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Racism in the Framework of Malaysia’s Education System

Ho Jang Yang was the top student in his graduating class. Having been brought up with the belief that the greatest tool of empowerment is education, he threw himself into his studies with gusto. However, when the time came for him to pursue his tertiary education, Yang received zero scholarships, zero financial aid, and zero encouragement. This trend occurred throughout his academic career, as he was continuously denied financial scholarship from the government, despite being one of the top students with one of the lowest economic standings.

Yang is a personification of Malaysia’s flawed higher education system in which both acceptance to universities, as well as scholarships, are based on racial quotas rather than merit. In many ways it represents the wider picture of a country that is still ruled by racial policies that favour the majority Malay population over Chinese and Indian communities.

It all started in 1969, although many would say it started years earlier. The Bumiputra population made up of Malays and other indigenous groups were continuously economically marginalised. In general, they were poor, uneducated, and lived in the rural, undeveloped areas of Malaysia. Understandably, they developed an underlying social grudge. This tension erupted into what is now known as the 13th of May 1969 racial riots, where enough blood flowed freely in the streets that severe actions had to be taken by the government to pacify the Bumiputra community. And so, the country was introduced to several affirmative action policies.

One of these policies saw quotas and scholarships given exclusively to the majority ethnic group to improve their opportunity to receive higher education and ultimately equalise the financial standings of all ethnicities. Over time, these policies have changed in one form or another, yet the principle remains the same. Non-Bumiputras have a far more difficult time furthering their education, regardless of whether they deserve it academically or are struggling financially.

In 2018, a spark of hope electrified the people of Malaysia when the monumental election concluded in the toppling of the Malay-dominated government that sat in power since 1957. The new government, Pakatan Harapan, which translates as ‘The Alliance of Hope’ gave just that-hope. Hope that the leader of the coalition, Mahathir Mohammad, would usher in a ‘New Malaysia’ built on merit and free from the racial divides that have held back the nation for so long, providing scholarships and affirmative actions based on need and not on ethnicity.

Yet, as time has gone by, that hope has faded as the PH government has walked back from one pledge after another. In fact, in May of this year, the education minister, Maslee Malik, announced that the government’s “Matrikulasi” program will continue to reserve 90 percent of their places for Bumiputra.

This Matrikulasi is a pre-university program that is widely recognised as a fast track to entering the country’s leading universities. Students need only to pay a small registration fee and the rest is government-funded. Only 10 percent of the spots to this advantageous program go to non-Bumiputra students who are usually of Chinese or Indian descent. They are forced to fight for a space in this program or struggle to find for the funds for private universities.

It is clear that these affirmative action policies that impact the ability to attend university ought to be need-based rather than race-based. That, as Mohd Aziz a university lecturer stressed, the quota should be adapted to reflect Malaysia’s growing diversity. Many organizations are calling for this move towards meritocracy rather than race when it comes to admission such as the Malaysian Academic Movement (MOVE) and the National Patriots Association who have both given statements calling out the government.

So why is Malaysia still promoting this policy that goes against the democratic and racially tolerant country which they wish project to the world? Like most confusing realities in Malaysia, you can always trace it back to a game of politics.

The race-factors which subsidize the journey through university education have far-reaching effects such as receiving a well-paying job and entering the workforce earlier. The Malay community does not wish for affirmative action to be abolished and for their privileges to be stripped away. The Malay people make up 60% of the Malaysian population, which means satisfying them can secure the vote of the majority when the next elections roll around.

When Mahathir began to take action with regards to the pledge that he made during his election campaign, to ratify a UN treaty against racial discrimination, all it took was some pressure from the Malay community before he swiftly backed out from ratifying the treaty. Despite his promises to be a fair prime minister with a new coalition that cares for all ethnic groups, he continues to use affirmative action for political gains.

No one denies affirmative action can be advantageous to stabilize a county and fix inequality, but only when it is truly necessary. There was a time when this policy made sense in the social and political framework in the country- that time has long passed.

If action is not taken soon, the future for all Malaysians is worrying. Ho Jan Yang may have decided to stay in the country despite his disappointment in the way the government treated his hard work and real need, but there are others who would not think twice before leaving and seeking a new place to study. And if the top students are so discouraged that they make a hasty exit from their homeland, the brain drain that is already occurring will only get worse. The result will be harsh for the economy and the workforce. Malaysia needs to re-look at these policies, and the government ought to make changes now so that the right to education will no longer revolve around one’s race.