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BPost: Quota system doesn't add up
By S.H. Chong

17/5/2001 2:38 am Thu

The Bangkok Post, Thailand
15th May 2001

For the past three decades, native Malaysians have been granted an edge over people of different ethnicity in all sorts of areas. There are few complaints for the most part but the system is not without its flaws.

S.H. Chong, Bangkok Post

The press reported earlier this month that the intake in local public universities was 20% below the projected figure of 38,000 because there were not enough students to make up the 55% quota reserved for bumiputras (indigenous people, mainly Malays).

This sparked a widespread call for the over 7,000 unfilled places to be released to deserving non-bumiputras (mainly ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians).

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has indicated that there might be a loosening of the quota system, designed to provide more Malays with higher education. "It's up to the people," Dr Mahathir said. "If they don't want it [the quota], we won't have it."

This is classic Mahathirism. With that one statement he is actually addressing two crowds-the non-Malays and Malays. And its desired effect was created: It gave the Chinese hope and reason to support the government, and it made Malays realise how much the government has done to help them.

Like clockwork, one-by-one, non-Malay leaders in the coalition government praised the prime minister for his remarks, which are particularly appealing to the ethnic Chinese community as up to 500 Chinese top scorers in government exams have failed to get into universities or were offered courses they did not want.

It is important for Dr Mahathir to win back the support of this community, which has not been too thrilled with the government of late because of comments Dr Mahathir made last year equating Suqiu, an influential Chinese NGO, with communists and terrorists. He berated it for making certain election requests, which he considered extreme. These included issues such as improving women's rights, increasing press freedom and revamping Malaysia's affirmative action programme.

Dr Mahathir's comments have also provoked a leading Malay student group and a national Malay NGO to call for the quota to be defended. There is nothing like a subtle threat to the status quo to fire up patriotic feelings towards one's own race. In recent months, Dr Mahathir has been trying desperately to unite the Malays, even going to the extent of inviting the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, the main opposition in parliament, to enter into talks on "Malay unity".

What will probably eventually happen is that the government will make more places available to non-Malay students but not at the expense of the Malays.

This would probably be done on a case-by-case, year-by-year basis, therefore allowing more non-Malays to get a higher education without having to officially alter the quota.

Perhaps the biggest indication that there would be no major changes to policy came from Dr Mahathir himself. "I am leaving the decision to the people, whether they want it or not... If they feel that the government is implementing a bad policy imposing the quota, and they don't want the quota, then the government can abolish it," Dr Mahathir said recently.

A disingenuous statement if ever there was one. Of course "the people"-the majority of whom are Malays-do not want the quota removed. The minority Chinese may like to see some changes, but look at what happened the last time a Chinese group suggested anything of the kind (remember Suqiu).

Those looking at this issue from a practical standpoint, as opposed to an emotional or ethnic standpoint, realise that the problem with top students not being able to get into local universities is a serious one. It can, and is, leading to a brain drain with many non-Malay high achievers going abroad to study and eventually staying there. Singapore, which is predominantly ethnic Chinese, is the major beneficiary of this.

Wan Abdul Manan Wan Muda, chairman of the Malaysian Academic Movement, has said the current situation is "making a mockery of the K-(knowledge-based)economy that the prime minister preaches. These students are our future knowledge workers."

Actually, the whole education quota controversy is a microcosm of what is happening on a larger scale with the government's affirmative action programme that touches almost every aspect of life in Malaysia. The programme covers a broad range of areas besides education, such as business, government contracts, jobs and even housing.

A whole generation of Malaysians has grown up with this programme, which was started in 1971. Malays under the age of 30 have no idea what it is like to compete on equal terms with their non-Malay counterparts. The non-Malays, particularly the Chinese, meanwhile have learned to cope and even thrive despite the handicap.

While most non-Malays acknowledge that affirmative action has played a key role in keeping racial tensions at bay, many also privately feel it has led to a subsidy mentality among the Malays. That is only to be expected. After all, it is very difficult for any community to develop a highly competitive attitude if it is the recipient of so much assistance. In fact, the problem has grown beyond a subsidy mentality. In many cases, it has led to a dependency syndrome.

The original affirmative action programme was supposed to end in 1990, but it was extended by another 10 years because the Malays were deemed not to have caught up with the others yet. Another decade has come and gone. We have entered the new millennium, but the programme is still going on strong with no signs of being phased out.

The problem is that many Malays consider affirmative action to be a birthright, despite the fact that Dr Mahathir has indicated that they cannot rely on the government forever. Meanwhile, most Chinese accept this handicap as the cost of being a minority in a predominantly Malay country. Those that do not like it eventually migrate to other countries. Thus the brain drain.

Ironically, the government provides all kinds of incentives for Malaysians abroad to return home and contribute to the economy. This includes things like generous tax breaks. But, instead of trying to woo those that have left, it might be better to make it more attractive for them to stay in the first place. Ensuring that all top scorers-regardless of race-get a chance at a higher education is a good way to start.