Seeking Justice and Equality: Chandra Muzaffar replies

IT is sad that Jules Ong has not really understood my position on justice and equality in Malaysia. For almost 40 years now, I have argued in my writings and speeches that the nation’s historical background is an essential prerequisite for understanding justice and equality in contemporary Malaysia.

If Malaysians of Chinese and Indian origin appreciate and empathise with the indisputable fact that Malaysia emerged from a Malay polity, their legitimate quest for justice and equality would be founded upon premises that are quite different from what has informed their struggle all these decades. They would not regard the primacy accorded to the Malay language as the sole national and official language as an act of injustice. This was the attitude adopted by a number of non-Malay political parties in the late fifties and sixties. Neither would non-Malays and non-Muslims raise the alarm when Islam assumes a more significant role in the life of the nation especially since the religion was the basis of state and administration in the pre-colonial period. They would understand why our constitutional monarchs are Malays. Given the nation’s history, they would be able to appreciate why the helm and core of the national political leadership is Malay. They would not view attempts to raise the economic wellbeing of the Malays as antithetical to the principle of equality.

That the history and identity of the land impinges upon the present is something that I learnt as an undergraduate at the University of Singapore in the late sixties. It was an outstanding Indian Malaysian academic, Professor K.J. Ratnam, who pointed out to my political science class that as a result of the massive accommodation of Chinese and Indian immigrants in the fifties, the Malays were relegated from a “nation” to a “community”.

A Chinese Malaysian scholar of equal repute, Professor Wang Gungwu, reminded us students during a talk at the university shortly after the May 13 incident that the Malaysian Constitution is rooted in a Malay polity.

Even as a final year student, I began to articulate the position that for harmonious ethnic relations in Malaysia, its non-Malay citizens will have to develop some empathy for the nation’s historical roots. In a number of articles and books I have written since then, I have adhered faithfully to this view. Let me draw Ong’s attention to two such pieces produced at two different times – a 1974 article entitled “Trends in Ethnic Relations” in Trends in Malaysia 11 (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies) and a 2002 essay called “Accommodation and Acceptance of Non-Muslim Communities” in my book, Rights, Religion and Reform (London: RoutledgeCurzon).

By pleading for a better understanding of the foundation of the Malaysian nation, my commitment to justice and equality for all Malaysians, regardless of ethnic origin, has not diminished one iota. I see the conferment of citizenship upon the newer communities starting from 1948 as a process of accommodation which has witnessed the steady evolution of a Malay polity into a multi-ethnic Malaysian nation. The rights, responsibilities and roles of the non-Malays should be strengthened in accordance with the principle of citizenship as the nation evolves but it is a process that will take time. It is important that as this transformation occurs, the Malays and the other indigenous communities feel secure and comfortable.

I have often argued that the two objectives of the NEP [New Economic Policy] and the goals of the Rukunegara of 1970 are testimony to this evolutionary process. The first goal of the NEP, for instance, takes the provisions of Article 153 in the Malaysian Constitution of 1957 further by postulating a policy objective that seeks to eradicate poverty irrespective of ethnicity. It is a pity that in the actual implementation of this objective, the Barisan Nasional (BN) government has failed segments of all communities resulting in a multi-ethnic underclass.

Similarly, the second prong of the NEP – restructuring society so that the identification of ethnicity with economic function would be reduced – has also not been achieved. Indeed, in the course of implementing the NEP, the public sector has become largely Malay. This is why in the last few years, I have suggested that the public sector should become multi-ethnic in accordance with the NEP’s second prong. At the same time, I have proposed that Chinese businesses make a more concerted effort to increase substantially Malay and Indian participation in the Small and Medium Enterprises sector.

Is this balanced, evolutionary approach to equality and justice part of Ong’s conception of nation-building? Or, is Ong’s idea of equality more akin to what was contained in Lee Kuan Yew’s “Malaysian Malaysia” which remains part of the thinking of a huge portion of the non-Malay communities though the term itself is no longer part of the DAP’s political lexicon? With no empathy for the country’s historical background, the advocates of a “Malaysian Malaysia” pursued with aggressive zeal a notion of equality that alienated a lot of Malays. As a case in point, in the early years, they argued for a policy that would place Chinese and Tamil on the same status level as Malay as official languages, denying in the process the special role that Malay had played all along as the lingua franca of the land.

