Business student Hanisah Fadzil arrived in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur last year, eager to be surrounded by people like herself. A Muslim of Malay descent, Ms Fadzil was tired of being in the minority in her native Singapore, where most citizens are ethnically Chinese.
The high school graduate decided to spend a year at Taylor's College, a private institution, taking university preparation courses. She has enjoyed being in a country "where life is much more geared toward the Malay," even while she tends to shun its more conservative dress codes and religious practices in favour of fashionable clothes and a more secular, westernised outlook. Islam, she notes, is Malaysia's official religion.
Malaysia should have been the logical choice for Ms Fadzil's career as well. Not only are many subjects at the universities still taught in Malay, with Malay studies an integral part of the curriculum, but a rigidly enforced system of set-asides in the admissions and hiring process has meant an overwhelming Malay presence on the campuses during the past three decades.
But the policy has had the opposite effect on her. Ms Fadzil finds the idea that Malays receive special treatment offensive. She hopes to attend a university in Australia or even New Zealand, where "they don't use quotas, students aren't spoon-fed on account of their background and you're judged on the merits of your work."
So widespread is the disillusionment over Malaysian-style affirmative action that last year the government formally abandoned its 31-year system of "positive discrimination" in favour of Malays at the country's 17 public universities.
The policy was put in place when ethnic Malays held relatively little economic power in the country, despite being in the majority, on account of their largely rural lifestyles and a colonial legacy under which the country's more urbanised Chinese inhabitants tended to prosper.
These days, the country's other ethnic groups openly detest the system, even as most acknowledge, grudgingly, its historical justification.
The policy is believed to have cost the country as much as $US1 billion in lost revenue each year, as thousands of the country's best and brightest headed abroad for their studies, including to New Zealand, where Malaysian students remain a big revenue earner.
After years of relative public silence, quotas became the subject of a volcanic, Brash-style national debate three years ago, after the Ministry of Education admitted that relatively few Malays were meeting the minimum academic standards for university admission in many disciplines. The ministry also said hundreds of top-performing Chinese Malaysians were not being allowed to take the places left unfilled at many universities by the lack of suitably qualified Malay applicants.
Although the ministry later recanted on those claims, it acknowledged the quota policy had cost the country dearly in science and technology, areas the government had already spotlighted as higher-education priorities if the country was to meet its self-imposed deadline of 2020 for achieving developed-world status.
Early last year the government announced that starting with the class entering in June 2003, Malaysia's public universities would accept students solely on the basis of merit, as determined by scores on national tests, with computers being used to select eligible candidates from a single list.
Observers here say it may take a generation before the full effects of the policy changes are felt on campuses, because Malays have come to dominate the higher-education system.
"For such a long time now, they've tended to get the larger share of the cake," says ethnic Malay Hood Salleh, an anthropologist and Malay studies scholar at the National University of Malaysia and a former chairman of Malay studies at Wellington's Victoria University.
Compared with New Zealand and most other jurisdictions where quotas have been used, the Malaysian case is curious. While set-asides elsewhere are usually for minorities or indigenous peoples, the policy in Malaysia favoured the majority ethnic Malays over other statistically smaller groups, in particular Malaysians of Chinese heritage.
About 60% of the country's population is Malay, 25% is ethnically Chinese and 8% is of Indian descent. Until this year, Malaysian universities have been required to set aside a "reasonable proportion" of places the term was never precisely defined in every entering class for Malay students, as well as a similar proportion of positions for Malay faculty members. This was done by selecting the top scorers from each ethnic pool of applicants, with the Malay pool being by far the deepest.
As have gone the universities, so have followed the country's civil service and commercial sector, with Malays getting many of the most prestigious positions on account of their bigger showing among local graduates.
In practice, it has tended to mean a far bigger campus presence for Malays or bumiputras ("sons of the soil") than even what is suggested by the official guidelines.
At Kuala Lumpur's International Islamic University, for example, all but a handful of students are Malay.
The only visible differences are between the sexes because, in keeping with the university's religious character, men are largely segregated from women. "Why would the others ever want to come to a university like this?" asks a puzzled third-year English-studies major, arching a heavily made-up eyebrow from below her tudung, or head covering.
