Has Malaysia crossed the Rubicon?

From JJ Singam, Free Malaysia Today

A burning issue today for many Malaysians, particularly the younger population whose lives lie a long way ahead of them, is the question “Where do I go from here?”

In my own youth more than 40 years ago, the only real issues in my mind were to graduate with a well-recognised degree, find a stable job with a decent income and good prospects for career progression, and lead a peaceful and comfortable life.

The divide between Bumiputeras and non-Bumiputeras was already there for educational opportunities and scholarships and subsequently job opportunities as well, but it was not taken negatively.

The social re-engineering and affirmative action concept behind the New Economic Policy (NEP) was in place for what was intended to be a 20-year period, from 1971 to 1991.

The important takeaway at that time was that every Malaysian citizen would eventually be on equal footing and the NEP, at its 20 year conclusion, would bridge the economic gap between the different ethnicities and bring it to a much more equitable level.

Today, 30 years after the original intended conclusion date of the NEP, I am already at the sunset of my career with the “golden years” (an optimistic slant for senior citizens) ahead, and the NEP has been replaced by variants with the same theme and concept.

Racial division as wide as ever

Until today, the divide between the Bumiputeras and non-Bumiputeras is as wide as ever, if the sources behind the statistics are to be believed.

So NEP-like policies continue unabated into the foreseeable future.

I always felt that the economic prosperity generated during the 1980s and 1990s was the exact catalyst needed for Malaysia to realise the objectives of the social re-engineering policies much sooner than forecast.

Foremost in my mind was that of a finite period and definite end-date in sight after which every Malaysian would be treated exactly the same and be conferred the same rights and privileges without exception.

Where does Malaysia stand today? Racial polarisation in many facets of life has become the order of the day.

In kindergartens and schools, there is a segregation of sorts through mandatory religious education for those of the Islamic faith; food restrictions and seating arrangements imposed in some schools (although unsanctioned by the relevant ministries).

There is a proliferation of vernacular, private and international schools, which also gives rise to a segregation of sorts through different language mediums and lack of affordability.

Government-funded residential schools are overwhelmingly race-based and segregationist in that many good students are placed in these secondary schools and are separated from the mainstream schools, thus leaving a vacuum by removing students with higher thinking skills and leadership abilities; and so on.

Even playing field of the 1980s

This is a major change from the 1980s when the same education was given to all school students, and moral and civic studies were taught in primary schools for all students without exception. This no doubt was crucial in moulding young minds to value unity, harmony and cordial relations among all races and faiths.

There are now many public universities but still there are numerous cases of high-achieving students not gaining a place in the university and course of their choice.

It appears many non-Bumiputera students have to chart their own course at their own cost as government scholarships and public university placements are also quota based.

In employment, there is a perception of a general bias in that most government jobs are filled by Bumiputeras and similarly for government-linked companies.

The private sector is unsurprisingly dominated by those of Chinese ethnicity as they have after all built up our economy in almost every aspect, and continue to be the mainstay through small and medium enterprises.

There have been attempts to restructure economic ownership; however, investment funds such as PNB, Khazanah, KWSP, LTAT, and others are perceived as operating in line with the social re-engineering policies of the government, with a bias towards certain segments of the population, again defined by race.

Laws against discrimination

In most developed countries legislation has been enacted to prevent bias in hiring policies but here it is seen as not possible due to officially sanctioned social re-engineering policies in place.

Religion is a highly sensitive topic, so suffice to say there is a divide among people of different races and faiths and it permeates every level of society and every stage of our lives.

The workings of our institutions and systems have changed significantly due to institutionalised religion; it is a polarising factor in that it has become difficult for a “one size fits all” treatment of every citizen.

Back to the question of “where do I go from here?”

There have been endless debates on the true state of affairs in Malaysia and without realising it, we may have become conditioned to viewing Malaysia as a sinking ship.

I believe that if Malaysia continues unabated on this path, oblivion is a likely outcome, metaphorically speaking.

However, I also believe that an evolution of mind is happening in education and among the middle class.

What should we do?

More citizens all over the world, particularly the youth, are opening their eyes and realising their future and that of their future generations are being stolen by crooked politicians using racial and religious rhetoric to pit people against each other and distract everyone enough to keep themselves in power and keep looting the treasury, much like the dire situation Sri Lanka finds itself in today.

The decision to be made today by any young person entering the workforce is this: will the next 30 years of my blood, sweat and tears be reciprocated by a government which is fiscally and socially responsible; financially prudent, firm, fair and just in its policies towards all citizens without discrimination; and able to move us up to developed nation status as it is defined.

If every citizen can put their irrational fears aside and vote in a government that addresses this question, Malaysia can be saved from a likely oblivion.

For me, the vision in my mind’s eye is becoming cloudy.

As for the “fight or flight” issue, each person has to make their own decision and do their best to better their lot in life, whichever route they choose to take.

It has been that way with migration for generations, what more in the “borderless world” of today. In the words of CS Lewis, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

Editor’s note: “Crossing the Rubicon” is an idiom that means that one is passing a point of no return.