MALAYSIA: Inter-ethnic tensions touch universities

Malaysia's complex inter-ethnic culture touches all areas of life, not least higher education. The latest manifestation is the controversy surrounding a call by Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, Chief Minister of the central state of Selangor, the country's most populous, for the local Mara Technology University to open its roll to non-Malays and end its ethnically exclusive admissions policy. Graduates from Mara are favoured for entry into government departments.

The Chief Minister, himself a Malay, represents the ethnically mixed opposition front that won the state from the ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional) coalition in the general elections in March; Selangor is one of five states now out of BN hands. Following up on election promises, the opposition grouping is seeking an end to the pro-Malay affirmative action established under the New Economic Policy, itself a creation that came in the wake of the bloody inter-ethnic violence that rocked Malaysia in 1969.

The avowed aim of the NEP was to close the economic gap between the Chinese in particular and the Malays, who are constitutionally referred to as bumiputera or 'sons of the soil'. Some Malaysian Chinese, however, can trace their Malayasia blood lines back centuries while all have Malaysian citizenship.

The typification of the Chinese as universally wealthy and therefore able to pay for their offspring's passage through university is clearly unsound and has led to many instances of injustice. Should the son or daughter of a Chinese taxi driver or noodles stall operator be excluded from access to higher education or forced to go overseas is a very reasonable question.

Among the grievances to be addressed are quota systems in scholarships and university entrance that many Chinese and Indians say marginalise them. Until university tuition fees went up in target countries such as Britain and Australia, some Chinese and a few Indians were able to send their children abroad to study but that window has more or less closed.

The call by the Selangor leader was immediately repudiated by Professor Ibrahim Abu Shah, Mara University vice-chancellor, who accused the Chief Minister of "betraying his own race", a drearily familiar charge the opposition openly fought against. This essentially demagogic accusation led to a public protest by 5,000 Mara students demanding that 'their rights' be protected. The demonstration went ahead with the vice-chancellor's approval.

In fact, Shah was knowingly stirring the ethnic pot in the belief the Malay-dominated National Front federal government would back him. A statement from the office of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi repudiating the Selangor leader bore this out.

Meanwhile, however, there is strong evidence of a shift in Malay opinion on this issue. Azly Rahman, a Malay at Columbia University in the US, writing on the website Malaysiakini denounced what he called the "fascism" of the Mara students.

Firebrand opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who will shortly fight a by-election in the hope of returning to parliament after years of imprisonment and banning, will be expected to take up the issue of ethnically-charged higher education policies.

An irony does not escape the attention of some observers who have pointed out the continuation of ethnic discrimination in Malaysian higher education amid the government's efforts to lure larger numbers of overseas students, including those from mainland Communist China.