Sclerosis is not a term often used in political discourses, but the medical term succinctly described the sense of malaise felt across Malaysia as the country headed for independence celebrations last week.
As the country celebrated its 51st birthday on Aug. 31 from its British colonial masters who left her to mind her, the independence cry of Merdeka is being heard yet again.
Strange but True
The “unshackling” this time is independence from endemic levels of corruption, the crippling fear from escalating crime, unemployment, and the bumiputra policy (Malaysia’s version of affirmative action) ― all of which are conspiring to give a general set the country adrift within the wider subtext of rising racial and religious tension.
So just what has gone wrong?
Nothing except in just how the country administers its bumiputra policy.
Apart from the oddity, Malaysia seems to be the only country in the world where such hand-outs are given to its majority race ― the travesty of all it, is the steady hijacking of the policy for it to become a wholly Malay-centric policy distinctly favoring only Malays in jobs, employment and business contracts.
“When the policy was first enunciated in 1971 it was meant to help anybody who was poor, irrespective of race ― now it is `respective’ of race,” bewailed an Indian-born Malaysian professional, who labelled his country as a sanitized apartheid state, not unlike the Afrikaans regime of South Africa in the past.
“We are already living in an apartheid era ala Malaysia. Though we do not have Bosnian-style ethnic cleansing, ethnic cleansing is proceeding apace by the denial of equal educational and employment opportunities [to the Indians],” thundered S. Uthayakumar, a lawyer belonging to the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF).
Along with five other social activists Uthayakumar is now in detention under the country’s draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) which allows for indefinite detention without trial and without charge, and importantly without any evidence of the terrorist links he and his group have allegedly been charged with.
And unsurprisingly, with the onset of race-based politics in the place of what rightly should have been performance-based criterion in public service, the social divide in the country has only got sharper.
Racial polarization in the form of ethnic clashes and documented cases of controversial religious conversions got so bad that the state hurriedly introduced a program of national service.
The three-month military stint was not only unpopular ― trainees were arbitrarily picked as the program was not compulsory ― it also fell dismally short of the target of fostering racial assimilation as alluded to by Singapore’s broadsheet, the Straits Times, in 2007.
“The race-based paradigm of looking at restructuring society and alleviating poverty must be radically revised,” said Azly Rahman, a Columbia University graduate who teaches history and world religions in the United States in an interview with Reuters.
Yet the irony of it all for the administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi could not come at a worse time.
Just as when he is vocally advocating the ethos of Islam Hadhari (civilizational Islam) to his compatriots ― whose precepts are about projecting a moderate face to Islam ― his recent defense at denying university places for minorities in one of the country’s leading universities ― Universiti Teknologi Mara (UNiTM) ― has hardly been perceived at nurturing the politics of accommodation.
For Badawi, the political challenges cannot come at a more tenuous time in the country’s history. The denial of an absolute majority in parliament in the March elections is perhaps only the beginning of an arduous journey.
The larger question is to perhaps set straight a “broken state,” fraught with racial and religious tension, corruption, sputtering economic growth, crime and rightly or wrongly, a weakening of civil society.
From the hard won battles for independence in 1957 to the virtual sense of grief now pervading the country; a sclerotic condition in leadership paralysis is perceived to be descending over the country.
And the cause of it all is none other than to the country’s pact with its bumiputra policy whose noble aims “hijacked” in the ignobility of being self-serving is suspected of being the catalyst.
Malaysia’s Ruinous Affirmative Action Pact