By Stanley Koh
Free Malaysia Today
“There are no Malay rights since our Constitution holds dear that all persons are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection of the law without discrimination on the basis of race and religion.”
That was what the late Ghazali Shafie said in a speech at the National Unity Convention in May 2001.
He continued: “What perhaps has come to be regarded as special rights is the special position of the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak under Article 153 (of the Federal Constitution). The change from ‘position’ to ‘rights’ is frightening. Who did that, I wonder?
“In a plural society like ours, if the leadership was not bold and sincere enough to take corrective measures so that there would be a level playing field, then the situation would indeed be bleak and our society would be a playground for those who wish us ill.”
Born in Kuala Lipis, Ghazali was 88 at the time of his death in January 2010. He had a distinguished career in politics and government.
Many bigots, opportunists and self-serving leaders of today will probably dismiss those remarks on the New Economic Policy as just one man’s opinion. If they are ignorant of history, they may even question his authority.
If Ghazali were alive and facing these critics, he would probably reply in these words, which were part of the speech at the 2001 convention:
“It was Tun Abdul Razak who asked me to devise the NEP after being inspired by Rukunegara.
“The NEP was the fruit of consultations among the various races in the Consultative Committee and later Parliament, who agreed to the corrective measures by invoking affirmative action.”
In explaining affirmative action, he paraphrased Tun Abdul Razak, who likened it to the handicap system in golf, “so that,” he said, “everyone could play together on a level playing field.”
He added: “Almost ad nauseam, it was explained that the NEP was not to make the Malay community rich but to change vocations through affirmative action. To acquire riches is the privilege of any individual and it would be contrary to the Rukunegara if the only aim was to make the Malays rich.”
When he spoke those words, the greed for riches through the NEP had long taken root. Distortions and misinterpretations of the policy had already divided the nation, and our so-called leaders tossed around the word “unity” only when elections were near, and they still do so today.
But unity, if we take it seriously, is indeed the key to resolving the profound problems that the nation faces.
Is “1Malaysia” a call for such unity? Many Malaysians do not think so. They believe instead that it is a red herring meant to deflect attention from the continuation of discriminatory policies.
The thinking public does not buy all the hype about 1Malaysia that BN is pushing through the media organisations it controls. It remains an empty and meaningless slogan.
And, as if oblivious of what the public is saying, 1Malaysia has become a favourite catchword among BN politicians. They tag the slogan to everything, like a chef sprinkling salt in every dish. Do they really think that Malaysians are stupid enough to believe that mere rhetoric can charm them out of their dissatisfactions?
Ghazali was right when he said that our national problem had become complicated because of the kind of education Malaysians were receiving. And nothing has changed since he made that remark 10 years ago.
“We become argumentative over some words without analysis or a look at the semantics,” he said.
And Ghazali was right too when he said: “We don’t seem to care about the fundamental right to food and clothing.”
Critics accuse the Umno-led regime of spending millions of ringgit on decorative rhetoric and ceremonial reforms without making any real effort towards substantive institutional changes that would bring about compliance with democratic principles and respect for human rights and needs.
Ghazali stressed that there could be no lasting unity unless the playing field was level.
He added: “Let us not shift the goal posts when the field is beginning to level. This exercise at maintaining peace and stability must be kept in constant repair.”
Ghazali, once an Umno supreme council member himself, probably had some faith that the party would eventually come to its senses and start to set things right again. If he were alive today, would he still have such confidence?