The Equality Conundrum

ron j backus

One can never pick and choose equality. If you terribly want to be equal, you have to accept everyone.

Ron J. Backus

“In Malaysia we have three major races which have practically nothing in common. Their physiognomy, language, culture and religion differ… nothing makes anyone forget the fact of race. So those who say “forget race” are either naive or knaves.” (Mahathir 1970: 175)

While carrying out research in the Senate House Library in London, I stumbled upon a book in the Institute of Commonwealth Studies Books section. This statement by Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister in his infamous “Malay Dilemma” gave me the validation that the dictatorship of 22 years, proved that the level of “political ethnicization” in this country is alarming. Frederik Holst (2012), in his amazing book “Ethnicization and identity construction in Malaysia,” deconstructs Mahathir’s statement, “He mentions spatial separation, lack of interaction, an urban-rural divide, and social gaps. For Mahathir, these configurations seem to be established.” I tried to brush it off, but its 2015, Malaysians have certainly grown out of those configurations, moreover most if not all, have migrated in mind and spirit from this dichotomy.

Don’t get me wrong, but we were put on the world map during his reign as the twin towers shot up and Malaysia developed from being an exporter of rubber and tin, into a manufacturer of electronic equipment and cars. His “look east” policy and “anti-Colonialist rhetoric” landed him in hot water among his Western counterparts, however it was different back home. Often a ‘hero’ but among the non-UMNO, his authoritarian rule severed the racial tapestry of Malaysia, which was inherited and wilfully crafted eons ago by the colonialists with their “divide and conquer” strategy to keep us apart. Could I blame Mahathir entirely for this? I paused to think of our past leaders who have stood up for an inclusive Malaysia but I failed to recognise but one. As I traced the lineage of racial discordance in Malaysian politics and society, I realised that what Mahathir said could probably be true. Can we really “forget race”? I would like to think that this is a new challenge for Malaysians.

We are stepping into our 6th decade as a nation but cracks are still visible, conspicuous than ever before. In view of the current situation, I decided to look back at our Federal Constitution to find some answers. If anyone wants to invalidate my findings please bear in mind that this is solely based on my own close reading. The much debated Article 153 of the Federal Constitution, because this is often plucked out by many to reaffirm that Malaysia practices ‘Constitutional Racism’, actually grants equality to all of her citizens. Part II of the Constitution under “Fundamental Liberties” guarantees that all Malaysians have rights regardless if you are Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indigenous or from other ethnic minorities. There is a vast difference however between a right and a privilege. A right is an entitlement, while a privilege is not. As some feminists have defined, a privilege is an “undeserved social granting of a route to accessing cultural resources”. The keyword is underserved. I cannot think of anyone who would want privilege with such a blaring definition imprinted on it.

Why am I striking the “privilege” chord? Dr. Kua Kia Soong the SUARAM advisor, explains in his 2012 article online “Do Malays have special ‘rights’”, that privileges can be dismantled once the intended results have been met, because they are conditional. A right however cannot be revoked. He also quotes “An Introduction to the Constitution of Malaysia”, by Tun Mohamed Suffian bin Hashim (1972:245) to give better reference on this sensitive matter. I have personally picked this up as well and I realised that there isn’t any reference to ‘Malay rights’. In Article 153, there is a mention of “the special position of the Malays”. However what I gauge from that inclusion is that, the main reason for including Article 153 in the Constitution, after it was discussed by the Commissioners, “was to rectify the perceived weakness of the Malay community in the economic field, the public service and the problem of Malay poverty at the time of Independence”. 

A microscopic look into the Report of the Federation Of Malaya Constitutional Commission 1957, Chapter 9 Fundamental Rights, “Special position of the Malays”, reveals that although this provision should be made for safeguarding, it is however difficult to reconcile the terms of reference in granting “the special position” permanently to one community as it will be unfair. The report continues to explain that the “Special position” has always been recognised and after having considered the issues and concerns arising with the need to safeguard, it still eventually falls on the bed of equality and the enjoyment of fundamental rights. “Our recommendations are made on the footing that the Malays should be assured that the present position will continue for a substantial period, but that in due course the present preferences should be reduced, and should ultimately cease so that there should then be no discrimination between races or communities”.    