Yong Sue Yi, a university candidate who has just completed a year of college preparatory work, is typical of the kind of young Malaysian who may have once wanted to come. Until a generation ago, her prosperous Chinese forbears dominated university life here, as they had come to dominate the country's business activity in the century since the British first began bringing in Chinese labourers and edged the "tangata whenua" out of commercial affairs.
In the early 1970s, about 70% of undergraduates were Chinese and less than 10% Malay. Today those percentages are reversed.
Ms Yong, who doubts the policy change will be reflected in university admission practices any time soon, is resigned to joining the ranks of students abroad. It "isn't fair," she complains, that this choice was forced on her "by stuff that happened a long time ago. Why shouldn't it be that good [exam] results are all that counts?"
The answer to her question harks back to Kuala Lumpur's race riots of 1969, when thousands of Malays, egged on by rumours of conspiracies among their Chinese countrymen to destroy some of their cultural landmarks, rampaged through downtown, attacking ethnic Chinese and trashing their businesses. At least 250 Chinese Malaysians died and hundreds of others were injured.
An emergency administration set up in the wake of the riots assumed sweeping powers. In 1971, with the social turbulence still vividly in mind, the government adopted a new economic policy that officials said would ease ethnic tensions among the country's inhabitants by improving the economic fortunes of the majority Malays over those of the financially dominant Chinese.
The blueprint for the subsequently introduced sweeping affirmative-action programme was a political tract, The Malay Dilemma, a totemic document in the eyes of many who still venerate it as a kind of Treaty of Waitangi in the development of modern Malaysia. It argued in favour of preferential treatment for the "rightful owners" of Malaysia, who, as a result of British policies introduced before the country's independence in 1957, had lagged behind other groups in their development.
In another familiar touch, Malays also showed up atop many demographic lists of under-performing citizens, especially those living in the hinterlands with little access to the country's business or academic life.
The book's author, Mahathir Mohamad, went on to become Malaysia's best-known post-independence leader, serving as its fourth prime minister, from 1981 until last October. Crucial to the nationalist vision espoused by Dr Mahathir's United Malays National Organisation, the dominant political party, was the role of racial quotas in resolving the "dilemma."
One individual with a bird's-eye view of the system's fortunes over the years is Asmah Omar, a professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Malaya.
She was instrumental in working to introduce the quota system of the early 1970s and is now involved in looking at ways to dismantle its legacy. She believes the government was both right to introduce quotas when it did and correct to abolish them now.
Ms Omar recalls the way life was in that earlier era. Food outlets, even those at universities like her own, did not serve halal food, which is prepared according to Islamic religious dietary laws. The Malay language was generally shunned as a medium of instruction at the universities.
"The disparity here used to be painful," she says. "The idea that the population of a country's universities should reflect that of a country as a whole was a good one it was certainly needed. You don't have that anymore. People have learned. They've moved on."
Some observers say ethnic Indians may actually be the ones to lose out in the end. They are "a kind of fall guy for the other two groups and their differences," says V Murugan, a recent Indian graduate of the University of Malaya and now a manager at a private company in the capital.
Dr Salleh, the National University professor, concedes it will take time for the system to become more culturally inclusive. The Malays "remain the favoured group they may not say that but it is true."
He says the government's decision to eliminate the quota system was less about bringing more Chinese Malaysians back into the national fold although he believes that will occur in time and more about challenging Malays "to do better, work harder and be more successful, especially in the sciences and at the philosophical level."
Mr Salleh is dismayed at the way superstitious beliefs of the Malay have sometimes been allowed to influence areas like the study of the natural sciences.
For Ms Fadzil, the young Malay student looking to study in the antipodes, the latest moves come too late. Quotas tend to leave countries in a paradoxical situation in which "the very group you're trying to give an edge to ends up less able to cope with the real world as a result of being spoon-fed," she says, leaning forward and blinking earnestly behind her designer glasses.
For a moment, those spectacles appear as fine as the ones worn by Spinoza, as she considers a core question grappled with by those on both sides of the quota debate in faraway New Zealand. "What comes first, the stereotype or the disadvantage?" she asks. "Is it possible that people may come to feel disadvantaged because that's how they've already been stereotyped by this kind of system?"
Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"