I will look at the notion of “Malay envy” from three perspectives:
- The envy people of other communities feel towards the Malays
- The envy Malays feel towards the other communities
- Malay envy in their own community
Of the three categories of Malay envy identified, the third has a longer socio-cultural existence. I will discuss the notions in reverse order from 3 to 1.
In the pre-Merdeka era and going further back into the pattern of Malay village life, rural or kampung Malays were bound by a close-knit family and community existence. They were bonded by strong kinship relations where groups of families lived side by side in clusters of kampung communities where every part of their daily life was intertwined - from economic activities to socio-cultural practices to neighbourly interactions to kinship and family relations.
Because of the intimacy in a kampung community every person knew everyone else at close range, so much so there arose not only good cross-connectivity as in silaturrahim or goodwill but also bad cross-vibrations as in rivalry stemming from the feeling of cemburu or envy. There arose the habit of “jaga tepi kain orang” or nosing around other people’s affairs. The minding of one’s own business characteristic of individualistic urban living was not a socio-cultural phenomenon in a community which closely guarded the interests of its members.
Kampung life was replete with the cemburu mentality of individuals, families and neighbours in visible competition to display their material acquisitions as in changing house curtains and cushions every Hari Raya or wearing prominent pieces of gold jewellery. This bersinggit-singgit or competitive habit extended to other areas of social life such as weddings and exchanging gifts or hantaran. The more trays of gifts, the greater the family pride. Great pride in the educational, career and business achievements of family members could also turn to boasting about them.
Close-knit communities exist everywhere in history, and even today groups of people living together in a small physical space would be more inward than outward looking, getting sustenance from one another’s contributions while closely assessing them. Outstanding contributions inspired imitation in others and oftentimes envy.
Today rural urban migration which started in the 60s has turned many Malays into sophisticated urbanites living in comfort and luxury, but the envy mentality has remained a part of the Malay psyche. Modern Malay communities still carry with them the customs and habits of old as they nose around one another’s family and kampung backgrounds.
Having to coexist with the early migrant communities viz Arabs, Indians and Chinese who, from the start, had an economic edge over them has given rise to different attitudes in the indigenous Malays towards them. Generally there was acceptance and even admiration of the success especially of the Chinese in business and industry, but soon there grew an uneasiness that the Malay slice of the country’s economic cake was too small.
In the town areas, Malays who went to school with their non Malay peers shared an amicable social relationship, but still there was a tinge of envy that the families of their Chinese friends were successful business people. Many Indians were successful teachers, lawyers and doctors who spoke excellent English and the Malays envied their professional achievements.
Envy of the success of others has a way of turning itself around into positive action as it did with the community of town Malays in Penang categorised by the British as Jawi Pekan from the late 19th century and later as Jawi Peranakan (Images of the Jawi Peranakan of Penang, 2004). Ethnically they were of Indian Muslim and Malay ancestry and their early success in business can clearly be seen as a test case for Malay resilience to debunk the myth of the lazy Malays.
When the Malays are in a fair competition and at a level playing field with the other communities and where they are accepted as equal partners, everyone prospers as they did in old George Town. Even today Malays from Penang display a more confident attitude and hold respected positions in the public and private sectors.
One cannot deny that the vast majority of Malays were late arrivals in all sectors of the economy except agriculture. Schooled in the smaller towns and kampung the children of fisherman, farmers, rubber tappers, craftsmen, clerks and school teachers went through English, Malay and religious education managing to be better educated than their parents. Many broke atap ceilings and moved out of their rumah kampung to live in concrete flats, terrace houses and bungalows. They were becoming authentic urban Malays alongside the Chinese and Indians.
Still they were envied because their successes were thought to be artificially heaped with props in the affirmative action programmes carefully crafted by the post-independence government. In the 70s the New Economic Policy (NEP) and its implementation became the focus of green-eyed communities who saw it as biased and unfair. The Malays had become the favoured community as the other communities were seen to be sidelined in the development of the country.
Unhealthy inter-ethnic envy persists today giving rise to all kinds of negative developments which do not augur well for a country which prides itself in being a harmonious multiethnic society. What we urgently need from the Pakatan Harapan government is a freshly crafted affirmative action policy with new definitions, categorisations, roadmaps and action plans where every community is given honourable mention and direction. With this, Malay envy in all senses will be a thing of the past.
* Datuk Halimah Mohd Said is the President of Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason (PCORE).
** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.