In “Empires at War: A Short History of Modern Asia Since World War II” by Francis Pike, he discusses the heat of the racial riots in 1969 with regards to Tunku and his failure to notice the dissatisfaction of UMNO’s performance. Pike narrates that Tunku regretted for not suspending the general elections as he wanted to declare a State of Emergency instead and allow people to cool off. “In this statement, Tunku revealed the peculiar essence of Malaysia’s democracy; it was stable only as long as UMNO and its Communal political allies accepted the status quo of permanent Malay rule”.   

From this pattern it is sensed that there lies a key player, in Tunku’s own words, “a group of men usually referred to as the “Ultras”…who have maneuvered themselves into position in UMNO” in all future racial relations. Now if the Constitution provided equality and we formed a nation, what could have been a trigger to ignore the Commissioners recommendations and continue with a discriminatory clause? “Bumiputera” or not, the conception of this racial privilege dichotomy is one that is cataclysmic and politically motivated used again to separate and subjugate the nation.

Constitutional amendments, initiated by UMNO “and the adumbration and implementation of the post-1969 suite of affirmative action policies, ensured that henceforth political accommodation would be on Malay, and more specifically, UMNO terms, and clearly signalled that Malay power brokers would not tolerate any challenge to their authority”, Carl Vadivella Belle profoundly writes in his book “Tragic Orphans-Indians in Malaysia”.

This idea of superiority and supremacy is like cancer, a constant multiplication of deadly cells. It is a complex and emotional take on the situation, nevertheless we have to come to terms with our history and make analysis for ourselves. No politician should tell you what to believe in, instead politicians should start believing in the power of the people. If you believe inequality is here and you want it rid, then you must stand up and be counted. It takes both sides of the spectrum to fight this.

The price for playing racial politics is unfathomable but I tried to understand the reasons people kept voting such politicians and subscribing to racial politics, however it seemed to me that Malaysia wanted and have always tried to portray a ‘moderate’, successful, high income nation to the world. In this process, we sold our souls to unscrupulous parties because we were afraid to challenge the leadership.

Many were comfortable with the success Malaysia had and ignored the underlying fractures. The horror of the 1969 riots will forever remain, but something fruitful has to be taken from that incident. There must be intellectual discussions about these pressing issues, however under the present circumstances I doubt any discussion will remain civil because the game on fear and subjugation is amplified by threats from thugs, “Ultra” groups, which I suspect are paid, otherwise feeling charitable in these difficult times.

I cast my first vote last general elections but my heart still bleeds for the nation. I am enraged and disappointed. Novelist Arundhati Roy succinctly says “If we were to lose the ability to be emotional, if we were to lose the ability to be angry, to be outraged, we would be robots. And I refuse that”. Let it be clear that the space given to be emotional does not equate to reacting. Reacting ensues emotions that aren’t channelled in a decent manner. Responding, however, is the invitation for one to take these emotions, which you have let yourself feel, and put it to an intelligible purpose.

Tariq Ismail, the grandson of former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr Ismail, got acquainted with me recently on social media and we had many insightful discussions on current issues and the Constitution. He is now reaching out to all Malaysians to sign an online petition to protect our Constitution from being abused. Now, this is one of the many appropriate ways to show your Malaysian spirit and love for the country by Responding. Protect the document that binds you and me together.

However do not be bamboozled that this is all about race. Equality, a discordant term to privileged groups, also extends to gender, class, sexuality and disability. We are so blessed to share this nation with people from diverse colours, different religious beliefs and sexual orientations, and not ignoring the innate nature of hybrid identities. The hope and need for Malaysia to be inclusive is vital. One can never pick and choose equality. If you terribly want to be equal, you have to accept everyone. It is unfortunate that opposition politics also fail to address some of these issues. Until someone or some political force decides to embrace the true meaning of equality and inclusivity, then change will come sweeping in. Till then, I urge you to protect what we have now. That’s the Constitution and you.  


The writer is currently a Masters student in Postcolonial and Global Literatures at Queen Mary University of London. He is a feminist, a strong believer of equality and an avid reader of postcolonial and queer narratives. Though he often writes thought provoking rants on his social media, he is notoriously an advocate for a liberal inclusive Malaysia.