By WAN SAIFUL WAN JAN
As long as ethnic-based affirmative action remains, we will continue to be a society operating in a downward spiral of suspicion and discomfort about each other. — Wan Saiful Wan Jan
Anyone interested to objectively study the topic of affirmative action must read the seminal book by Thomas Sowell entitled “Affirmative Actions Around the World”. The global study of affirmative action was published by Yale University Press in 2004, and it is probably still one of the most authoritative studies on the topic until today.
Sowell said in the book: “Some groups in some countries imagine themselves entitled to preferences and quotas just because they are indigenous ‘sons of the soil’, even when they are in fact not indigenous, as the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and the Malays in Malaysia are not.”
This is a very strong statement. Sowell commented specifically about Malaysia. And he said that the Malays are claiming the right to preferential treatment through affirmative action because they are indigenous, even though they are not really indigenous to this land.
When affirmative action was implemented through the New Economic Policy (NEP), it was done with all the good intentions. Our second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein had a very good intention to rectify what he saw as structural weaknesses faced by our country at that time.
But as time went by, despite the original good intention, the affirmative action policy turned into an ugly beast.
What was supposed to be a temporary assistance programme evolved into a sense of entitlement, and then morphed into a monster called Malay rights that cannot be debated, let alone be removed.
I believe the affirmative action that was introduced by Tun Razak has evolved into something that even he himself would not recognise today. I cannot fathom that Tun Razak imagined one day his affirmative action ideas would ignore the fact that there are poor non-Malays too. He was more inclusive than that.
Quite a few people try to defend affirmative action on the basis that there is data showing it works. They produce sets of numbers and charts to show how some Malays have been moved out of poverty due to our affirmative action.
It is not difficult to show data saying affirmative action has worked. In fact, I myself am one of the beneficiaries of the affirmative action policies.
If I want to buy a property, I have the option of going for the discounted Bumiputera lots. Many readers will never be able to enjoy that privilege. There are some educational institutions that I can send my children to that many of you can’t.
There are many other examples that I can give of how I am more privileged that most readers just because of the colour of my skin, but I think those examples are enough to illustrate my point.
Indeed the affirmative action policy has helped me come to where I am today. I am not super rich. But I am comfortable. But just because I benefited does not make it morally right.
There are many people who need the help more than me but do not qualify because they are born Chinese. This is why the affirmative action system that we have today is morally wrong. How can it ever be morally justified for us to discriminate based on the colour of our skin?
No matter what data you present, what is morally wrong is still wrong.
To give a very simplified analogy, imagine a poor person and a rich person walking next to each other. The best way to statistically make these two people equal is by “legalising robbery” so that a poorer person can “legally rob” a rich person, as long as the amount taken makes both of them equal. Then inequality would be zero.
So, here we have solid data to suggest that to eradicate inequality, we should simply “legalise robbery”. Yet the fact remains that taking someone’s property by force is wrong regardless of the outcome. Clearly, even if the data says it works, a morally wrong action is still wrong.
The same applies to affirmative action. Perhaps, it does not involve robbing one person to help another. But it is still discrimination. Even if data shows it works, discrimination is morally wrong. We must not create excuses to justify discrimination.
Unless we accept that we need to urgently re-examine our policies to ensure there is no ethnic-based discrimination, we will never be able to build a unified nation.
As long as ethnic-based affirmative action remains in place, we will continue to be a society operating in a downward spiral of suspicion and discomfort about each other’s culture. The pervasiveness of ethnic-based discrimination in our society is sowing distrust among fellow citizens.
Unfortunately, today any politician who tries to present a different vision is unlikely to win. It is more likely that he will get into trouble with voters and perhaps even the authorities.
To add to the complication, looking at the situation in our country today, I also feel that only a Malay can talk about abolishing affirmative action in Malaysia. Things will only become worse if a non-Malay were to champion this issue.
Because of that, even though many people can see that the affirmative action that we have today is discriminatory and morally wrong, we might be stuck with this problem for the foreseeable future.
I still cannot see any of the Malay political leaders being brave enough to challenge the status quo and correct this moral injustice. Every single one is too busy thinking about the short-term gain of winning the next election only.
Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, Ideas.
This commentary was first published in Sin Chew Daily.