Dennis Ignatius: Are We Not Malaysians Too?

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Ketuanan Melayu politicians continue to justify exclusionary policies by arguing that it is still needed.

The continuing spate of new appointments to GLCs and other government agencies is certainly drawing a lot of attention. While it is normal, to some extent, for a new government – even a backdoor one – to bring in its own people, the flurry of appointments is quite unprecedented.

It becomes particularly problematic when many of the appointees hardly have the kind of leadership skills and experience for the job. As many have noted, this is about buying the allegiance of MPs, not about finding the best people for the job. It has become a convenient method for government MPs to enrich themselves with high-paying cushy appointments. When cronyism becomes a virtue, beware the shenanigans that follow.

But there’s another aspect that is not talked about when it comes to appointments: the glaring absence of non-Malays in GLCs and other government agencies. Perhaps it is an issue that is deemed too sensitive to be discussed, but when silence perpetuates an injustice, it cannot be allowed to hide in the shadow of fear.

At about 40% of the population, non-Malays are not an insignificant minority.  Should they not, therefore, be given a fair share of the appointments and an equal opportunity to serve, to contribute relative to their numbers?


Under the New Economic Policy (NEP) – which was supported by all communities when it was first introduced – there was general agreement that special preference should be given to the Malay majority in order to remedy a situation where they were not adequately represented in the governance of the nation. It was premised upon the understanding that to enhance national unity, all communities should be involved in the administration of the nation, that no community should feel left out or marginalized. It remains a valid premise, then as now.

Ketuanan Melayu policymakers, however, appear to have usurped what was otherwise a fair approach to nation-building by turning it into a mechanism to marginalize the non-Malays. As a result, non-Malays have been effectively shut out of the administration as well as other areas of national life. What we now have is simply a semblance of multiracial participation, a token representation that precludes any meaningful participation by ethnic minorities in the governance of the nation.

How many GLC heads are non-Malay? How many heads of government departments or agencies are non-Malay? How many vice-chancellors of public universities are non-Malay? All have become predominantly the preserve of the majority community.

Of course, many of those who now sit as vice-chancellors and department heads are qualified for the job but are there no non-Malays who are similarly qualified and deserving? The system is now so skewered that policymakers would rather look abroad – as they did when they appointed Christoph Mueller as chief executive of MAS – rather than consider local non-Malay talent.

After being part of the very fabric of the nation for hundreds of years (centuries if you go back to the early Indian empires), after decades of toil, service and sacrifice to the nation, haven’t they earned the right to be treated like other Malaysians?

Other more recent arrivals from Indonesia and elsewhere have no trouble being accepted (indeed, some have ended up holding very senior positions in government even) but those who have been here for a far longer period of time remain excluded. Are they somehow less Malaysian because of their racial or religious background?

Ketuanan Melayu politicians have been propounding the thesis that Malaysia is for Malays as if it was some kind of aspirational goal; it has, in fact, been official policy for quite a long time now. It is so ingrained in the political culture that the appointment of Tommy Thomas as attorney-general, for example, shocked and displeased many.

What this means is that we have now formalized an apartheid-like system of governance that is designed to perpetuate the exclusion of minorities from participation in many areas of national life, something that goes against the very grain of the Constitution itself.

Article 8 (2) expressly states that “except as expressly authorized by this Constitution, there shall be no discrimination against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority….”

Of course, Ketuanan Melayu politicians continue to justify exclusionary policies by arguing that it is still needed. Such an argument, however, is only sustainable if it is cloaked in deliberate ambiguity, shady definitions and the disingenuous use of selective data. No honest assessment of the situation today could ever warrant the continuation of such a flawed and biased approach to recruitments and appointments.

At the end of the day, excluding a significant segment of the population on the basis of race, religion or even gender for that matter is not just fundamentally unjust and immoral, it is deleterious to the well-being of the nation itself. It creates resentment, breeds discontent and deprives the nation of much-needed human resources.

We have already lost several generations of incredibly talented non-Malays who now reside abroad after having been deprived of opportunities at home. While other countries scour the world in search of talent, we are evicting some of our brightest and best because of prejudice and bigotry. It is something that’s worth pondering as we try to dig ourselves out of the hole we now find ourselves in thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.