Malay rights, Chinese rights, lain-lain rights

[Aliran published an edited version]

On my first scholarship overseas I used to relate to my course-mates how, for the same house in Malaysia, the price would be higher for a non-Malay buyer than that for a Malay buyer. Worse still, some houses could be reserved such that non-Malays were not allowed to buy at all. (That was a simple way of putting it without trying to explain how most, but not all, Bumiputeras are Malay).

Likewise, I shared, a Chinese and a Malay scoring the exact same number of A’s in pre-U exam could mean that the Chinese ended up rejected by all local universities while the Malay ended up admitted to the most sought-after course at the most sought-after university.

My course-mates dropped their jaws in disbelief: how could that be, what logic was that! They never heard of such a thing in their lives.

Years later, my flat-mate related to me how she got to England on a scholarship, without which she wouldn’t have got a passport to travel out of her country. She had to seize that chance to apply for her parents’ passports because once her study ended, they would no longer have any excuse to ask for passports. Even if the application was eventually approved, they would have to surrender their passports the moment they returned from their trip.

My jaw dropped in disbelief: how could that be, what logic was that! We have never heard of such a thing in our lives. Any Malaysian can get a passport. We don’t need any excuse, and we hold on to our passports until expiry. Upon expiry, it is entirely our decision whether to renew or not.


That’s what living abroad is all about: zooming out, seeing the bigger picture, putting things in context.

That was decades ago. Today, Malaysians are still fussing over Malay rights. Whenever someone mentions Malay rights, we are going to get the reflex, “What about Chinese rights? Malays got rights Chinese no rights meh?”

Once we talk about Malay rights and Chinese rights, someone will quickly remind us not to forget about our Indians, Orang Asli, East Malaysians, Eurasians, … no matter how long we extend this list, we will always need a ‘lain-lain’ category.

And it is the fact that we always need a ‘lain-lain’ category that makes us so rich. We have a joint heritage that makes us wealthier than other societies. For instance, what I have is the sort of wealth no mainland Chinese can acquire or buy.


Now, back to buying the same house at different prices. The landscape has since changed completely. Houses no longer quite equate homes. Housing has been completely disfigured by speculators buying multiple properties which are meant not to be homes but to be profit generators.

Many do not even know the difference between investment and speculation. Still more are completely oblivious to the moral question: “By speculating and inflating house prices, by denying others of owning even their first home, shall I grant myself a personal choice whether to join that speculation bandwagon, or not?” In the name of diversification or whatever, buying properties became a standard ‘investment’ everyone seems to be doing and therefore everyone ‘ought to be’ doing.

People left out of home ownership are no longer struggling in that decades-old context of houses reserved for Bumis or house prices discounted for Bumis. It is no longer as simple as that. The challenge we have today is far more complex. Arguments from both sides – whether to keep or to ditch the special rights for Bumis – have expired. The arguments no longer apply.

Education and healthcare

Who is getting more: Malay or Chinese? In arguments like this, all non-Malays and non-Chinese shrink into that forgotten ‘lain-lain’ category. Fine, let’s excuse that exclusion for a moment and go along with that. So, are Malays getting more or are Chinese getting more?

Again, the context shifted considerably from how it was decades ago. Decades ago, Chinese schools and Chinese hospitals were built and supported by Chinese tycoons. Somewhat wide-ranging, not organised in any systematic network but that generosity and support more or less covered most Chinese communities.

We see not much of those Chinese-for-Chinese efforts today.

Lam Wah Ee Hospital for example, is a Chinese initiative which remains a strong success story, definitely. However, we find all doors and all arms of the hospital thrown wide open to embrace peoples of all origins – its service is literally colour-blind. The Chinese-for-Chinese landscape is waning.

On the other hand, Chinese, who make the bulk of the Ubah crowd, are more interested to self-serve than to help any Chinese brethren. They are quite happy and settled promoting that false idea of ‘rural Malays’ being the poorest and the least educated. The misrepresentation masks the reality of urban poverty and non-Malay hardcore poverty. The misrepresentation leaves many struggling Chinese struggling still, seeing no end to the tunnel. Chinese who are not struggling don’t seem to mind.

The Chinese-for-Chinese landscape faded considerably. Chinese who are poor do need support which is more centralised — from the government.

Selection by merit

One of the greatest myth in Malaysian history is that selection by merit means a Chinese will get the job. That is a myth. There is no truth in that. It is cerita dongeng. Selection by merit to any position, whether federal, state, local councils, corporate – whatever — suggests absolutely nothing about ethnicity.

