She had just fallen asleep on her Appa’s hand for 20 minutes as she hadn’t slept properly the last 48 hours, arriving as early as 5am at the hospital to begin her “shift” to look after him. She had also grown extremely weary as she had experienced the most unspeakable pain the day before, witnessing her father suffer a stroke.
Her mom wasn’t there when he breathed his last as she was settling last minute shareholding issues with her dad’s business partner, made urgent in the wake of the doctor’s advice to prepare for the worst. That girl holding on to her daddy was me. But I digress, Tun. This business matter that prevented my mother from saying goodbye to my father is a story that began 19 years ago for me, and 47 years ago for Malaysia.
It’s an incident that has contributed to shaping the lives of every single Malaysian, and in shaping Malaysian politics – and not in a good way.
I’ve always been deeply uncomfortable writing openly about this for fear of persecution, honestly. Because that’s what Malaysians have come to experience – fear of imprisonment for protecting their basic civil rights.
Is Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) winning going to change that? We moan about it, unable to take action, but when the matter hit too close to home, I knew it would be cowardice not to speak. And because everyone should contribute to upholding peace and justice. And because I had to do this for my Appa, my father. And as I write this, tears roll down my face…
What I’m about to write next is a story of many Malaysians in one form or another, not just my own.
I grew up revering you as our Prime Minister, Tun. I loved everything about you. For a primary school girl who knew nothing about politics, I could only look up to your fatherly demeanour and kind face that I admired. I believed in all the greatness you did for our country. You even talked and had the body language of my daddy!
And then school finished, and my daddy had a talk with me. Amongst many other things, he told me about the institutionalised racism in our country, the bumiputera status and the New Economic Policy (NEP), succeeded by the National Development Policy.
My young heart broke – I felt sick in the tummy. I felt betrayed by my country for the first time, and many more incidents would follow.
Today I wonder, how many more tender Malaysian hearts broke when they found out about this, that as citizens, they weren’t equal. So I disassociated myself from being Malaysian. The government was divided racially, and it did so unto its people.
Most importantly I thought, “My Tun is condoning this?” You’ve done nothing about this till today. Why?
My dad was just one year too late to see a better Malaysia with the winning of PH. My heart ached that the man who taught me the importance of voting, didn’t live to see the day he had long hoped for. But will I see a truly equalitarian Malaysia?
I realised how possible this concept was after living in Britain. Racism exists everywhere in differing degrees, and there may be scepticism about immigration and the European Union in the UK.
But when you ask a British born of any colour, “What are you?”, the answer is almost always,”British”. But how many of us Malaysians answer in “race”?
How could it be otherwise when until recently, we were ruled by a coalition that is made up of predominantly race-based parties?
One becomes more aware of how racist we as a nation have become, when you live in countries that do not have institutionalised racism.
The next blow came when my brother wanted to study medicine in a local university. He scored high enough marks in his STPM, but we learnt that the bumi quota system meant that Indians had the smallest percentage of seat allocations in local universities.
They offered him a place in nutrition instead. So now Malaysia chooses which occupation each race should be in? Socio-economic restructuring at its worst.
My brother eventually qualified as a doctor, with financial struggle on our side, and he has since left the country to practise overseas, and thus the introduction of the Brain Drain Era – who wants to invest in a country that didn’t look after them?
How can any of us say all races live in harmony when you live through this? It’s a comfortable lie we’ve all gotten used to.
The questionable intentions of the NEP extended to other areas – bumiputera quotas in the ownership of public company stocks; houses sold exclusively to bumiputeras, just to name a few, and then it visited our doorstep yet again.
Appa wanted to set up a security services company, but he could only do so with the majority shareholding owned by a bumiputera. And so in 1999 he involved his Malay friend who promised, “in name only”, to hold these majority shares.
His Malay friend did not contribute a penny, or any of his time, or a single asset into the company, but continued to demand a monthly director’s salary of up to RM2000, medical benefits, Raya pocket money, and even stooped so low as to ask for an annual Raya hamper.
He would harass dad out of the blue every now and then asking for large amounts of money to pay for something or other. It’s no surprise what happened to that “friendship”.
If my dad didn’t hand him free money, he would make administrative matters difficult, not sign licence renewals, make the company’s relationship with the Ministry of Home Affairs difficult, just to name a few.