Though it is no longer possible to espouse such policies because of the Constitutional Amendments of 1971, it is doubtful if the present generation of non-Malays are any more sensitive to the Malay position than their forefathers. Ong offers cross-ethnic voting and multi-ethnic campaigning in the 2008 elections as evidence that “many of us have transcended the racial allegiance that the BN expects us to hang on to”. Cross-ethnic voting has taken place since the 1955 Federal Council Election. In that election, there were only two Chinese majority constituencies out of 52 seats (the rest were Malay majority) and yet there were 17 non-Malay candidates from the Alliance. It is because Malays voted in big numbers for MCA and MIC candidates from the Umno-led Alliance that even leading Malay figures like Datuk Onn Jaafar, the first Umno president, lost to non-Malay contestants.

Within the Alliance and now the BN, cross-ethnic voting has been the norm in every general election with Malays supporting non-Malay candidates and non-Malays endorsing Malay candidates. The main reason for this is the inter-ethnic tie-up within the coalition. In 2008, some Malays and many non-Malays perceived the same tie-up among PAS, PKR and the DAP. Even multi-ethnic campaigning and multi-ethnic electoral clichés are not new. Apart from the BN throughout its history, the four opposition parties in the 1999 elections also adopted multi-ethnic postures in their campaigns.

Cross-ethnic voting and multi-ethnic campaigning notwithstanding, the fact remains that ethnic concerns are at the core of the Malaysian body politic. It is a truism to say that so much of our politics, the economy and culture revolve around ethnicity. For more than two years before the 2008 elections, ethnic issues linked to religion ranging from the religious status of deceased persons to the import of the Bible and the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims raised the ethnic temperature to such a level that many of us feared for the worst. And yet Ong tells us that ethnic concerns were not important in the elections. How is it possible for ethnicity to impact upon the atmosphere right up to the eve of the elections and then evaporate into thin air?

Don’t get me wrong. This does not mean that non-ethnic issues did not play a major role in the elections. I have acknowledged this in my article entitled, “The Polls – and the BN Debacle”. Unfortunately, the Star newspaper – which Ong refers to in her Open Letter to me – left out that paragraph. The complete version is on the JUST website at

In any case, what has been happening immediately after the elections confirms the significance of the ethnic dimension in our national life. DAP and PKR leaders who announced, on assuming office, that they would set aside the NEP have been forced to backpedal partly because of protests from segments of the Malay community. Whether one likes it or not, these are the realities of Malaysian politics.

What is more important, however, in the context of my response to Ong is the manner in which historical realities have hit both the DAP and PKR so soon after the electoral verdict. In Perak, in spite of the DAP’s commanding position among the three parties that constitute the state government – it has 18 seats as against seven for PKR and six for PAS – it had to accept a Malay-Muslim mentri besar from PAS. That the mentri besar has to be a Malay and a Muslim is spelt out in the Perak State Constitution. This is a provision that exists in the constitution of the majority of the other states in the Malaysian Federation. In Selangor, the Sultan, it is reported, has rejected the idea of appointing a non-Muslim deputy mentri besar, partly because there are certain duties of state pertaining to Islam which a non-Muslim would not be able to perform.

These features of various state governments should be seen in the light of the nation’s historical background. They are historical facts that cannot be changed through the ballot box. Non-Malays have to learn to accept them and work with them. They should realise that they are part and parcel of our nation’s evolution.

And evolve we will. Even as it is, there are some hopeful signs on the horizon. In the 1969 general election – the one election that shares so many characteristics with the 2008 contest – when the ruling Alliance lost Penang; was in a precarious position in Perak; was deadlocked with the opposition in Selangor; and failed to regain control of Kelantan, there was a great deal of tension which eventually led to an ethnic riot, the infamous May 13 incident. This time, however, faced with far greater electoral losses – apart from Kelantan, defeats in Kedah, Penang, Perak, Selangor, and the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur, and compounded by the end of its two-third majority in Parliament – the BN has accepted its severe setback in good grace. Constitutional procedures and democratic rules have been adhered to. This is due in part to Prime Minister [Datuk Seri] Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s statesmanship, the Opposition’s sense of restraint and the Malaysian police’s professionalism.

But there is perhaps an even more important factor. The Malay community, as a whole, was able to accept the erosion of the BN’s political power partly because the community is economically and socially so much stronger than it was in 1969. More specifically, it has an entrenched and expanding middle class and is also well represented in the upper echelons of society. Unlike 1969, political power is no longer the community’s only source of power. Because of a strong middle class in particular, it feels more secure and confident.

Needless to say, the rapid economic transformation of the Malay community and the consolidation of its middle class, are due in no small measure to the much maligned NEP.

This is something worth thinking about.

Dr Chandra Muzaffar

An Open Letter to Chandra Muzaffar