21 Jun 2002

Mahathir leaves Malays wondering how good they are

By Jalil Hamid

KUALA LUMPUR, June 21 (Reuters) - Have the Malays passed or failed?
On Friday, Malaysia's ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was in the midst of three days of soul searching over plans to end a quota system guaranteeing Malays more places than other races at state universities.
If race and religion are the two most sensitive subjects in multicultural Malaysia, language and education come next.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has called his people work shy, ingrates, has already suspended quotas for this year and next, but his party is still getting used to the idea.
The other hotly debated topic at UMNO's annual assembly was the government's plan to bring back English language teaching for maths and science in schoolrooms to boost job chances in a globalised world where the knowledge economy is key.
Malay language nationalists are not the only ones unhappy.
Ordinary UMNO members feel the move is ill thought out, wondering whether it can make students any better at English or the sciences.
"I detect wide opposition to it at grassroots," said Shahrir Samad, a member of the UMNO Supreme Council, which has backed the shift to English.
"In the end the objections can be brushed aside, but it could lead to problems later," Shahrir told Reuters.
From hereon, the children of Malaysia's ethnic majority will have to compete on level terms with Chinese and Indians, who have long complained about odds stacked against them.
Across town from the UMNO meeting, students spoke of the challenges to be faced as they milled around outside the University Malaya's library.
"We should take this opportunity to compete with other races," a young Malay woman, studying applied chemistry at the country's oldest university.
But others admitted it will be a real test.
"The problem is Malays are not willing to work hard," said a design engineering student, who like most on the campus declined to give his name after being forced last year to reaffirm an undertaking to leave politics aside while studying.
"There are many dropouts from among the Malay students but I have not heard of Chinese dropouts."
Young Malays who have grown up during Mahathir's 21-years in power have disappointed the 76-year-old leader, becoming too involved in politics and religion, turning in low scores although 20 percent of the annual budget is spent on education.
He fears Malays, grown soft on quotas after 33 years of affirmative action programmes under the New Economic Policy (NEP), were in danger of falling down in the competitive free-for-all of a globalised world.
UMNO champions rights and privileges of Malays, whose agrarian society is dazed by the rapid industrialisation choreographed by Mahathir in the last two decades.
And its Malay nationalists fear meritocracy on the campuses is just the start, and other privileges could be next to go.
Khoo Boo Teik, a political science lecturer at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, says the move may be a shock to Malay diehards, but not to the system.
He reckoned fears Malay students won't be able to cope in a meritocracy were misplaced.
"Someone in government will have already worked out that the impact won't be that great."
"The problem now is not meritocracy, it's that people don't want to give up ideologies."
The education issue has raised consciousness that unlike constitutionally enshrined Malay rights, which protect things such as land rights, Malay privileges, which are typically quota systems, can be dismantled.
An ethnic Chinese, Khoo also believes flawed statistics do a disservice to Malays advances and the achievements of the NEP.
"It is in education that Malays have made great strides, regardless of statistics.
"There has been an enormous degree of democratisation during the NEP. Education used to be more elitist."
Merits or demerits, many of the UMNO faithful acknowledge Mahathir is right in taking away some of the props for Malays.
"They shouldn't be pampered anymore," said Noor Rahim Wahab, an UMNO delegate from Penang state. "He has made similar calls in the past but the problem is the Malays are still sleeping."
(With additional reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore)