On our own merit

Marina Mahathir, The Star

WHEN I was admitted to a local boarding school as a teenager many aeons ago, I had the misfortune of arriving at school late by two weeks.

The misfortune was mine in several ways. One was that the reason for my delayed entry was an operation I needed to remove an ovarian cyst.

The second I only realised when I finally arrived at school: everyone knew who I was and why I was late.

Perhaps there was a reason why I was singled out for mention at assemblies.

At the time, in the early seventies, my father had gained some public notoriety as the man who defied his leader.

In those days, while this called for disciplinary action, it did not lead to the sort of punitive action and ostracisation that we saw in recent years towards those not toeing the line. Whatever it was, by the time I got to school, I was already known as the daughter of the Defying Man.

Some may see that as a celebratory reception and to be fair, there were a lot of my new friends who were extremely kind to me.

But there were a few who perceived my being there as some sort of affront.

To get into that elite boarding school, you had to excel in your exams and get a certain minimum grade. I qualified well enough.

But there were some who suspected that I was there only because I was the daughter of a famous man, that I could not possibly be smart enough to gain entry were it not for my family connection.

For the two years I was there, I was often reminded that I was not good enough to call myself a pupil of that school.

Students were admitted entirely on merit and therefore they came from many different backgrounds, from the daughters of farmers to the daughters of royalty.

Performance in class was all that mattered; it was totally a meritocracy.

But for some reason there were those who didn’t believe I deserved to be there.

Just before our major exams, the one that would determine our future, one even said to me that she was “worried” for me, afraid that I would not have what it takes to get through them.

I was recalling those times recently, when it was so frustrating to have people think I had an easy pass because of familial connections when I knew that I was no less deserving academically than anyone else.

And I wondered if, in the competitive world out there, anyone else felt equally patronised because some people thought they didn’t really measure up to the requirements of their field.

I am wondering about all those smart Malay kids out there who have had to put up with being thought stupid because their race gave them special privileges.

Undoubtedly there are many who need a leg up in order to give them opportunities and place them on an equal footing as anyone else.

But with so much abuse over the years, where the undeserving have gotten into universities and jobs just because of their genetic make-up and who they knew, where does that leave all those who are actually smart and work hard to get where they are?

I have met so many young Malays who are very good at their studies or their jobs.

More importantly, they are thinking individuals who have very progressive views of the world. But I wonder if the abuses of affirmative action have had a negative impact on them too, especially when they live and work in Malaysia.

Did they have to face the same sort of condescension that I had to face when people thought I didn’t deserve to be in that elite school?

This is the problem when we have policies that are based entirely on race, and where we allow their easy abuse by loosening the rules and regulations.

I have no problem with affirmative action at all because I do think that there are groups of people who need it in order to be able to compete on a level playing field.

But the operative word here is “compete”, not given a gilded shoehorn into education or jobs based entirely on what your DNA is.

We all cry foul when due to the actions of a few, all Muslims are regarded as potential terrorists. But a similar stereotyping occurs when affirmative action policies are abused and the undeserving are given entitlements they should not get: all Malays are deemed also undeserving.

Nobody is seen as actually smart enough to enter university or get the top job, it’s only because they are Malay and/or knew somebody.

Women in particular should recognise this phenomenon. We are rarely thought smart or deserving enough to get the jobs and positions we apply for. Indeed, we are often discouraged from even thinking of applying.

Yet when there are attempts at affirmative action for women in the form of quotas, there are cries of “we only select based on meritocracy, not gender”, sometimes from women themselves.

Many older successful women are afraid that if we have quotas for them, they will have to continually live in a hostile environment where scorn is constantly heaped on their abilities.

But the truth is that proponents of quotas, like me, are not saying that we should choose just any woman to sit on boards, the Cabinet or other positions.

We are saying open the spaces for deserving women, based on their merits, because there are plenty of them out there, if only you would care to look.

By the same token then, Malays who have any pride in their own intellectual capacities and abilities should be just as resentful as those women who dislike quotas.

They should want to be judged on how well they do their jobs, not how well they represent affirmative action.

In our last government, Malays more than fulfilled their quota in politics. But they then did an abysmal job of helping their own people, apart from the ones who polished their behinds every day.

It is supremely ironic that those very same people are now demanding that the quotas they abused should be upheld forever.

It’s time really for the many intelligent progressive Malays to start claiming their right to be judged on their own abilities, to be considered well deserving of whatever achievements they have gained in life by their own efforts.

It’s high time that they pushed back at the inevitable patronising and – let’s call it what it is – racism that arises from a reaction to policies that hand over on a platter all sorts of benefits simply because they happened to be born to Malay parents.

We talk about maruah or dignity of our people all the time. But after the colossal thievery that our own people have inflicted on us, dignity can only be regained through hard work and the determination to do better, to show that we can stand with anyone in the world on our own merits.

That’s the only way for us to gain respect from everyone else.

And indeed, the only way we can respect ourselves.