It was once a matter of trust, not race

In one of these meetings Sambanthan told me that very few people knew he was the prime minister of Malaysia for a day.

I Lourdesamy, Free Malaysia Today

Can a non-Malay be the Prime Minister of Malaysia? To me this is an irrelevant question because the answer to the question is in the Federal Constitution.

What is relevant and important are the responses the question has generated.

The responses underscore the underlying fears, concerns and expectations of different segments of Malaysian society. These reactions are vitally important for the future of the country.

If an innocuous statement by Lim Kit Siang can generate so much heat and emotion that is not based on facts or history, it shows we have a serious race-relations problem that is compounding all the time.

There was a time when there were many non-Malays in the government and government agencies.

They held important decision-making positions and had Malaysians of all races and creeds reporting to them, including Malays.

I can’t remember a case where a Malay was concerned about reporting to a non-Malay on grounds of race, religion or fear of discrimination. The relationship was simply administrative, based on rules, policies, systems and professional behaviour.

Everything was rule-based. The question of discrimination did not arise. If there was discrimination or favouritism, there were rules and processes to handle such deviations.

The system worked, irrespective of who was the boss, his ethnicity or religion.

Non-Malays working under a Malay boss had the same expectations of their boss.

In the 1960s I taught in a Malay residential school, Sekolah Tuanku Abdul Rahman (STAR) in Ipoh.

All my students were Malays. Most of the teachers were non-Malays. The school principal was a Malay, Abdul Aziz. There was no problem in non-Malay teachers reporting to a Malay head.

There was no problem in non-Malays teaching Malay students. In fact, the Chinese and Indian teachers in Sekolah Tuanku Abdul Rahmah  (almost all graduates) were handpicked to teach in the school because of their competence.

The most popular teacher was Chinese. Lau Hut Yee was adored by his Malay students. He taught all the science classes in Forms 1 to 3 and produced excellent results.

The whole administrative system was rule and competency based. Fear of discrimination had no place.

STAR came under the supervision of the state education department which was then headed by an Indian, Ambrose, the chief education officer of Perak.

Here we see the diversity of how schools were managed then which involved Malaysians of all races, creeds and cultures.

It worked because of two reasons. First, there was trust between the races. Second, it was a rule-based system.

Today there is a deficit of trust, and in its place fear, discrimination and entitlement. The system can no longer work. Fear gives rise to entitlement, which in turn leads to discrimination and conflicts.

When I was the deputy chief education officer of Penang in the late 1960s, my boss was Kam Boo, a Chinese man who was the chief education officer. The executive officer was Malay. The chief clerk was Chinese. The Organiser of Malay Schools was another Malay man.

Whenever I went to inspect Malay schools, I would take him along. There was no case where the Malay teachers or heads of Malay schools showed disrespect to me because I was an Indian. They respected me because I was the deputy chief education officer of the state.

When I was a student in the University of Malaya (UM) in the early 1960s, many non- Malays were deans and heads of departments.

Faculty reported to them as a matter of course. Race had nothing to do with it. There were also many foreigners holding important positions in the university.

In fact, the vice-chancellor of UM in Kuala Lumpur then was a foreigner, Alexander Oppenheim.

None of these things created any issue.

When Ungku Aziz was the vice-chancellor of UM he sent several non-Malays overseas on a faculty–training programme. I was one of those. The selection criteria were need and competence. I don’t see much of that happening in our public universities today.

The forerunner to the present UiTM was Institute Technology Mara (ITM). The first and founder director of ITM was Arshad Ayub. He had many non-Malays on the faculty (including me on a part-time basis) and sent several more overseas for master’s and doctoral studies in selected fields in the 1960s and 1970s.

He also kept English as the medium of instruction. He did not think in terms of entitlement but what was good for ITM. He was a true educator and nationalist. The UiTM of today can learn a thing or two from its founder.

In the early 1970s when I was teaching in UM, I had the opportunity to meet with VT Sambanthan on several occasions to discuss Indian problems and the National Land Finance Cooperative Society (NLFCS) which he had founded. He was then the national unity minister.

In one of these meetings Sambanthan told me that very few people knew he was the prime minister of Malaysia for a day.

This had happened when Abdul Razak Hussein, the prime minister then, was overseas and Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, the then deputy prime minister, had died suddenly.

Razak had asked Sambanthan to hold the fort for a day till he returned.

He was proud of the fact that Razak had confidence and trust in him to do this. This is another case of the founding fathers of the nation working together for the betterment of the country.

They were able to do this because there was trust between them. They thought in terms of what was good for the country and not in terms of entitlement.

To go back to the diversity model and practices of the past, we need first to build trust between the races and remove suspicion and fear that have been manufactured by certain politicians and elites for their own ends.

We also need to remove the confusion between entitlement and affirmative action. Affirmative action is relevant and needed in specific cases, but not entitlement.