After his defeat in the 1969 general election, which served as the catalyst for a sanguinary racial conflict, and his fallout with then-premier Tunku Abdul Rahman, resulting in his expulsion from Umno, Dr Mahathir Mohamad published a controversial book.
Titled The Malay Dilemma, it claimed, among others, that the Malays fell under the dominion of other races in their own land because of their tolerant and non-confrontational nature.
Now, as the nation celebrates its 64th year of independence, Chandran Nair delves into what he terms as the “non-Malay dilemma” - the other part of Malaysia’s ethnic equation.
The businessperson, author and think-tank founder said he was prompted to speak on this after watching comedian Harith Iskander's recent interview with former CIMB group chairperson Nazir Razak.
To his credit, he said, Nazir displayed empathy and lamented the state of affairs in Malaysia as well as outlined his vision for change.
Acknowledging race-based politics as one of the root causes, he added that the son of the second prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein and brother of the sixth prime minister Najib Abdul Razak appeared genuine in his desire to overhaul the manner in which the nation is governed.
However, Chandran said it was Nazir's response to a question from an individual who asked if non-Malays should remain in Malaysia or leave due to the discrimination against them, which struck a chord.
“The question seemed to take the host and Nazir by surprise. Nazir said he felt emotional and was saddened by this question. His response reminded me of the response of a couple of my well-heeled Malay friends who reel when I mention something similar.
“I tell them, 'You have no idea what it feels like to be discriminated against along racial lines in your own country do you?' They listen in a state of shock, as if they have just been exposed to a new truth, yet having been participants in political discussions for years.
“It is odd to me they have never considered this while witnessing and living in that reality that non-Malays endure all the time. It reminds me how easy it is to get used to discrimination if you are a beneficiary, like the white people in the US,” he added.
Chandran, whose plan to establish the Malaysian Anti-Racism Institute (MARI) has been put on hold due to the Covid-19 situation, believes that all Malaysians who have values and want to save the country from its decline should focus their attention on the Malay elites.
“Both the active participants and supporters of institutional racism as well as those who are silent beneficiaries. They have simply not thought about this obvious feeling of the non-Malays or conveniently chosen to ignore it, which is a moral abdication of sorts. It is a mixture of active denial and blissful ignorance. Neither is excusable,” he added.
'Dismantle what you helped build'
On the same note, Chandran said the issue highlighted the resilience of non-Malays to endure discrimination for almost half a century and continue to remain loyal citizens as well as key contributors to the country.
“But for how long? Where most countries in Asia have tried hard in this progressive era to discard all vestiges of racial discrimination given their experiences during colonisation and so forth, elite Malays in Malaysia have fought hard to entrench and institutionalise it.
“It is a reflection of a sense of inferiority and a belief in racial superiority. No other majority in any country has been as successful in institutionalising racism into all aspects of life.”
Chandran said the non-Malays had helped create this divisive order and must now work towards dismantling it.
“Sadly, the secret ally in this has been the non-Malay population who allowed themselves to be 'suppressed' into actually believing they are second-class citizens. This is particularly so of the middle class and elites.
“The latter could argue it is to get their slice of the pie and explain it away as 'the only way to survive'. One can understand the dilemma of the poorer non-Malays in allowing this to happen in the era of Malay supremacy as they have had to live with structural inequalities and their lack of socio-economic clout in a country where the call for change has thankfully always been through peaceful means.
“This is because non-Malays have fundamentally aligned with and recognised the need to have affirmative actions to uplift poor Malays – a need that is just as relevant at present,” he added.
By being compliant, Chandran claimed that non-Malays allowed an elite Malay rent-seeking class to rise and usurp the political system and the major institutions while at the same time, institutionalising racism and normalising it.
He added that it also allowed racist elements to instil the fear of harm in them as well as created two generations of Malays who believe there is no need for them to compete on a level playing field.
“This has done great damage to the quality of education in the country and lowered the bar for meritocracy in many institutions including GLCs. It also forced many educated Malays who are fully aware of the immoral nature of this (even against the teaching of Islam) to be silent and thus complicit in furthering institutional racial discrimination.
“This has started a deep rot within the Malay society and now finally, a few elite Malays, retired politicians and business leaders are beginning to speak about it – sadly not when they were in positions of power.
“This is now beginning to divide the Malay community but with little open acknowledgement that the root cause is racist policies created by those who have no interest in uplifting others, including poorer Malays.
“But within this rift may be the seeds for change and educated Malays across the spectrum must enter the fray and stop acting like they belong to a tribe with a code of silence,” he averred.
'Civil action and people's disobedience'
Noting that the malaise is entrenched, Chandran believes that change cannot be made through parliamentary elections.
Therefore, he said the non-Malay dilemma is about which course of action to take in order to repossess their status as equal citizens.
“How do the Chinese find ways not to be treated as if they are the Jews in Europe and blamed for everything because they are viewed as economically better off. How do the Indians escape the downward spiral and reverse the discrimination so as not to be the Black Lives Matter of Malaysia?
“How do the indigenous communities regain their rightful positions and not be marginalised or be pushed into shrinking reserves like the Native Americans?”
First and foremost, Chandran said those who want change should not be cowed by threats of backlash.
“The dilemma is how to expose it so that all Malays understand what is happening thus compelling the racists to change. The Malay community must understand that racism will hobble them as a race, will impoverish the poor and is un-Islamic if they need reminding.
“For non-Malays, running to another country is the easy way out but not all can have the means to do so. Non-Malays need to oppose and dismantle it by getting actively engaged. The first step is not to fear the racists and stop behaving like a 'guest' in your own country.
“Non-Malays do not need to believe that the only way to dismantle it is through the political system as that is a sham and the events of the last two years have shown us that racism is what runs through the corridors of our entire political system.
“We have reached a point that the system has now installed a prime minister who is regarded as a racist with a track record to prove it,” he added.
Chandran mooted using civil action and people's disobedience as tools to effect the desired changes.
“Actions can start at work. If you work at a GLC ask the CEO why there are so few non-Malays. Challenge Human Resources. Do not remain silent. Malays in these organisations can ask the same question. Educated Malays in organisations like Petronas should be asking about the race-based hiring and procurement policies,” he added.
Chandran urged non-Malays to post stories of their dilemma as well as share inspiring accounts on overcoming institutional racism.
“Imagine 10,000 of these a month and shared across the country? They must avoid all forms of racist expressions but use it instead to bind all races together while outing the racists. They should invite their Malay friends to do the same and liberate them from their silence. This can become a movement that will force change.
“An encouraging sign is that there are some organisations challenging the racist system and calling out elite Malays. However, most are youth groups and do not get much traction or support from the establishment.
“There is an opportunity now to bring many of them under one social movement that has no leader as such but uses art, literature and even sports to promote the rejection of the existing system nationwide.
“Non-Malays must move away from their compliant attitudes and get engaged peacefully in outsmarting the racist elites. They need to challenge liberal Malays who stay silent and present their dilemma as a political issue and deny that institutional racism is at the heart of the system.
“When I was invited to watch another episode of Harith Iskander's interviews, a well-known liberal Malay elite was the guest and never confronted the issue of racism when discussing the current mess we find ourselves in. The host did not challenge him. He should not be able to get away with it and neither should we allow it,” he added.
Chandran also called on non-Malays to fight the urge to become racist in order to protect themselves.
“They too should look within their circles and shed all aspects of racism. But as always, it is the majority who have the principal responsibility and must stop systematically oppressing the minority,” he added.