Ijah’s note: I was asked by many readers if they can repost this link in their blog(s) or FBs. Yes, you can. Life’s too short to worry about hate mails.
I feel that I had to write this article because I feel strongly about the New Economic Policy (NEP).
My father was a primary school teacher. Because of that, I was able to get my hands on books and resources that my other friends did not have. He was also an avid reader, so we had 3 newspapers – Berita Harian, Utusan Malaysia and Utusan Melayu – delivered to our house for as long as I could remember. When we were older, he added The Star into the subscription. I only had one set of revision books, and those were handed down from my older siblings. I was very unhappy about it. The information were outdated and the books had scribbles all over its margins. I did the mock tests so often I could remember the answers without even looking at the questions anymore. But as I grew older I realized that it was the lack of revision materials that made me read everything else that we had in the house and in the school library.
Still, despite my father’s best efforts, he would have not been able to afford to give us the kind of education that a boarding school could. The nearest secondary school was about an hour away. It was overcrowded, under-funded, short-staffed. We would have been too tired and too cranky to be able to study, and it would have been too easy for us to be seduced to leave school and start working at nearby factories – after all, most of our friends did and the extra money certainly would come in handy. There was no private tuition centres available – and even if there was any, priority would have gone to putting food on the table. As children we instinctively knew that if we want to make better lives for ourselves, the path would be through better education. It was a belief that was shared by everyone in the village.
So when I was accepted into a boarding school, the whole kampong rejoiced. They arranged for prayers and community cookouts at the mosque. My friends’ parents would drop by at the house to give me angpow packets to help with the expenses. Relatives near and far would come to visit. It was an honour. The society that I grew up in was one that believed it was a literal one-in-a-million chance. They were genuinely happy for me, happy that someone from this little village would have access to an education system that would pave way for a better life to one of its own. It was a celebration for every single one of us.
One of the benefits of studying in a boarding school is getting a monthly stipend from the Government. When the first stipend came in – which was RM30, I wrote to my father and told him he didn’t have to send me an allowance anymore. He continued doing so and I saved every single cent of that allowance because I felt guilty whenever I attempted to spend it. I used my stipend to pay for my monthly expenses like buying detergent and school supplies, after all there was no need to worry about food or books as these were provided by the school. When the first semester break came and I went home, I gave my father the allowance that I had saved and said I didn’t need it.
Then he told me something that I knew I would remember for the rest of my life. He said that the stipend that I received did not come from the Government. It came from the people – from income taxes and from repayment of loans that the people before me had taken. It was not a gift or a privilege, he said, and that some day when I am in a position to repay these back to the society, I should not shirk from that responsibility. His voice would raise with a little hint of anger. Never abscond paying your income tax or study loans, he said. If you do that means you are depriving another underprivileged child of the opportunity to get access to education. It would be poor repayment to the system that had given you so much.
He gave me back the envelope that contained the saved allowance. Use it to buy whatever you want, he said.
I used the money to buy a walkman. You may think that it was a frivolous purchase given that there were so many other essentials that I could have bought. But it was the first little luxury that I allowed myself to have, one that I coveted for a very long time, my first insensible acquisition that brought me so much satisfaction without the burden of guilt.
It would be years later before I figured out that I was, in fact, a direct beneficiary of the New Economic Policy.
Am I thankful? Yes. Do I think it is an unfair policy? Yes. Do I think it should be continued? Yes. Should it be changed to provide equal opportunity to all underprivileged Malaysian children? Yes.
I was talking to a friend the other day when the conversation turned into GLCs and preferential treatment for Bumiputera. When he was talking about NEP and how it created a generation of Malays who relies on being spoonfed and assisted by the Government, I cleared my throat and told him, I am an NEP child. He was silent for a moment and then he said, then you must be an exception to the rule. Not true, I disagreed. NEP is not about race politics. It is about improving the socio-economic conditions of the majority of the population. When it was designed, that majority was Malay. When the system works, it works. Is it high time to redefine “majority of the population”? Yes. I believe NEP has merits. I am proof of that. And I am sure if you look around you, you will see further proofs. It would be naieve to expect NEP to work 100%. Greed, stupidity, prejudice, sense of entitlement, ignorance – all these will continue to exist and seep into the minds of the people, with or without NEP. But if you could pull out one child from a situation where he would otherwise not been able to get out of without better education and financial assistance, wouldn’t you?
I would say this. I am sure I would have been happy being a production operator as long as I am able to earn an honest living. In fact I know I would be happy, because I have worked as one during school holidays. But had that been my path due to the circumstance that I was in, what a waste it would have been to my talent and intellect.
Would my children be NEP children? No. They don’t have the right to. I am now in a position where I am able to independently finance their education without relying on Government resources or assistance. The system is not there to be taken advantage of, and I believe to do so is disrecpectful and ungrateful.
And by the way, my village was multiracial. When I was accepted into a boarding school, the Tg Tualang Chinese and the Sikhs from Kg Timah were there to congratulate me too. Like I said, it was never about races. We were one and the same.
There is a huge difference between giving someone a break, and doing him a favour.
I was given a break. That is what NEP means to me. And for that reason alone, I will continue to support and be thankful for its existence.