THE first imperative for a national unity plan is to admit that there is indeed a problem (otherwise, why have a National Unity Blueprint, or NUB, in the first place?), and to identify what exactly is the problem and its source, before looking for a solution.

Sure, Malaysia is 20th in the Global Peace Index, as the National Unity Policy (NUP) proudly proclaims, but that should not be a measure of unity – after all, you can be peaceful but disunited, with many strong undercurrents beneath a calm, seemingly tranquil surface. Indeed, in Malaysia, that is the case.

The National Unity Department was set up in 1969 following the May 13 racial riots, presumably to identify the reasons for the riots and set up remedial measures. The National Unity Ministry was formed in 1972 with Tun V.T. Sambanthan as its first minister.

Despite such attention being given to national unity for over 50 years, the sad state of affairs is that racial discord and resentment have increased rather than reduced, reflecting the abject failure of the National Unity Department and Ministry.

Looking at both NUB and NUP, there seems to be no fresh initiative to deal with the problem, with the same old platitudes being trotted out, and the same attitudes. There is no attempt at a deeper analysis of resentment between the races in Malaysia, and what to do about it.

There is no talk about the root causes of racial tension, and what specifically needs to be done to sort this out.

NUB talks of five strategic shifts:

1. Include unity values in early education;

2. Strengthen education of the Rukun Negara;

3. Activate programmes that promote patriotism, nationalism and good values;

4. Strengthen nationalism modules in formal and continuing education; and,

5. Build expertise in the area of unity.

No more ineffectual programmes for building unity can be thought of than these – bureaucratic, banal, bland, trite, jaded, stale. Any action arising from these strategies is likely to be the same, and will not address the problem of unity in a million years, let alone 50, because not even the problem has been identified.

Back to basics. Why is there a problem of unity? It’s because there is disparity between and within the races – class differences are rapidly emerging and widening. There is resentment between the races – Malays are said to be unhappy with the relative prosperity of the other races, while the other races resent the special privileges that Malays get, often those who don’t deserve it.

Non-Malays resent racial preferences in the civil service, where top positions and most employment opportunities are reserved for Malays, especially after May 1969. Malays are rightly concerned about extensive discrimination in the Chinese-dominated private sector against them (and other races, too). But, there is some semblance of equity obtained among foreign multinationals, which are largely racially blind unless top positions in some areas are dominated by those of one race.

Then, there is a third class of people to contend with – non-Malay Bumiputeras, like the Orang Asal, and Sabah and Sarawak indigenous peoples – who are often sidelined in the race to get special privileges, and who are probably the most underprivileged in the country. Worse, there is none to speak up for them.

Let’s move on to the polarised school system – Malays mostly go to national schools, as do most people who are poor – the non-Malay Bumiputeras, Indians and others.

Well over 90% of Chinese send their children to Chinese primary schools, partly because of an abysmal drop in the standard of national schools due to poor-quality teachers and syllabus, and a perceived overemphasis on race and religion.

Interracial interaction between students is more commonplace, paradoxically, at English-medium private local and international schools, rather than national ones. – The Vibes file pic, February 18, 2021
Interracial interaction between students is more commonplace, paradoxically, at English-medium private local and international schools, rather than national ones. – The Vibes file pic, February 18, 2021

So, you have a polarised national education system with little interaction between Malays and non-Malays, and the Chinese with an education system all their own. Never before has education been so polarised.

Paradoxically, the interaction between students of different races takes place at the very limited level of English-medium private local and international schools, which means interracial interaction takes place among students whose parents are very well-off – among the elite, if you will.

Unlike in the past, students are now racially split into three streams, with racial interaction happening in only one of them. How not to expect racial polarisation to take place? The puzzle to unravel is, how do you turn these things back?

In this complex interaction among the races, the current mode of operation among most Malay parties is the Malay domination of politics to compensate for the Chinese domination of business. This is no longer necessarily true because of government-linked companies, which have huge clout, but on an individual basis, it still is very much so.

The official reason for the May 13, 1969 riots was economic and other disparities between the races. So, when we talk about national unity, we have to talk about racial disunity and its sources.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1971 was supposed to help sort that out, but it got corrupted along the way, and is badly in need of an overhaul to go back to the twin basics of eradication of poverty irrespective of race and elimination of the identification of race with economic function.

It is not, as we have been wrongly and repeatedly told, the levelling of wealth. How can you possibly level wealth when 1% of people hold over 50% of wealth? The intermediate goal of ensuring fair wages for everyone is more important and more easily achieved. We have not done even that.

Income disparities need to be sorted out first. The redistribution of wealth is more complicated, and even NEP envisaged that this will come out of growth. But, NEP’s excesses are among the thorny problems that any unity programme has to deal with.

Inclusivity, or the lack thereof, is a problem. Terms like “pendatang” and “kafir” should be thrown out of the lexicon, and those using such terms should have the book thrown at them. As the prime minister himself said at the launch of NUB, too many politicians have been using race and religion to advance their agenda. That’s one of the key problems.

This is just a flavour of the problems of race, religion, language and culture in the country. No one is saying unity is easily achieved. It is an extremely complex and highly nuanced problem. The pity is that the new NUB does not recognise this, and is, therefore, doomed to fail.

A prerequisite to solving a problem is to correctly identify it first. – The Vibes, February 18, 2021

P. Gunasegaram says we are a nation of blueprints, plans and programmes, but little action. He is editorial consultant of The Vibes and executive director of Sekhar Institute