it hard for me to come to terms with being Malaysian-Chinese (evidently, though I have Malay blood, I don’t have enough of it).

In the face of all this, how can we even talk of 1Malaysia?

There may well be Malaysians reading this who call me unpatriotic. Some may even say that if I don’t like it, I should go ‘home’. I don’t know where they think my home is; China? My response would be that if they can’t be criticised, they should stop pretending we have a democracy.

Especially for those who question my patriotism, I describe here what it was like for me being back in Malaysia after seventeen years away. I remember the moment well. It was afternoon when we landed. As soon as I stepped outside the airport, a blast of humid air hit me, and I felt the heat seep into my bones. It was such a familiar feeling, even after so many years, that if feelings could be painted, then that moment is forever engraved in my memory. I knew instantly that I had come home.

That moment made me realise my visceral connection with this land in which I grew up. It’s my country too. I will always have this connection, no matter where I live in this world. And no matter what racist policies remain in place in Malaysia. Policies which make me feel unwelcome and unable to live here to the full. Where is home for me?

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