Malay rights, Islam and royalty

HARDLY a year goes by in Malaysia without some kind of public dispute involving race and religion. The issue for 2010: “Allah“. 2009: Cow-head protesters and Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno‘s whipping sentence. 2008: Datuk Ahmad Ismail and his “pendatang” slurs against non-Malay Malaysians. 2007: Lina Joy‘s contentious conversion out of Islam.

By Ding Jo-Ann (The Nut Graph)

These have all been issues of national importance, but attempts to resolve them through dialogue and discussion have repeatedly been thwarted by politicians and non-state agents. The conversation stoppers that have been employed have been, unsurprisingly, Malay rights; the religion of Malays in Malaysia, Islam; and every now and again, Malay royalty.

Why are arguments affecting public interest constantly linked back to Islam and Malay Malaysians by the most tenuous of connections? And why is royalty being invoked even when a public interest issue, such as the whipping of Kartika Sari Dewi Sukarno, is being debated by concerned citizens?

Perhaps it is because it is convenient to hide behind topics that are deemed to be unquestionable. The “special position of Malays” under the constitution has today been rephrased as inalienable “Malay rights”. Islam is God’s law and hence cannot be questioned. And to “raise discontent or disaffection” towards the monarchy would be seditious.

But hasn’t the whole “this is a threat to Malays and Islam” argument just been one gigantic red herring to avoid discussing real issues with real facts and sound arguments?

Asli report

Take the 2006 Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (Asli) report, for instance. A study prepared by internationally recognised Malaysian academics revealed that bumiputera equity ownership could be as high as 45% and not 18.9% as claimed by the government. This was more than the 30% bumiputera equity target under the New Economic Policy (NEP).

Asli’s then research director, Dr Lim Teck Ghee, also said there was clear evidence that bumiputera wealth had accrued in the hands of an elite group. His study advocated new policies to ensure sustained economic growth and more equitable distribution methods.

The study was soundly lambasted by the government, which declared that its methodology was wrong. Asli’s president Mirzan Mahathir withdrew the report, and Lim resigned in protest.

As the “this is a threat to Malay rights” argument began, the factual debate on the matter ended.

“[Asli] should correct the facts and figures because it could confuse the Malays,” said Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Mohd Rustam

“Let’s not draw up a report that triggers anger [among many people] and then simply concede to having made mistakes. The damage is done already,” said then Umno Youth deputy head Khairy Jamaluddin.

“I am very sceptical about the study which has been carried out by a particular race. They (the race) usually have their own agendas,” said Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia political science professor Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin

“If we make baseless statements it just hurts people’s feelings. Why would we do something like that?” said former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Amid the furore, the real issues raised by the report were completely lost.

What was the government’s methodology in calculating corporate equity ownership? Why was there a big discrepancy between the government’s figure and Asli’s? Why couldn’t the government make fully public the methodologies, classifications and assumptions it relied on?

Certainly, it was far easier for Umno leaders to use the red herring of “Malay rights” than to actually justify and rectify its policies about the NEP. And that they did.

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