21 May 2017

Freedom to Flourish and Stay Engaged
Focus, Sunday Star
Malaysia should have more channels to engage the people and be responsive to their evolving needs.

By Nazir Razak, Ananthi AL Ramiah and Miles Hewstone .

The desire to live a life that somehow has significance – to be a valued member of society, to do meaningful work and to do those things with dignity – is perhaps one of the most profound of human needs.

However, when people do not feel that they have the freedom to flourish, they can feel a strong sense of grievance. The source of such grievances can include the perception that one suffers illegitimate inequality, is deprived relative to other groups, and is a target of discrimination.

Our findings, based on a representative survey of communal relations in Peninsular Malaysia, indicate that all of these sources of grievances exist in Malaysia – and this is not surprising given the dominance of racially-based narratives in most situations.

We asked respondents the extent to which they believed that their racial group was discriminated against or treated unfairly, and the extent to which they personally felt discriminated against. About half (46%) of the Malay respondents felt that their racial group was highly discriminated against compared to about two-thirds of the Chinese (65%) and Indian (67%) respondents.

On the other hand, there was a much lower incidence of feeling highly personally discriminated against among both the Malays and the Chinese (about 7% each); the level was higher for the Indians (18%), but still much lower than the degree to which they felt their group was discriminated against.

This may seem anomalous. If so few people feel that they themselves have been personally discriminated against, why should so many feel that others from their group have been discriminated against?

There are two main possibilities: First, feeling personally discriminated against may lead one to question one’s value, likeability or competence, which is something people try to avoid. So, they may gloss over possible personal experiences of discrimination, or suppress them.

Second, if you feel that you have been unfairly treated, the logical response would be to do something about it, which may be difficult and unpleasant to do on your own (and people may tell you that you are being over-sensitive and unreasonable). So a person may end up attributing their own treatment to causes other than discrimination.

However, feeling that the group to which you belong is being discriminated against does not have such immediate consequences for one’s own self-esteem, and it may be easier to act on behalf of your aggrieved group and in concert with others.

So, this is how it might go: you feel you or your group has been discriminated against, this makes you angry and you can then take one of two actions – confront that discrimination head on or disengage from the situation altogether.

The economist Albert O. Hirschman called these two options voice and exit, respectively.

In our study, we found that Malaysians responded quite strongly to feeling unfairly treated (at both the personal and group levels), with an increased desire to emigrate from Malaysia and a greater reported willingness to engage in collective action, such as participating in a protest or signing a petition.

Among the respondents, approximately 16% of Malays, 49% of Chinese and 37% of Indians reported a strong desire to emigrate from Malaysia, while 28% of Malays, 23% of Chinese and 53% of Indians reported a strong willingness to participate in collective action (see chart).

The large numbers of respondents who expressed a desire to emigrate should be of concern, especially for a middle-income country with low poverty and incidences of social disorder.

Malaysia is, in fact, considered a very attractive place for foreigners to work and live, and the Malaysia My Second Home programme has been a considerable success.

Our findings demonstrate that Malaysians who feel that their racial group is highly discriminated against (irrespective of how personally discriminated they feel) exhibited a desire to emigrate from Malaysia, and that this desire is even stronger for those who feel strongly attached to their racial group.

Beyond the potential economic costs of such disengagement, there is a loss to the very social and political fabric of our country; our vibrancy and democracy suffer when we lose people who feel deeply connected to the country and the people within it, and yet feel that the best recourse for them is to leave.

The people who end up actually emigrating are typically those who can afford it or are attractive talents for other countries. In this era of the knowledge economy, the loss of top talents has higher economic costs than ever.

Research has shown that people participate in collective action when they trust others and when the political climate fosters political engagement so that people believe that they have the ability to change things for the better.

Our own data shows that Malaysians do indeed feel empowered to improve the standing of their respective racial groups, which is a reflection of a society that is trying to accommodate diverse points of view.

Collective action also provides a powerful feedback signal to the powers-that-be and to fellow citizens; it takes problems that may have been experienced largely by one community and brings them into full public view (for example, the Hindraf protest in 2007), and gives us all a chance to view these problems as Malaysian problems for “us” to jointly solve.

We must recognise that collective action is an attempt by people to regain the significance that they feel they have lost or are not able to attain in their lives. It is very important not to vilify peaceful protesters and petition-signers as somehow anti-social, irrational, phoney or a threat to our societal order.

Having an opinion that is at odds with the mainstream or official line is not an offence, and we should neither demonise nor silence the people who engage actively for a better world.

It is much healthier for the individual and for society when people make themselves heard and exercise their agency in a legitimate, responsible and hopeful manner, than for them to feel they have no recourse other than to take more extreme actions or to leave the country if they are able to. Other research has shown that when people feel discriminated against and are powerless, they are willing to consider illegitimate, more violent forms of protest, which we would want to avoid at all costs.

If we can understand that at the heart of collective action is a desire for people to be heard and regain significance in their lives, then the next step must be to find a range of mechanisms through which people can express themselves. Voting, engaging with one’s Member of Parliament and getting involved in various civil society initiatives intended to redress society’s inequities are all powerful means of expression in a well-functioning and vibrant democracy.

It is important that our policymakers create more channels to engage Malaysians so that policy is flexible and responsive to people’s evolving needs, rather than be perceived to be beholden to entrenched interests and powerful elites.

We need to figure out how we can keep people actively engaged in shaping their futures while addressing their grievances. From our work and those of others, a recurring theme underlying much discontent in Malaysia seems to be a feeling that those who are most deserving may not be the greatest beneficiaries of government aid, and this can lead to a sense of discrimination and deprivation, which have strong racial undertones because government policies remain rooted in a race-focused interpretation of the New Economic Policy (NEP).

A pivot away from racial-framing of policy to one that is concerned about overall societal inequality is more likely to improve the quality of life for all Malaysians and create an upwardly mobile society in which people are committed to the country long-term. Both the current administration (in the New Economic Model) and other political parties have advocated for a shift in emphasis, in which people are helped on the basis of need rather than race. Race-based affirmative action is, at best, a blunt instrument, which, while useful at a certain period in our history, may need to be reimagined to accommodate the needs of contemporary Malaysia and Malaysians.

A set of needs-based policy might, for example, involve smart, but poor, students, irrespective of race, getting more access to government scholarships and university places than their peers who are equally smart, but come from middle or upper middle class homes. Such policies can create a more equal society and pull the carpet out from under the race narrative.

Given the high percentage of Bumiputras amongst the most needy, a needs-based policy may help us realise the original objectives of the NEP – both poverty eradication, and the disassociation of race and economic status.

So the task is clear: to create the conditions, from birth through life, for people to flourish, based on their needs and aspirations. Those needs can only be understood by keeping the channels of communication between people and power easily accessible and transparent. At the same time, policies must be adaptable to the changing needs of Malaysians.

This article is the third of a four-part series on multiculturalism in Malaysia. It is based on the findings from a recently-conducted research project funded by CIMB Foundation, which aimed to understand the challenges and promise of multicultural Malaysia. The research study and interviews, conducted by Merdeka Centre, was designed and analysed by researchers from the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. We surveyed 1,504 adult citizens aged 18 years and older in Peninsular Malaysia, with a view to extending the survey to Sabah and Sarawak in the next phase. A report on the results and recommendations is publicly available at www.cimbfoundation.com.

Nazir Razak is chairman of CIMB Group. Ananthi Al Ramiah and Miles Hewstone, who led the study, are social psychologists from the Blavatnik School of Government.
All rights reserved. Copyright © 2022 CIMB Foundation (795634-H).

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