Analysts and some employers say many graduates from UiTM and other state universities that have quotas favouring Malays simply cannot compete for the best private sector jobs and either swell the ranks of the civil service or the unemployed.
“UiTM has been politicised. It reflects years of providing a crutch so that Malays cannot compete on a level playing field,” said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert at Johns Hopkins University.
Fight for investment
Southeast Asia’s third biggest economy is already facing falling foreign investment, eroding competitiveness and a worsening brain drain. Many analysts trace the stagnation in foreign investment to the racial and religious politics that divide the country. Malays are Muslims by state definition, while Chinese and Indians are mostly Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs.
UiTM is the only university in Malaysia that is closed to other races, although other state-run institutions generally have high Malay enrolments because of quotas. This has forced ethnic Chinese and Indians to turn to private universities or move abroad, creating an economically damaging brain drain that might hurt Malaysia’s competitiveness for years to come.
Some Malay political leaders have recently joined a growing chorus for UiTM to open its doors to non-Malays.
“It is time for the Malays to take a step (towards a multiracial approach),” opposition leader Anwar said, throwing his weight behind his political party’s proposal to open up 10 percent of UiTM places to non-Malays.
Anwar, himself an ethnic Malay, was returned to parliament in a by-election after a decade-long absence. Despite pledging to end ethnic-based affirmative action programs, he romped home in a constituency that was largely rural and Malay.
The government, fearful of losing power, and UiTM have balked at the plan, with the university galvanising its students to march on the streets waving pro-Malay banners.
Malay newspapers have condemned plans to open up the university, with one quoting a Malay leader warning of a repeat of the 1969 race riots between ethnic Malays and ethnic Chinese and Indians which left hundreds dead.
Lifting ethnic restrictions on the UiTM student body might be a small step towards resolving the woes of modern-day Malaysia, critics of affirmation action believe.
Yet that step is unlikely to be taken unless Anwar and his resurgent opposition take power by setting up a new majority bloc in parliament.
Meanwhile, Malaysia has fallen completely off the list of the world’s top 200 universities in 2007, according to a ranking by London’s Times Higher Education Supplement and Quacquarelli Symonds.
“Investors are concerned with the quality of the graduates,” said Mohamad Sofi Othman, who heads a grouping of foreign and local investors in Penang, Malaysia’s industrial state controlled by the opposition.
Still, UiTM defends its policy, saying that non-Malays form the majority of students in critical courses such as accountancy and pharmacy at state universities. At private universities, 90 percent of the students are non-Malays.
UiTM reflects years of providing a crutch so that Malays cannot compete on a level playing field