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  An Independent Race Relations Institute  
  Collin Abraham  

The recent statement by the Prime Minister, that the Government was caught unaware of the actual levels of poverty that existed in the periphery of the capital city of Malaysia, (that apparently led to the ‘disturbances' among Malays and Indians,) has thrown into sharper focus the failure of the bureaucracy in being able to correctly reflect and report on the reality of the social situation.

Indeed, after visiting the area of the “disturbances” the Prime Minister made the astonishing revelation that the Government had relied on official statistics that reported “poverty was at a very low level in the country” as a consequence of which “ such areas were neglected”. It is indeed a high price for this neglect that there should have been loss of life and social dislocation among these hapless communities.

This indifference on the part of the bureaucracy in correctly reflecting the true social situation through systematic research into socio-economic conditions in the country is nothing new. In the first place the very system of obtaining data on the incidence of poverty itself is seriously flawed. A Deputy Minister of Rural Development on the panel of the Global programme on TV, stated categorically that data on rural poverty was compiled by the Penghulu and Ketua Kampong. Obviously these ‘traditional' leaders, are not trained social researchers. Therefore the most that can be expected of them is that they conducted a “head count”. There is no reason to believe that qualified statisticians or professionally qualified social development officers obtain systematic data on the incidence of poverty in urban areas either. Of course there is the household budget data but without a clear conceptualisation for computation of poverty in terms of the identification of tested indicators on a comparative basis, and over a period of time, such data interpreted by bureaucrats would likewise be invalid and unreliable as in the rural areas.

But this indifference in undertaking social research through scientific methodology in addressing social issues and problems towards the understanding and possible overcoming of social problems has never been emphasised by the bureaucracy. To some extent this is understandable considering that the Malayan Civil Service (MCS) itself had its roots in the British colonial administration where it was irrelevant to ascertain the real needs of the people. Officials therefore adopted a ‘know –all' attitude and adopted “ top-bottom” strategies to accommodate and deal with problem situations among the “natives” as they thought fit. The same mindset was carried over by locals into the independence era.

In this connection perhaps the greatest ‘ indictment' of this indifference, is to be seen in the ‘closing down' of the Socio-Economic Research Unit (SERU) within the Prime Minister's Department itself, at a time when the government was seriously involved with formulating 5 year development plans for the country. This Unit was set up by the late Tun Razak to function as the research arm to spearhead social research with a view to backing up the implementation of the Red Book strategy and to advise the Government in social policy formulation and implementation towards poverty eradication.

The reason for the closing down of SERU is not far to seek. Essentially SERU was perceived by civil servants merely as an appendage of the service and therefore was at best the “ launching pad” for officers ‘obsessed' with moving on to more prestigious super-scale positions in other Ministries rather than concerned with the objectives enunciated by Tun Razak. Moreover SERU officials were mostly general Arts graduates from local universities who were not exposed to, or qualified academically or professionally, or indeed interested, to undertake serious social research.

It is believed that all concerned Malaysians and indeed anyone committed to harmonious ethnic and race relations in the country must now fervently pray that serious incidents of this nature, that are indeed reminiscent of what happened in May 1969, should not recur. But mere platitudes and short term ameliorative measures, belatedly announced and implemented, especially by politicians, without seriously addressing the roots of the problem will never solve problems. Moreover the sudden ‘unscientific' ad hoc so-called ‘fact finding' studies undertaken as an after- thought may indeed be making matters worse. Without properly understanding, formulating, and implementing policies to accommodate changing demands for rising expectations for better quality of life, especially among the socially deprived and marginalised Malaysians, irrespective of ethnic or racial origin, potential conflict situations are likely to become more widespread and indeed, to recur in other similar areas as well at any time.

The extreme widening levels of social inequality, political marginalisation and the overlapping of the class /race divide between the “haves and the have-nots” can easily trigger inter-ethnic/interracial unrest in almost any multi-ethnic/multiracial country. Indeed it is becoming increasingly clear, on the basis of the experiences in similar ‘fragmented' societies elsewhere; that the very structure of the capitalist mode of production within a democracy may in itself nurture and generate institutional social inequalities in the context of race -based “class nationalism”. Such situations can become entrenched within the political system and perpetuate the class/race divide creating irreversible structural social deprivation and political instability.

Therefore it is imperative and essential that problems of social inequality be recognised and addressed in the context of fundamental basic human rights. Unless there is such acceptance of societal responsibility, there is a real danger of human rights being focussed mainly on aspects such as fundamental liberties and freedom of speech, that while providing constitutional safeguards for the populace as a whole, tend to be more immediately relevant to the affluent, and the middle and upper classes in society. For the poor and socially disadvantaged human rights is more about the right to a job providing a basic living wage, decent housing and a social environment conducive to minimal standards in the quality of life for themselves and their families. Indeed without stretching the point, the late Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi when condemned for having declared Emergency and abrogating the Indian Constitution, is reported to have said something to the effect that ‘the poor cannot eat democracy'. I believe she was trying to explain that unless the democratic system of Government could deliver basic human needs as human rights then it might as well be done away with.

With the greatest of respect therefore I believe most right thinking concerned Malaysians will want to appeal to the Government to establish an independent Ethnic and Race Relations Institute to undertake serious social research along the lines as above on a continuing basis. This is the only way that the complexity of social problems in Malaysia can be objectively examined within the framework of internationally recognised scientific theory and methodology. Such research will develop and produce reports on a continuing basis that will be invaluable to the Government for policy formulation and implementation from time to time and indeed in the future.

  Dr. Collin Abraham
Kuala Lumpur