A country to belong to

KUMARI all of 11 was the top pupil in her class and so, when she heard at the morning assembly that the best students will be chosen to go to a special school, man! was she excited.

By the end of the week, the announcements came on who had been selected. But the second-best and even third-best pupils were chosen instead. Even they were shocked.

The class teachers didn’t explain why but the children soon figured it out – the selection was only for the bright Malay/Bumiputera students.

The chosen were pleased, naturally, but Kumari and the many other No 1 pupils not chosen didn’t understand the concept. The best, that’s what the headmaster said right? After some discussion between themselves, the children learnt that the selected pupils were going to schools set up just for the Bumiputera community. Who knew there were such schools?! The fully residential schools, the junior science colleges established by the Majlis Amanah Rakyat (MARA – Council of Trust for the Indigenous People), and the Islamic religious schools.

They were far away from home. Kumari would not see Fatimah again.

Not knowing what to say to each other, Kumari and her friends – chosen and not chosen – carried on with their lives, friendships shaken at the core, some irretrievably broken.

That was in 1969, before race-based riots broke out in Kuala Lumpur. To the children, the ties that they had made in school had already been pulled out of the heart.

It really began when Kumari was in Std 3, when her Singaporean best friend Su Fen and her family had to return to their republic island. Their countries were no longer considered part of a whole. Best friends gone at 9 years old.

And so it went on for Kumari. She made new friends, naturally, and life went on because school was so interesting! National identity? What did that mean when you lose your best friends when so young? Affirmative action? What was that to a child?

Plenty, as Kumari grew up. When it came to university, many of her schoolmates didn’t get a place despite getting good marks. Or, they got a course they had not listed as a choice. Ah, the dreams that were shattered, especially if her friends’ families were mere rubber tappers, with MIC loans or study grants, or pepper farmers, with MCA aid.

So, Kumari and her friends studied or degrees they had no interest in. And, in the midst of the degree, suddenly the role of the Malay language became more important that English. Kumari found that 60 per cent of the work had to be done in BM, in her third year of varsity studies, from none. Just like that.

Come 2017, and the Malaysians who are not in the affirmative action majority in the country cannot buy houses with an automatic discount.

Kumari sees her friends paying a lot so that their children can get a college/varsity degree because public university places are so few for non-Bumiputeras.

Some of her friends had found religion in Islam. So they were known as Indian-Muslim, and their children called bumiputeras. They reaped the benefits of the country’s polices, started decades ago to create a unified country. They found they got automatic share allocations when a company went on the stock market. Wow! They were offered permits for sugar, flour, whatever, and business grants – which they didn’t have to pay back if the company went bust. Wow!

Who doesn’t want to be a bumiputra? While Kumari, not a Malay, belonged to Malaysia, she knew Malaysia belonged to the Malays.


Filed under Lifestyle/Heritage, Roses & Belacan
Subhadra Devan

A journalist who has been writing about culture, arts and heritage since the 1980s. She is herself gobsmacked to have started the Sunday arts pages for English newspapers in Malaysia, in the new millennium. The passion for these genres rages on.

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