Many who are fighting for local council elections, as much as many who are fighting against, got it wrong by assuming that Chinese will get elected.

It’s the same with Icerd: many of those wanting it want it for the wrong reason (to strip benefits off others) and many of those opposing oppose for the wrong reason (wanting more for self).

We find the same in the appointment of Tommy Thomas as attorney general. Among those for the appointment, many made that stand for the wrong reason (because Tommy is non-Bumi, and he is Christian). Among those against the appointment, many took that stand for the wrong reason (because Tommy is non-Bumi, and a Christian). This distraction (that he is non-Bumi and he is Christian) masked the most critical criteria for appointing an AG.

Selection by merit simply means we select whoever most eligible and effective. I don’t need to be represented by a Chinese. I honestly don’t give it a damn whether that person is Chinese or not.

Categorically barring non-Bumi Malaysians from holding positions, on the other hand, defies every logic of civilisation. Nobody in any right state of mind would be able to defend such policies.

Racial politics

Let us revisit the question of whether PKR and DAP are race-based. Opening membership to Malaysians of any race does not make PKR and DAP non-race-based. If they weren’t race-based, neither parties would field Malay candidates in areas of Malay majority, field Indian candidates in areas of Indian majority and field Chinese candidates in areas of Chinese majority. Both parties have openly and shamelessly announced such strategies and tactics they in fact take pride in.

In so doing, PKR has extra cards to play in their hands compared to PAS, which doesn’t have Chinese and Indian candidates to field in areas of non-Malay majority. Likewise, DAP has extra cards to play compared to MCA, which doesn’t have Malay and Indian candidates to field in areas of non-Chinese majority. That is abuse of multiracial membership. This is exploitation with a gravely racist intent.

The least DAP and PKR could do is to say here is our multiracial contingent – they are all ready to serve everybody and anybody. It should be all-for-all and any-for-any rather than Malay-for-Malay, Chinese-for-Chinese, Indian-for-Indian. Note how, in all these drives, the lain-lain category disappears into thin air.

This is sad race-based politics, uglier than the race-based politics the Ubah crowd accuses UMNO, PAS and MCA of. It divides us. We drift further and further into disunity so long as campaigners continue to pull us aside and tell us one story, draw up the fence, then pull our neighbours aside and tell them a different story, draw up another fence, and pull yet another pocket of voters aside and fill them in with another story.

It is time for Malaysians as a collective whole discover our values – one of which should be to reject this decades-old habit of different groups needing to hear different stories.

On January 16th Karen Wang was ejected from a byelection in Canada. Her political career was killed by her post on social media calling on Chinese voters to vote for her as she was the only Chinese candidate and the other candidate was Singh.

Isn’t that the standard template for fielding candidates and for campaigning in Malaysia? If the same measure applies to Malaysia, where racist politicians are removed from the race, our Dewan Rakyat would be more or less empty.

Karen Wang is now one of the most despised person in Canada. Even Canadians of Chinese descend disown her. She and her family now face rejection even when walking the streets and living their daily lives. Racism is against a common value Canadians share.

That so-called non-race-based politics of the new Malaysia, fulfilled by Pakatan Harapan, is sketchy. So long as we continue to capitalise on ethnic descends of voters and candidates, the Ubah crowd should stop pointing fingers at ‘rural Malays’ for finding security in Malay representation by Malays.

Lain-lain rights

If it is human rights that we are fighting for, stripping Bumi rights cannot be the lone item on the agenda. So long as we get ourselves stuck in the Malay-versus-Chinese tangle, it is not human rights that we are fighting for. We start fighting for human rights only after we get out of that Malay-versus-Chinese tangle.

Our plural society (masyarakat majmuk) is drastically different today compared to the configuration that was. Our ‘lain-lain’ category has now broadened considerably. We have migrants and refugees who live in sub-human conditions, denied basic rights (e.g. representation in court) and denied access to healthcare, education, banking and more. Many Malaysians either turn a blind eye on their plight, or assert that sub-human treatment serves them right.

Without recognising the injustice and without advocating for justice to the ‘lain-lain’ category, self-proclaimed human-rights warriors are merely fighting for themselves. That is tribalism (fighting for one’s own kind), not human rights.

Improving the living conditions of migrants and refugees is not the NGOs’ job. Such efforts cannot just revolve between Tenaganita, Suaram, Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign and Medicin Sans Frontieres. We get nowhere without ordinary and everyday Malaysians internalising the respect for human dignity.

Malay rights, Chinese rights and lain-lain rights need levelling and alignment on all fronts.