The Malaysian Dilemma

Speech by Ketua Pembangkang and DAP Secretary-General, Lim Kit Siang, at a forum on “The Role of Malaysian Chinese can play under the Third Malaysia Plan” organised by the Persatuan Mahasiswa Taiwan Normal Universiti, Selangor, at Hotel Equatorial, Kuala Lumpur, on Thursday, 12th August 1976 at 7.30 p.m.

The Malaysian Dilemma

Probably without consciously realising or intending it, the topic of your forum reflects accurately the dilemma of Malaysian Chinese, and in fact, of all non-Malay in Malaysia.

The topic in fact asks two questions which Malaysian Chinese and non-Malays have been asking themselves:

Firstly, have they a role under the Third Malaysia Plan and the process of nation building in Malaysia?

Secondly, will they be allowed to play a role under the Third Malaysia Plan and the process of nation building?

I do not think I need explain that by ‘role’, we mean meaningful and purposeful role, for otherwise ‘role’ would have no meaning, and even the oppressed, the subservient or the exploited would have the respective roles to be oppressed, subservient or exploited!

It would be quite inconceivable that our Malay fellow citizens would ever congregate together for a forum to ask whether they have any role in nation building or under the Third Malaysia Plan. Our Malay fellow citizens would take for granted that they have a role, as it should be, not only by Malays but also by all – non-Malay Malaysians, as this is an integral and inalienable right of every citizen of the country.

That this is not the case and that non-Malay Malaysians are more and more worried about their future and the future of their children is proof of the failure since Independence to work towards national unity.

It is this agonised questioning that is at the back of a current proposal that there should be a national conference to discuss the “difficulties presently faced by the Malaysian Chinese”.

It is the result of this agonised questioning that that more and more non-Malay professional men have emigrated or have taken steps which would enable them to emigrate in future.

According to my estimate, over 90% of medical doctors, whether in private or public service, had over the past year gone abroad, mostly in Australia, to register so that they can practice there.

In fact, in recent months, Australia-bound planes from Malaysia were crammed with Malaysian doctors en route to register themselves.

I have raised this matter of the emigration of Malaysian professionals in Parliament several times, but every time, the government would reply complacently that this is a problem typical of all developing countries.

The difference is that the brain drain of professional men normally occurs with young doctors and professionals on the make, who are attracted by prospects of higher earnings or greater job satisfactions in foreign countries.

In Malaysia, however, a large majority of professional men like doctors and dentists who are emigrating are men in late 30s, 40s and even fifties, who have to uproot homes and well-established practices, not for higher incomes or greater job satisfaction. In fact, some of them are emigrating to lower-income practices, no superior job satisfaction, but greater social and family dislocations. They do so because of the future of their children, because after an agonising questioning, they are not convinced that they and their children have a meaningful role which they can lay in Malaysian development.

MCA Ministers and leaders deprecate such emigration. I do not agree or support such emigration, but I can see the motivating reasons for it. In fact, instead of deprecating such professional emigration, the MCA should re-examine itself, for it is precisely because of the MCA policies and that of the Barisan National that there is this spate of emigration of professional Malaysians. In fact, one MCA assistant Minister’s own brother is packing up his bags, selling his property, and uprooting his family, because he sees no future for himself and his children in policies pursued by his own brother’s MCA and Barisan National Government!

The bulk of Malaysian Chinese and non-Malays stay behind, but their fears especially about the future of their children, are no less keen and burning.

Malaysian Chinese have a definite role in nation building

I want to state categorically that Malaysian Chinese have a role in nation building and under the Third Malaysia Plan, by virtue of the fact that they are citizens of Malaysia. We are born here, bred here and will die here. We have no other country. We owe it to ourselves, our countrymen, and our children, to exercise our role as citizens of Malaysia to make Malaysia a country where there will be national unity and progress.

This is where I disagree and disapprove of professional emigration, for by emigration, these professional men have abdicated their responsibility to society and country. They are taking a easy way out by running away from the problems and challenges faced by the people and country. What they should do is dig their toes in, and contribute in the struggle to shape Malaysia into a genuinely multi-racial, a more just and equal society.

There may be those who hold the view that Malaysian Chinese have no role to play in nation building or under the Third Malaysia Plan. Malaysian Chinese should not be dishearted by such attitudes, but should simply ignore them, or treat them with contempt, conscious of our inalienable right to participate fully in national developments. This is a right that nobody can take away from any Malaysian citizen, regardless of his racial descent, and it is a right that every Malaysian Chinese must assert, and exercise – not as a Malaysian Chinese, but as a Malaysian citizen!

However, before considering the role Malaysian Chinese should play under the Third Malaysia Plan, which is described as an important part of the nation building process, it would be useful to consider the main areas of national life where the Malaysian Chinese have been alienated and make them feel that they do not belong to an integral part of a multi-racial Malaysian nationhood.

