This will be the last post I will make on the UiTM issue unless something new crops up. In a piece written by myself and Oon Yeoh in Malaysiakini, as part of our regular Realpolitik podcasts, we examine the political angle of Khalid's statements.
Selangor MB's unnecessary honesty
Ong Kian Ming & Oon Yeoh | Aug 16, 08 10:39am
Sometimes, politicians make remarks which are calculated to win over certain political constituencies. At other times, politicians make remarks without much regard to the political impact of their statements.
Selangor Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim's statement on opening up UiTM to non-Malays clearly falls in the latter category. While those statements were made in good faith, Khalid's political inexperience showed when he made those remarks, which does not win him additional non-Malay support and probably lost him some Malay support at a crucial time for PKR and for Pakatan Rakyat.
Khalid Ibrahim's statements were not intended to win over non-Malay support, contrary to allegations by some, including the UiTM vice-chancellor, that they were made in view of the Permatang Pauh by-election.
Non-Malays were not clamouring to get into UiTM in the first place and in all likelihood, even if 10 percent of the places there were opened up to non-Malays, it would not be filled up easily. The opening up of the Mara colleges to non-Malays is a good example in point.
Much more salient to the non-Malay community are the issues of the allocation of JPA (Public Service Department) scholarships and the quotas in public universities rather than the opening up of UiTM to non-Malays.
Ironically, Khalid's statements were made in response to a question on how the education standards at UiTM could be improved for the benefit of the Malays. All this nuance was somehow lost in the clamour of protests by certain groups of UiTM students, the vice-chancellor and a litany of other Malay rights groups.
Khalid quickly found himself embroiled in a situation which economists or political scientists would term 'an asymmetry of preferences'. On the one hand, there was a group of highly motivated individuals who strongly objected to the spirit of Khalid's suggestion (and it was only that, a suggestion) and who were ready to mobilise support against Khalid.
On the other hand, there are also Malays who feel that opening up the UiTM to non-Malays might not be such a bad idea but who do not feel strongly enough to mount protests in support of Khalid's suggestion.
This comes at a time when the 'Malay' credentials of PKR and Pakatan is increasingly under attack.
PAS' commitment to Pakatan has been questioned on the grounds that Malay rights and Islam had been sidelined, Ezam Mohd Nor quitting PKR on the grounds that it was becoming a multiracial rather than a Malay-led (albeit multiracial) party and the accusations by Dr Mahathir Mohamad that the Malays were losing their rights in their own country are all examples of politicians playing up fears among the Malay community, a fear which PKR and Pakatan cannot afford to ignore. Khalid's remarks just added more fuel to this already combustible mixture.
Lost amidst of the political rhetoric surrounding Khalid's remarks, was the larger question which he was trying to address. Can UiTM aspire to be a 'world-class' university if all the students in this university was of one particular race? Is this a realistic goal, especially given that these students are not admitted on a particularly selective basis?
This is akin to saying that we want to be Harvard but we don't care about the quality of the students admitted as long as they are from one ethnic group. Do the UiTM students suffer in any way in the long term, in terms of their career and their outlook in life, because they studied in a mono-ethnic, mono-religious environment?
These are certainly issues which should be addressed and these are challenges that will long remain after the political rhetoric has died down.
Symbolic measures won’t help
Even those who support Khalid's suggestion need to question the basis of their support. Will opening up UiTM to non-Malays necessarily improve the education standards there?
Our top public universities such as UM, UKM and USM comprise of students from all ethnic groups but that has not prevented the quality and standard of education there to plummet over the past few decades?
Do they seriously think that there will be a sudden clamour among the non-Malays to try to get into UiTM if spaces are made available, especially given the many other choices available to them?
Will there be beneficial interaction between the Malays and non-Malays if spaces are opened up?
The sad truth is that our public university system cannot be revived with just a few symbolic measures here and there. It requires an overhaul that involves many structural changes that goes far beyond changing just the ethnic composition of the student body.
Khalid is powerless in his capacity as MB of Selangor to enact any changes within UiTM which is under the federal jurisdiction of Higher Education Ministry. He was well aware of this when he made his now controversial remarks.
In view of the aftermath, Khalid would surely think twice before he says something which could be interpreted as equally controversial and political damaging, for him, his party and Pakatan. Sometimes honesty might not be the best policy, especially when you have others ready to pounce upon and exploit your statements.