Is meritocracy racist?

tun_m.jpgIts the same question Tun Mahathir asked in his recent blog post. He makes some very unusual claims there, the main one being that meritocracy, as it exists in the Malaysian context, was derived from racist origins. 

But the PAP chauvinistic legacy was taken up by the DAP. And the slogan “Malaysian Malaysia” continued to figure in Malaysian politics, evolving into a new catchword, “Meritocracy”. If “Malaysian Malaysia” conjures equality between races, “Meritocracy” implies something stronger. It implies dominance by the race with the greatest merit in every field; in education, in business and in all fields of human endeavour. 

He implies that the DAP, by promoting “meritocracy” is actually promoting a non-Malay domination of the society because its a foregone conclusion that the best Malaysians, in terms of education, business or any other field, are non-Malays. 

That’s an interesting perspective on things and something i’ve never considered before.

Is “meritocracy” a very clever smokescreen for “racism”? The way Tun puts it does seem convincing. I think i understand his concerns — he realizes that Malays, left on their own without help from the Government, would take years to become competitive in a level playing field. The Chinese have been forced to be competitive for the last 50 years of Independence, and its arguable than even a poorly-performing Chinese is better than an above average performing Malay.

Coming from a background of mixed parentage, i can see this quite clearly for myself. I’m considered a Bumiputera Malay, despite having a Chinese father. My cousin who is the same age as myself is classified “Chinese” by race. 

Ever since we were kids, he blew me away in school — academically, on the field of sports. He was just the better boy. When the big exams came around, he scored straight As, and i managed just a handful of As.

While it was possible for me to obtain a Government scholarship to further my studies, he had no such opportunity despite being the better student. The scholarship opportunities for non-Malays existed, but were very few. Amongst the Malays, i probably did quite well, but amongst the Chinese, he was just average.

Under a merit-based system, where everyone had equal access to limited resources, i can see where Tun has a point — its very very likely that the Malays would have been left with a very small portion of the pie. This can be a very bad situation considering that Malays do make up a significant majority of the population. That’s where Tun Mahathir is coming from. By ensuring that a majority of the opportunities go to the majority of the population, you are creating an environment of peaceful contentment.

If the minority of the country control the majority of the opportunities, its just a matter of time before you get an Indonesia-type meltdown (1998)

Tun Mahathir is not a dumb guy, lets give him that much credit at least. Like a good chess player, he could always see a few moves ahead. Also like a good chess player, he knew when to make a good gambit. The NEP, the affirmative action for Malays, the championing of Malay rights and privileges — that was his gambit.

He knows that affirmative action creates complacency. It holds back the development of a nation. Malaysia could have become Singapore if we had embraced “meritocracy” 50 years ago. Or, Malaysia could have become Indonesia and completely melted down in the face of an economic crisis. Weighing the possibilities of the available scenarios, he chose the safer route. His gambit, the sacrifice he made on behalf of the nation, was to take a safer, albeit slower path towards development.

The question facing us today is whether or not that path has run its course, and its time for us as a nation to change our tack. Are we ready to rid ourselves of our training wheels? 

53 years of independence is not a long time. But i think its long enough to start believing in ourselves. It’ll be a painful journey, sure. However, unless we take it, Malaysia will not be able to make that leap from developing to developed. That goal should transcend all others.

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