We will consider these main national Development National Development areas under educational, economic, cultural and political categories.

Education – Principal Cause of Alienation of Malaysian Chinese

The diminished opportunities for Malaysian Chinese students to pursue post-secondary, college and university education in Malaysia is the principal cause of alienation of Malaysian Chinese from the government’s nation building policies.

Malay students have no difficulties in getting HSC or STP places, but Malaysian Chinese students, even in middle secondary forms, are already worried about chances of HSC and STP places, regardless of their academic performance or industry.

The problem is worse when it comes to domestic university education. From 1971 – 1975, total Malay enrolment in Malaysian universities increased from 50% to 65% or from 6,622 to 20,547 – an increase of 13,925.

In the same period, total non-Malay enrolment in Malaysian universities declined from 50% to 35%, or an increase in absolute terms from 6,702 to 10,982 – an increase of only 4,280.

This highlights the diminution of higher education opportunities for non-Malay Malaysians in their own country. The government’s promise that the New Economic Policy under which the Second and third Malaysia Plans have been drawn up, would be implemented in a way so as to ensure that “no particular group experiences any loss feels any sense of deprivation” has clearly been broken.

Nobody begrudges the increased opportunities and places for Malays in Malaysian domestic tertiary education, but this should not be done at the “loss” or “deprivation” of non-Malay students for university education in their homeland.

The opportunities for university education abroad are also becoming diminished. New Zealand has drastically restricted its intake of Malaysian students for her universities. The United Kingdom has raised its university fees by over 30 per cent making it financially impossible for poor Malaysian Chinese to send their children to pursue higher studies.

As if these problems are not enough, early this month, the Minister of Education announced a new ruling that Malaysians intending to go to the United Kingdom for university education must pay a deposit of $1,500 with the Education Ministry to cover their return fare.

As every Malay student in UK universities would be a scholarship holder, it is clear that this new ruling requiring $1,500 deposit would hit the Malaysian Chinese most and hardest. Did’ nt the Assistant Education Minister, Chan Siang Sun, and MCA Youth Leader, aware of this?

These are the achievements that the MCA, the party in the ruling coalition which claims to represent and champion the interests of Malaysian Chinese, have won for Malaysian Chinese in the field of education in the last five years!

N fact, we can anticipate more and more difficulties standing in the way of Malaysian Chinese parents sending their children abroad for university education. We have discussed two of them, namely finance and the restriction of student intake. Another factor is the continuous grumbling by sections of the ruling party that the government should regulate and limit Malaysian students going overseas for university education, as this upsets the restructuring of university education, as this upsets the restructuring of university – trained Malaysians to ensure that there is racial balance. A fourth, and eventually, most crippling factor is the international academic standards of the higher School Certificate or the Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran (STP). If we are not careful, the STP may not be accepted for university entrance qualification abroad. This is probably one of the reasons why the Government gives 5454 MARA scholarships for bumiputra students to go to the United Kingdom to do the General Certificate of Education ‘Advanced’, to ensure that they can get into UK universities.

Tunku Abdul Rahman College

Here I think it is apt to mention the Tunku Abdul Rahman College.

Firstly, the Tuanku Abdul Rahman College was mooted in order to destroy the chances for the success of Merdeka University, to provide university opportunities especially for students from Chinese Independent Secondary Schools. This, the Tunku Abdul Rahman College has succeeded in doing, without really providing higher education opportunities for graduates of Chinese Independent secondary schools.

Secondly, the Tunku Abdul Rahman College is providing sixth form places for students who could not find places in government schools. The MCA wants the people to be grateful about this.

But does the MCA want the people to be grateful to the MCA leaders for being co-authors of an education policy which deny thousands of Malaysian Chinese students every year the opportunities to government form six places?

The government’s coffers come from the taxes paid by the people, and the people have the right to demand and expect that their children, with the requisite academic qualifications, can find places in government form six classes, without having to send them to Tunku Abdul Rahman College where the expenses and fees are so high that the poor cannot really afford.

Why did the MCA leaders, self-professed champions of Malaysian Chinese interests, give up the right of Malaysian Chinese that their children be educated at government expense and be given Form Six places in government schools, in exchange for the permission to MCA to build a Tunku Abdul Rahman College? Is this an equal exchange, or is this a betrayal?

Preservation and Standard of Chinese Primary Schools

Since 1969, the enrolment in Chinese primary schools has steadily increased, while enrolment in English primary schools have steadily declined, as shown from the following figures:

Year No. of Enrolment in Standard One

Chinese Primary School English primary school

1969 72,488 65,091
1970 77,185 58,083
1971 80,418 57,189
1972 85,650 54,455
1973 83,277 52,883
1974 84,242 52,200
1975 85,151 51,193

There is no better proof than these enrolment figures to demonstrate the wish and desire of the Malaysian Chinese to see Chinese primary schools remain as an integral part of the Malaysian educational mainstream.