My father slid into ill health every time this happened. This is the point when I really lost all hope and respect for those in power. I saw how this inequality in Malaysia had caused many to abuse their positions, fostering a sense of false entitlement amongst many.
Inane phrases like “balik negara sendiri” and “ketuanan Melayu” were thrown about. Which country was I to go back to exactly, I wondered, and still wonder. I didn’t come from anywhere else. I was born here.
As a result, when I travelled the world, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. I was a vagabond citizen, happy to live where I could make the most of my life. I became a citizen of the World. Certainly not of Malaysia.
Today Tun, my story applies to half of the Malaysian population, who don’t truly feel that they belong. Is this the legacy that you want to leave behind?
I’m writing to you because today you are in a position to effect this change.
These socio-economic policies are causing severe racial polarisation. Will you help make that change? There are many reasons I admire you, but this is the one reason why I couldn’t sign the Nobel Peace Prize petition nominating you that was circulated on social media recently. Racial inequality is not synonymous with peace.
After you left Umno in 2016, you led the setting up of The Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM). Why indigenous? Why does the party’s ideology say nothing for Malaysians as a whole? Is this just another Umno?
I see history repeating. Why do political parties need to be race based? Why can’t the interests of Malaysians be looked after as a whole and resources channelled where they’re needed most?
PPBM’s ideology states amongst others, “maintaining the special position of Malays & natives of Sabah & Sarawak…”
Why aren’t all those who are born here “special” though? Another PPBM party objective states: “upholding the dignity and sovereignty of the institution of the Malay Rulers”.
And we wonder why a certain bunch feel entitled enough to oppose the current appointment of a new AG that abided by the due constitutional process of Article 145? Because this false entitlement has been openly and blatantly engendered for more than 40 years.
As a nation we may have seen how the previous government extended handouts when they wanted to increase their popularity, but the NEP has meant an institutionalised system of handouts for the largest ethnic community in Malaysia, it seems indefinitely.
Bringing you back to my story, after I woke up from laying my head on my dad’s hands, we realised my dad was dying. I called mom, desperately crying out for her to return from the meeting with the Malay partner immediately, as dad was leaving us.
The Malay partner had been forcing my dad to sell our company and give him his share for the last 10 years at least, oblivious to the fact that this was our “rice bowl”.
The alternative he gave us was to buy him out for a six-figure amount he quoted. Barely concluding the deal due to my call, my mother desperately rushed to the hospital in a cab.
But she was too late – dad had left us. She sprawled herself on him, wailing, “I did it Athan, I managed to buy him out! Why didn’t you wait for me to tell you this?”
My dad, an ex-superintendent of police, who served his country dutifully and honourably, did not live to peacefully enjoy the fruits of his hard-earned labour, or hear the news that his selfish friend had been paid off and that he would now leave us alone.
Days after dad passed away, Mom emptied out all her life savings and EPF savings to pay off the Malay partner. Just like that. Free money into his pocket for no contribution to the company whatsoever, not so much as a pen.
He manipulated his racial advantage to take huge amounts of money from our family. His friendship and his word to my dad took a side step. My dad passed away last year a cynical man, broken by mistrust from people around him who took advantage of the generosity he was so well known for.
This is how the NEP has been misused Tun, and it has twisted the moral compass of many. That’s perhaps why our Father of Independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman, opposed the target of 30% of all equity in bumiputera hands.
The NEP’s goal of having 30% of the national wealth held by Bumiputeras was not indicative of a median 60% of Bumiputeras holding 28% of the national wealth, but could theoretically translate into one Bumiputera holding 29% of the national wealth, with the remaining Bumiputeras sharing 1%.
Does this somehow explain the true story of billions of dollars and Hermes Handbags in the hands of one or two people?
And this is how my story ends, Tun. The word Bumiputera translates to Prince of the Land. We are all princes of the land we are born into, aren’t we?
Racist policies and politics are seeping into our lives and robbing our fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters of a peaceful and fair existence every single day.
Social relationships are partly based on reciprocal altruism, or helping others in a mutually beneficial manner.
Please Tun, initiate a better Malaysia for all. I’m just one daughter speaking up for her deceased father. I’m sure there are a million more stories out there.
Help us eradicate institutionalised racism. Help us create a Malaysia for ALL Malaysians.
Lakshmi Appadorai Baker is an FMT Reader.