Apartheid in the Malaysian context

I would confidently say Malaysia’s NEP and NDP are more akin to apartheid than affirmative action not only in their morality but also in the way they have been implemented. 

Dr Boo Cheng Hau, Malaysian Mirror 

Apartheid was officially defined in South Africa as ‘separate development’. But apartheid is really an elite regime with concentration of power in the hands of a few.

Apartheid involves the complete domination of one race over the other – economically, politically and socially.

South Africa is still struggling with the socio-economic sequels of apartheid itself. I do not think one should be obsessed with the physical aspect of apartheid [segregation] but rather be more concerned about its longstanding socio-economic deprivation and mental humiliation of not only being labelled according to skin colour but more factually to your native status.

umno2.jpgMany have mistaken apartheid as a form of racial discrimination based on white superiority. It has been well-documented that it is actually a preferential treatment for white Afrikaners (South Africans of Dutch descent) following victimisation by the British colonists during the Boer War where thousands of Boer Trekkers died in wartime.

Umno’s Ketuanan Melayu is race-based dominance in a multiracial country and is the exact ideology employed by the single-race National Party which imposed apartheid rule in South Africa. The National Party portrayed themselves as the champions of ‘Afrikaner Sovereignty’ and ‘white supremacy’.

Similarly, Umno’s ideological basis for its political struggle has been Malay nationalism and bumiputeraism. Like the National Party, Umno has also imposed a heavily state-guided capitalist economic system.

Parallel argument to claim native status

White Afrikaners’s native status was based on the familiar argument that they set up the ‘first civilised government’ in their motherland of South Africa.

The African aborigines such as the Khoisan and Xhosa people did not set up any ‘civilised government’ and the others were later immigrants. And hence they were never considered as ‘natives’ for special treatment by the state.

umno1.jpgThe exact argument has been deployed by Umno and its Barisan Nasional counterparts to justify bumiputeraism in that the Malays set up the ‘first definitive government’ in Tanah Melayu – (Dr Mahatir Mohamad: The Malay Dilemma). Thus they are considered as bumiputera despite the historical fact that Orang Asli are the first settlers of this land.

Later immigrants are not considered as bumiputera for special treatment by the state.

False justification for apartheid

As I pointed out earlier, historians have documented that white Afrikaners had been deprived during and after the Boer War.

Apartheid was started out to help ‘the poor white natives’, meaning to help the white Afrikaners to compete in the job market with the influx of the much cheaper black labour from other parts of Africa.

In Malaysia just after independence, the situation was that while a few Chinese were able to own businesses, the majority of the Chinese and Indians were manual and estates workers.

Statistics even show that the Malays’ literacy rate was much higher than Chinese and Indians’ at the time of Independence. It was not a question of who was richer than whom.

It was a fact that we were all impoverished, but one ethnic group may have been relatively more impoverished than the others. Nonetheless, this is not a moral ground to justify immoral means such as racial degradation of non-native status.

Historians conclude that under South Africa’s apartheid rule, ‘race is class, class is race’ meaning the ruling elite class was predominantly white notwithstanding the fact that there were collaborators of other races working hand in hand with it to sustain their benefits. Similarly, the BN ruling elite class is composed mainly of Umno leaders notwithstanding their collaborators from MIC, MCA and others.

Affirmative action must be carried out with individualisation and transparency. Affirmative action should be allowed to be challenged in court. Do we have that in Malaysia? On the contrary, the NEP and the NDP have so far been carried out under the umbrella of draconian laws such as the ISA, OSA and the like.

I would confidently say Malaysia’s NEP and NDP are more akin to apartheid than affirmative action not only in their morality but also in the way they have been implemented.

One may argue that Malaysia’s economy has grown with the implementation of the NEP and NDP for almost a 30-year period. So did South Africa’s economy grow for almost two decades without fail under apartheid rule. In both countries, an elite class of all races emerged under preferential treatment but that does not justify the immorality of Umno’s and Barisan Nasional’s political hegemony.

[DR BOO CHENG HAU is Johor DAP chairman. The above article is the latest condensed version of his original published on March 20, 2009 under the title ‘Immorality of de facto apartheid must go’ and can be read on the Centre for Policy Initiatives website]