A few days ago, one MCA branch passed a resolution calling for concrete measures to ensure the preservation of Chinese primary schools and that it would not change character.

But MCA leaders are very persons who are parties to the 1961 Education Act which gives power to the Education Minister to convert Chinese primary schools into national primary schools as and when he deems it fit.

And MCA leaders are the very ones who voted against my proposal in Parliament last year that the 1961 Education Act should be amended to repeal this power of the Minister to convert Chinese primary schools into national primary schools.

Although there has been a marked increase in the enrolment of Chinese primary schools, this has not been accompanied by an increase of government attention to the facilities, trained teacher-ratio, and standard of education of Chinese primary schools.

Thus, in last year 1975 Std. V Assessment Examination, out of a total of 75,800 candidates, 61,664 students or 81.3% failed in Bahasa Malaysia; 43,383 students or 57.2% failed in Bahasa Inggeris; 27,803 or 36.7% failed in Bahasa Cina; 24736 or 52.7% failed in Mathematics; 25,816 or 34.1% failed in Science and 27,709 or 36.6% failed in Geography / History.

The Ministry of Education, especially the Assistant Education Minister, who is MCA Youth Leader, does not seem to be bothered or concerned by such high rates of failures. Unless action is taken, rightly by the government, or by government’s default, by the Chinese community itself, parents may become worried about their children’s future in Chinese primary schools.


Future employment prospects is greatly determined by one’s educational attainments, as education is the greatest key to upward social mobility.

A local expert study estimates that the average gross income of a Malaysian who has no formal schooling is $516 per year; with primary school qualification, the average gross income is $1969; with Forms I – II qualification it is $3,663; with Forms III – IV qualifications it is $5,828; with Form VI qualification it is $8,434, and with a University qualification, it is $15,211.

I give below the respective figures for 1970 and 1975 of Malaysian Chinese students in primary mowers secondary, upper secondary, post-secondary and university degree courses.

Peninsular Malaysia: Enrolment of Malaysian Chinese and level of education 1970 – 1975

1970 1975
Primary 511,729 550,064
Lower Secondary 146,872 198,493
Upper Secondary 38,800 54,095
Post Secondary 5,267 6,617
University (Degree course) 4,009 5,217

From the above tables, we can see every years tens of thousands Upper Secondary Malaysian Chinese students, who know that given the opportunity, they can attain university level of education, have to content to be slotted into a class where on average they would get $5,828 a year when they could get $15,211 a year. This is a social injustice of the first magnitude.

According to the Third Malaysia Plan, unemployment rate among the Malaysian Chinese increased from 7% to 7.2% or in absolute terms from 77,300 to 93,800, during the Second Malaysia Plan from 1970 to 1975. Among the Malays, the unemployment rate declined from 8.1% in 1970 to 6.9%, which, in absolute terms, was a marginal increase from 126,400 to 128,300.

It is clear that under the Second Malaysia Plan, the first prong objective, namely to eliminate poverty regardless of face, was satisfied to the second prong objective of restructuring of society to eliminate racial imbalances.

The tragedy is that this restructuring did not result in elimination of poverty among Malays, but concentration of wealth in the hands of a small class of Malay capitalists – in other words, making Malay half-a-millionaires into full millionaires!

From 1957 to 1970, the top 20 per cent of the Malay households have increased their dominance of the total Malay incomes from 42.4% to 52.9% while have shrunk their share of the total Malay incomes from 19.5% to 12.7%.

From 1970 to 1975, although we do not have statistics, there is no doubt that this disparity in distribution of income among the Malays have widened even more widely.

One big myth that was current during the Second Malaysia plan was that in Malaysia, the Chinese belonged to the rich while the poor belonged to the Malays. This partial and distorted view of Malaysian reality is probably caused by the UMNO’s perception that MCA leaders, mostly moneyed and propertied men, represent the generality of the Chinese.

In actual fact, the majority of Chinese are poor and the bulk of the wealth in the modern economy is controlled by foreigners.

The Second Malaysia Plan started off by virtually ignoring the non-Malay and Chinese poor. This was why the DAP mounted a national campaign to highlight the plight of the 750,000 new villagers, directly benefiting the MCA, through the creation of a new Ministry of New Villages.

New, the Government recognises that the poor belonged to all races and in the Third Malaysia Plan, new villages and urban poor were among the poverty group is identified. But recognition of a problem and a commitment to solve the problem are two different things. Thus for new village development for the next five years, the government has set aside $19 million, or it works out to less than $10,000 for each new village every year. Recognition is therefore very different from commitment to solve poverty and backwardness.

