“But as time goes by, despite the original good intention, the affirmative action policy turned into an ugly beast. What was supposed to be a temporary assistance programme evolved into a sense of entitlement, and then morphed into a monster called Malay rights that cannot be debated, let alone be removed.”
- Wan Saiful Wan Jan (‘Affirmative action is morally wrong’)
(Writer's note - Discussions about affirmative action always seem to be peppered with this rather dumb oppositional meme that we are living in an "apartheid" state. This is the same vein of dumb rhetoric as “ethnic cleansing” in public service that resulted in my very public clashes with Hindraf. I would argue that making such nonsensical claims is morally wrong and the reason why it sometimes sucks to be a rational supporter of the opposition or a rational opposition-leaning supporter.)
Wan Saiful Wan Jan or as I like to refer to him as ‘The Ideas Man’ wrote two thoughtful pieces, ‘Affirmative action is morally wrong’ and ‘Bring back morality into economics’ that deserve attention for obvious reasons but more importantly, they come at a time when the Malay polity and Malay powerbrokers are in a state of agitation.
In the ‘morally wrong’ piece (c’mon, it would be a sin not to take that shot), Wan Saiful makes an important but problematic point - “To add to the complication, looking at the situation in our country today, I also feel that only a Malay can talk about abolishing affirmative action in Malaysia. Things will only become worse if a non-Malay were to champion this issue.”
This is a problematic statement because not only is it true but it is also the main reason why the political and economic discourse in this country is poisoned. There are two important points here - (1) Sanctions by the state for discourse deemed “seditious” which usually involves anything to do with “Malay” rights, and (2) the self-imposed censorship by the opposition on subjects deemed as “obstructionists” in the goal of achieving federal power.
I regret to inform Wan Saiful but he is a little late with his rejoinder. Unfortunately, this old sailor ignored that sacred cow - non-Malay transgressing on Malay sacred provinces - five years ago in an article ‘No brave new Malaysia’, where I argued that perhaps it was time to rethink the whole affirmative action deal.
I wrote - “To my thinking the fact that the majority Malay community (and the rest of us Malaysians) have suffered from an affirmative action policy, perhaps the best course of action, at least as a temporary measure, is to abandon the idea of affirmative action.”
In that same article, I encouraged readers to plough through Thomas Sowell’s - in my opinion, masterpiece - ‘Affirmative Action: A World Wide Disaster’ (1989), and because I am that kind of political pundit, gave a cliff notes version of the article highlighting salient points (in bullet form no less) from the lengthy article.
I ended the piece with a Sowell quote - as I began the piece with one - “When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear."
What I really like about Wan Saiful’s piece beyond his candour is that he stakes no middle ground. He argues against affirmative action as something morally wrong and does not attempt to soften the stance by pandering to the politically-correct narrative of a “needs-based” approach.
The so-called “needs-based” approach is something of a strawman advocated by the opposition in an effort to pander to the Malay vote. Opposition politicians always say on the one hand that a “needs-based” approach is needed for an “equal society” which satisfies the non-Malay polity, but then go about reassuring the Malay polity that as the majority they will always be the “majority in need”.
In both his articles, Wan Saiful dispenses with this political legerdemain and clearly defines the argument in starkly moral terms. Now, people may disagree with how he frames that moral argument but what we cannot disagree with is, the reality that preferential treatment based on race here in Malaysia has had a disastrous effect on the political landscape, but also objectively on the Malay community.
While I do have issues with how Wan Saiful frames the morality/economic underpinnings of ideological and economic theories that he briefly touches on, I wholly agree with his contention that “affirmative action is a form of discrimination and therefore it is immoral and wrong. When something is immoral and wrong, no amount of data can make it right.”
In both articles, Wan Saiful clearly demonstrates the immorality of discriminating based on race even though there could be very good intentions for such policies. However in this writer’s opinion, the immorality of preferential treatment here in Malaysia has not only been deleterious to the Malay community in that it has morphed into entitlement mentality, but rather it has also compromised the very foundations of government which enables a successful democratic state.
In a discussion with Islamic Party of Malaysia’s (PAS) Research Centre-organised panel - from the second article - Wan Saiful dismisses the contention by a PAS operative that argued “exceptional circumstances that make it necessary for us to do things that are normally regarded as wrong” with the following:
“Why do we opt for the immoral discriminatory policies when we have not yet exhausted the more moral options? Unless we have exhausted the moral options, we are not living under ‘exceptional circumstances’.”
This to me is the basis of mainstream Malay politics. It is embedded in the political discourse, promulgated by state-sanctioned propaganda organs like Biro Tatanegara (BTN), disseminated by media like Utusan Malaysia, in sermons by state-sanctioned religionists and most insidiously by opposition politicians, both Malay and non-Malay, who refuse to take a stand because of political expediency.
It is easy to dismiss critics of affirmative action as conservative or right-wing demagogues, but the reality is that the affirmative action policy here in Malaysia has clearly demonstrated that it has not created a cohesive egalitarian Malaysian polity. In addition, because of the problems associated with such a policy and the Janus-faced way how opposition politics work, even a “needs-based” approach is an unsustainable idea.
The narrative of “exceptional circumstances” is merely a code for the narrative that the Malay community is beset on all sides by usurpers who would destabilise their community and compromise their political structures.
This is why Umno politicians have no problem claiming that public institutions are “Malay” institutions and criticism against them are attacks against the Malay community. This is why we have so-called moderate Malay politicians attempting to reframe concepts such as ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ into ‘Kepimpinan Melayu’.
However, behind is not the intention of creating economic parity with the non-Malays, it is the issue of Malay supremacy. A statement by Umno operative Razlan Rafii best exemplifies this - "This is our country, if we want to talk about the struggle for Malays, then the special privileges should not be questioned and it should be granted to Malays indefinitely."
This of course is funny because as Wan Saiful correctly quotes Sowell in his piece - Sowell commented specifically about Malaysia - “And he said that the Malays are claiming the right to preferential treatment through affirmative action because they are indigenous, even though they are not really indigenous to this land.”
As I have argued many times before, so as long as the opposition keeps playing Umno’s game, Umno will always win. You can keep pouring money into organisations which you think best represent the Malay community – religious bodies, programmes, etc - and pay homage to Malay rights like affirmative action and the supremacy of Islam; all this is doing is making the hole we are in deeper.
Wan Saiful is right when he claimed that it problematic (for obvious reasons) for a non-Malay to contribute to this issue. However, sometimes the opinion of someone on the outside looking in may help those on the inside get a clearer view of the world outside, but more importantly remind them that they are not alone.
S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.- Mkini