By Johan Jaaffar
KAK Milah (not her real name) has a stall selling nasi lemak in Petaling Jaya. Her eldest daughter, is married with three children. Her second is a dadah addict; the boy is HIV positive. Another boy works in a factory. Her youngest, a girl, 15, left school last year. "She's tired of studying. She wants to work." Yet she finds it too demeaning to work at the stall. The girl would rather work for a pittance at a factory than help the mother. Kak Milah's husband died 20 years ago. Perhaps Kak Milah is not a typical head of a family among the Malays. But there are some characteristics that are uniquely Malay about that family. For one, her entrepreneurial spirit is at best enough for her to survive. "Asal cukup makan" (as long as it is enough to eat) is the mantra. Sadly, the composite of her children too is a familiar one. A girl who marries early "nak bagi lepas beban mak bapak" (to relieve the parents of their responsibilities), and two others who left school "untuk cari duit sendiri" (to find their own money). And of course, having to live with a dadah addict in a family, is not at all surprising. Addiction to dadah is largely a Malay problem.
At least Kak Milah did try to educate her children. Yet, she has to accept the fact that her children "are not good enough" in their studies. And she did not expect her children to go into business the way she did. The Malays have every opportunity to ensure their children can go far in their studies. But many among the young opt to work. Peer pressure is too strong to seek jobs, find money and enjoy life. Owning a motorbike is like a dream come true. You can say it is a matter of choice. But the Malays cannot afford this lackadaisical attitude towards education. They are not in a position of strength, economically.
Do not be misled by the picture of success and affluence in the cities. The cream of the Malay society are the corporate leaders, the businessmen, the politicians and the professionals. There are the rich, the famous and of course the movers and shakers.
Some obtained huge contracts through political connections. Others work their way from scratch. At least they have debunked the myth that Malays are not capable of making it big in business or to be leaders in many professional disciplines.
But their siblings are still struggling. Look at the squatters in the cities and the poor in the villages. These people are real.
As the figures for 1999 will tell you, out of 351,000 Malaysian households categorised as poor, 75 per cent of them are Malays. The New Economic Policy (NEP) jump-started the participation of the Malays in economic activities. But after three decades, the NEP did not meet its modest objective. Look around. Shops belonging to the Malays are not part of the urban landscape. Very few Malays are involved in medium-size businesses. Stories of successes in small and medium size industries are still few and far in between. In short, physically, nothing much has really changed since the NEP was mooted.
The Chinese have the experience, the networking and the tenacity to excel. For many Chinese the future is in education, in ICT and in business. Many among the Malays have yet to be coaxed to embrace education, ICT and business. For many, it is still business as usual. As long as one has enough to eat, that is good enough to survive. That is not all, many are not even aware of what is going on around them. Information technology has changed the world we live in. Globalisation is a reality. The real world is migrating from PEconomy to K-Economy. The future is determined by those who control the minds and those who own information.
Even among the Malays, the divide is widening. We are talking not about the haves and the have-less in wealth distribution but a more marked divide as the consequence of information technology. Yet, it is sadly not fashionable today to talk about the poor among the Malays. Or highlighting many other problems bedeviling them. Call it the "Malay agenda" — apparently it has become a dirty word in today's world of political correctness.
To me the Malay agenda is not about declaring with absolute ludicrity that the Malays are forever "tuans" (lords) in this country. It is also about assuring that the largest ethnic group in the country is not deprived of the economic pie. There are many poor among the Chinese and the Indians and other ethnic groups as well. So eradication of poverty is not about depriving one race at the expense of the other. We must be committed to address the issue without fear or favour.
There are some among the Malay elite who believe that those who are left behind deserve the fate. "Malay bashing" is about how ill-equipped they are to face the new world, their tidak apa attitude in pursuit of excellence and their obsession with religion.
We must be fair to the likes of Kak Milah. Tell me, what does globalisation or the concept of a borderless world mean to her and her four children? What is technology other than the use of SMS or the images that came out of their TV sets? When you are worried about food and basic amenities in life, other issues are less important.
Forget about Kak Milah or even her children. Let's look at the grandchildren. We must not give up.
* The writer is a farmer. He was once an editor of a vernacular newspaper. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.