The 750,000 new villagers have lived in the 460 new villages throughout the country for quarter of a century. But although a whole generation has been born and grown up to be adults in these new villages, there are still over 30 per cent of the new villages who have not been given their land titles?

This is indeed shocking, and shows the gap between recognition and commitment, especially when we realise that the problem of new villages not take on a new dimension, as an increased population has aggravated the hunger for land, houses and jobs! Can $10,000 a year for a new village do anything useful, assuming that they do not go into the pockets of some petty MCA bully?

One of the biggest score points of the Malaysian Chinese of their virtual denial of land to make a living. FELDA schemes are predominantly given to Malays, violating the very second prong of the New Economic Policy to restructure Malaysian society and eliminate identification of race with vocation or geography.

Now there is recognition that Chinese should also be emplaced on agricultural schemes. But is there sufficient commitment here to give this recognition meaning? If so, why is there no definite target plans for restructuring FELDA schemes, so that these settlements would reflect the Malaysian population?

In fact, what the Malaysian Chinese ask are not FELDA schemes, where the government spends $30,000 for each settler family by opening up the land, but to be given land and they would open it up and cultivate with their own blood, sweat and tears!

Here, it is relevant to note the view in some circles that the Chinese are exploiters. When the Indian and Chinese immigration was encouraged into Malaya to work in the rubber plantations and tin mines, the immigrants came with nothing. It is also unlikely that the average Chinese and Indian income would have been higher than what the Malay peasant was earning from his farm – for otherwise, the Malays would be attracted by the higher incomes offered by the plantation and mining sector. Economists are agreed that the reason the Chinese have surpassed he Malays insofar as per capita wealth holdings are concerned, is not because the Chinese at the initial period, earned a larger income on obtained a higher return on their investments, but because of a higher saving propensity.

There is however a wide disparity of incomes between the small number of rich Chinese and the majority of poor Chinese.


Culturally, the Malaysian Chinese feel uneasy and insecure. They feel that they are strangers in the cultural evolution and development in Malaysia.

There is here again a big gap between premise and performance. A good example is the Assistant Minister for Youth, Culture and Sports, Neo Yee Pan, MCA Secretary-General. Before he became Assistant Minister for Culture, he was fond of declaring that MCA is firmly committed to the view that Malaysian culture must be the result of the inter-action of all cultures in Malaysia. What has he done since as Assistant Minister of Culture to implement this policy?

Every year, the government give prices for Malay writers. The government, however, has never given a single cent to encourage Malaysian Chinese who write in Chinese portraying the Malaysian life and themes. I had on one occasion publicly asked Neo Yee Pan what he is doing to get government to allocate money to encourage Malaysian Chinese writing, as part of Malaysian literature. As expected, Neo Yee Pan went into hiding.


The Political position of the Malaysian Chinese since Merdeka had been weakened, partly engineered by the MCA. Thus, in 1962, the MCA gave full support to an amendment to the Constitution to make parliamentary constituencies unrepresentative by giving more weightage to Malay rural voters.

It does not escape notice that in the early days of the Merdeka, a Malaysian Chinese was appointed to the symbolic office of Governor of Malacca. This is now no more the case, although the MCA claims that there was a Merdeka understanding in Malacca that the offices of Governor of Malacca and Chief Minister of Malacca would alternate between the two major races.

It does not escape notice that under the leadership of Lee San Choon, the MCA which had traditionally filled the post of Finance Minister, has now got a new tradition to fill the post of Deputy Finance Minister.

What I have referred to above are some of the main educational, economic, cultural and political issues which had disturbed Malaysian Chinese, and caused loss of confidence about the future for their children, even for those who have no intention to emigrate.

We can now come to discuss the role that Malaysian Chinese should play under the Third Malaysia Plan and the nation building process.

It is actively contribute to the political, economic, educational and cultural change of the country, so that the final product of a Malaysian nation reflects the multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-religious nature of Malaysia.

To do this, every Malaysian Chinese must be prepared to take a stand, individually and collectively, not as Malaysian Chinese, but as Malaysian citizens, to influence political, economic, educational and cultural developments, to build a more democratic, genuinely multi-racial, and socially and economically equitable order.

We must be prepared to pay the price for the courage of our convictions, for the sake of our country and our children. But let there be no mistake about it. If we do not have the courage of convictions, we will definitely have to pay a bigger price, with our children as the main victims.

There are those who like those who have emigrated, who want to opt out of the system, to withdraw into themselves because they cannot accept the present nation-building policies and see no useful purpose in trying to effect changes.

Either we help to make our own future, or our own future will be made for us by others. I think the intelligent thing to do is to do the former, and this is where Malaysian Chinese, as citizens, should more positively, seriously and selflessly, contribute to the goal, of putting Malaysia on a proper political, economic, educational and cultural nation-building basis.