The pain of pebbles in our shoes

By So AuntySo What?

The strong response to what the Aunty said last week has prompted her to share her thoughts today of what needs to be done on this important inter-racial issue. 

THERE is a scene in the movie Ever After, based on the Cinderella story, where the stepmother, played by Angelica Huston, has just sold her stepdaughter, played by Drew Barrymore, to a villainous low-life. The dialogue goes like this:

Stepmother: You are not my problem any more.

Stepdaughter: Is that what I am? Your problem? I have done everything you’ve ever asked me to do and still you deny me the only thing I ever wanted.

Stepmother: And what’s that?

Stepdaughter: What do you think? You are the only mother I have ever known. Was there ever a time, even in its smallest measurement, that you loved me at all?

Stepmother: How can anyone love a pebble in their shoe?

To me, this scene encapsulates how the people in this country feel about each other. To the non-Malays, especially those born here, this is their motherland. Yet, they often feel like stepchildren yearning for love and acceptance.

To the Malays, they believe the Chinese and Indians see them as obstacles that block them from achieving their best for the country and taking their rightful place under the Malaysian sun. So we are pebbles in each other’s shoes.

Perhaps it has always been like that. After all, to the Malays, the Chinese and Indians were indeed pendatang (immigrants) foisted upon them by the British to work in the rubber estates and tin mines. It wasn’t like they had much say at that time.

Then came the fight for independence and because the British insisted, the Malays joined forces with the Chinese and Indians in a spirit of cooperation and power-sharing. It was indeed a magnanimous act even if it was born out of necessity. So while not quite pebbles, everyone had sand in their shoes that could not be dislodged; not very comfortable but one could still walk in them.

Whatever the cause – racially divisive politics, lopsided implementation of policies, the politicising and fragmentation of the education system and so on – power-sharing has become an unhealthy power struggle over who controls the political and economic spheres. As a result, that esprit de corps in the early years of the Alliance has been gradually evaporating and worse, the sand seemed to have become pebbles and, I fear, perhaps even sharp, painful stones.

This was brought home to me in the huge outpouring of responses to my column last week, Rebooting our racial quotas. I argued for the case of reverse quotas for Chinese and Indians to be added as a KPI to heads of the civil service, police and armed forces to correct the obvious racial imbalance in these sectors.

Not surprisingly, all the e-mails from Chinese and Indian readers agreed with me. They were grateful that such a “sensitive” issue that had rankled for so long was raised openly.

But the three e-mails from Malay readers, while polite, made it clear they didn’t believe there was discrimination in the hiring and promotion practices of the public sector or anywhere else.

One said the Chinese then and now are different, meaning the Chinese then were patrio­tic so they were willing to join the police and army but not any more. Present day Chinese aren’t willing to serve and die for this country; they just want good paying jobs. She ended up calling me a racist.

Another said he understood my pride in my dad (a retired Special Branch officer) as he is a son of a soldier and we should celebrate our dads’ contributions. That was nice but he also concluded by saying there were just too few non-Malays applying and they would get in if they did. “Just get in the queue” as he put it.

The third Malay said it was clear the Chinese controlled everything, presumably because of the Chinese shop signs he sees everywhere and that they dominate top professions like engineers, doctors, and scientists. He added that the Chinese should be sincere in wanting to help the Malays and what’s wrong with “a little privilege” as provided for in the Federal Constitution.

I received only one sms from a Malay friend, a senior civil servant, who agreed with me and lamented about the good old days.

This struck me as how wide the gap of perception of reality is between the Malays and the non-Malays. The Malays honestly believe they are entitled to special help. The way they see it, the Chinese still dominate everything and aren’t interested in serving in the police, army or the civil service because of the low pay.

For the Chinese and Indians, that is just untrue. They have plenty of anecdotal evidence from friends and family to prove there is an entrenched practice that discriminates against them from getting into government service and if they did, from getting their due rewards and promotions.

That’s why non-Malays support my proposal for the Government to implement a mandatory quota for the Chinese and Indians in government, be it the police, the armed forces, teaching profession or the civil service itself. As a reader put it: Who doesn’t want a shot at a job that is an “iron rice bowl”?

Non-Malays, especially the Chinese, are also dying to tell their stories of patriotism to prove that given the chance, they would serve and even die for this country. Clearly, there is a dire need to bridge the perception gap. The only way to bring both sides to a better understanding of each other’s grievances and frustrations, hopes and fears is to get closer to see each other at work, play and pray.

Officially, we are very good at pretending that we interact and mingle well but we know that’s not true. It’s all become very superficial. As I have said before, over the years, we have lost many touch points: from the schools we attend, the places we eat at, the TV channels we watch and the music we listen to.

But the experience of Mohd Izam Mahazir is an example of how we can break down racial walls. He was interviewed in March by The Star’s Shahanaaz Habib for her “Heartland Voices” series. Shahanaaz wrote:

The 27-year-old uprooted himself from Alor Setar to start a jeruk business at Chowrasta market in Penang and loves it here so much that he doesn’t want to go back.

“When I was in Alor Setar, I lived in a 100% Malay community, so my thinking was a bit narrow. But in Penang, I got to mix around with all the races and I found my perspective has opened up. I am a changed person.

“We Malays are less competitive because we depend too much on the Government. And the Federal Government maintains its power by allowing this kind of thinking – that without them and special rights, the Malays would never be able to come up,” says Izam, who now makes RM20,000 a month from his business.

He feels it is time for the Malays to be tested. “Right now, even with all the help the Government is giving to the Malays, it is the Chinese and Indians who are doing better economically and this is because they have been forced to compete. Before I came to Penang. I never quite saw things this way.”

Here is one young Malay who, once removed from his one-dimensional cocoon, came to realise what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur – basically hard work and persistence – and an appreciation of what most ordinary non-Malays face to make a living.

On the other hand, the non-Malays should appreciate the latitude the Malays have given them in terms of vernacular schools, recognising non-Muslim religious festivals as public holidays and there has never been any Idi Amin-like attempt to throw out the so-called pendatang.

The Chinese should also show a better understanding of and allay the Malays’ fears and expectations, like embracing and speaking fluent Bahasa Malaysia, and not dismiss them as unfounded.

Ultimately, if there is to be national reconciliation and a genuine desire to forge national unity and multiracialism, the Government must take the lead and encourage important and painful issues to be openly discussed and make the necessary changes and adjustments to policies and practices.

Not only that, the rascals who continue to play the racial card and fan fear and hatred by using a particular community as the bogeyman must be shamed, silenced and shunned.

For far too long, it has been a one-way street, even dead-ends, when it comes to communities understanding and knowing about each other, which has led us to the sad state we are in. There is no better time than now to make it two-way. Then only will we be able to remove any pebbles in our shoes and finally walk, no, run together.

  The writer hopes that everyone and the ­powers-that-be will keep an open mind and heart to ­listen, listen, listen. Feedback: junewong@­

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