MALAYSIA Tanah Tumpah Darahku


Friday, October 30, 2015


An article on “The Asian Advantage” [ http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/11/opinion/sunday/the-asian-advantage.html ] by Nicholas Kristof, a New York Time columnist which recently analyzed why Asian Americans are so successful in America, earning more than other groups including whites as well as having higher levels of educational attainment, should set us thinking along the same lines as to what is happening in terms of the racial socio-economic divide in Malaysia.
The article drew on a recent book “The Asian American Achievement Paradox,” by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, which noted that Asian-American immigrants have started with one advantage: they are highly educated, more so even than the average American, and are disproportionately doctors, research scientists and other highly educated professionals.
And the success is not confined to just the highly educated. The kids of working-class Asian-Americans often also thrive, showing remarkable upward mobility. Lee and Min Zhou posit that positive stereotyping may be part of an explanation for the success of Asian-Americans in school. According to one of the book’s quotes ‘Oh, you’re Chinese and you’re good in math.’
This stereotyping is hard on Asian-American kids whose comparative advantage is not in science or math; and there is concern that there is too much focus on memorization, not enough on creativity. However, scholastic success may be the interaction of social stereotypes and self-confidence leading Lee and Zhou to argue that Asian-Americans sometimes ride on the opposite of “stereotype threat,” a “stereotype promise” that they will be smart and hard-working.
The Achievement ParadoxIn contrast, scholars have found that blacks sometimes suffer from “stereotype threat” – i.e. anxiety from negative stereotypes which impairs performance.
Explaining the Malay Disadvantage
It is difficult or contentious to compare findings of racial differences across countries in view of unique or distinctive national features. But some of the key points in that article are of relevance to us as we grapple with the subject of racial attainment and what has been made out to be the non-Malay advantage or Malay disadvantage. They are summarised with my own observations in italics.
Any difference in racial achievement or attainment is not driven by differences in intelligence. This is self evident. However it needs to be put into the forefront of any discussion on racial differences because of the belief that racial differences are somehow explained by hereditary or genetically determined factors such as intelligence. Thus we have had the flawed argument of Dr. Mahathir on the key role of genetic factors in explaining Malay backwardness and racial differences in his highly influential book, “The Malay Dilemma”.
There is a focus on education. Immigrant East Asians often try particularly hard to get into good school districts, or make other sacrifices for their children’s education, such as giving prime space in the home to kids to study. This explains why Chinese parents have fought tooth and nail to preserve their constitutional right to mother tongue education i.e. access to a schooling system seen as superior to the sekolah jenis kebangsaan. Many Malay parents also know the importance of good schooling: hence the fight for places in the MARA junior colleges which are available to a small proportion of students; and to avoid the SK secondary schools, most of which are seen as of lower standard.
Strong two-parent families are a factor, too. Divorce rates are much lower for many Asian-American communities than for Americans as a whole, and there is evidence that two-parent households are less likely to sink into poverty and also have better outcomes for boys in particular. This subject of marriage, divorce, single mothers – and more importantly, small families missed out in the article – as well as other cultural factors, cries out for discussion and analysis in trying to understand the dynamics of educational attainment, socio-economic mobility, poverty and other related subjects in Malaysia. That it continues to be neglected or ignored means that wrong or muddled policies and ineffective outcomes will be the norm; and solutions to bridging the racial socio-economic gap will evade us.
The article ends with an important observation.”Disadvantage and marginalization are complex, often deeply rooted in social structures and unconscious biases, sometimes compounded by hopelessness and self-destructive behaviors….”
One would have expected that 45 years of what is arguably the most wide-ranging, expensive and long lasting racial affirmative program the modern world has seen in the way of the NEP and follow up pro-Malay social and economic actions should have led to more positive and sustainable outcomes for the larger Malay community.
Admittedly the NEP has had tremendous success as seen in the wealth and educational achievements of the Malay elite and middle class. But why so many Malays remain disadvantaged appears to have mystified countless Malay economic congresses and high level meetings. Clearly they have been looking for the solutions in the wrong places.
There is no racial enemy standing in the way of Malay socio-economic mobility or success just as there is no quick fix or silver bullet that money can buy. An ideology of Malay entitlement, preference and handouts is politically and morally unsustainable or justifiable especially since access to the benefits will continue to be usurped or monopolized by those who are already advantaged or privileged.
Culture, family structure, social psychology, value systems – all these interact to produce individuals and communities that are successful or need propping up. Until the government, its think tanks and the Malay intelligentsia place these as the centerpiece of public policy, they will continue to run around in circles ineffectually and fruitlessly looking for the answer to ending Malay disadvantage. -CPI

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