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MGG: The Oracle speaks: No racial discrimination in schools!
By M.G.G. Pillai

1/4/2002 1:28 am Mon

The Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed, comes in, like the Oracle of old, to defuse what cannot. The National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) complained of racial segregation in primary schools. The government denied it, set up a special committee of retired educationists to blame NUTP -- it dutifully did --, demanded an unqualified public apology. And soon lost control. As usual, it did not think through what it would do. The UMNO youth leader and a federal cabinet minister, Dato' Hishamuddin Hussein, called it a non-Malay attempt to denigrate national schools. His cabinet colleague, Datin Siti Zaharah Suleiman, toted statistics to state about 500 villages sit in a racial cauldron that could explode if nothing is done to avert it. Two headmasters threatened to sue the NUTP secretary-general for RM1 million in defamation damages. It appeared soon enough the manufactured crisis was to put him in his place.

This confrontation had a manufactured quality of its own, the government losing ground with statement it made. It would not accept that racial discrimination and segregation is a way of life in primary schools as it is throughout the education system, and in all walks of life. If the committee had accepted it, and suggested how to overcome it, the government would have been stronger. Instead, it redounds on itself. The police got into the act. It interviews the Parent Teachers Associations who raised it first, NUTP officers, and others. The claim it sedition, for which, on conviction, one can be jailed for three years and fined RM5,000. If it was, why did not the police step in when the issue surfaced? It kept quiet. And came in only when the government lost control of it.

Only the Oracle could then defuse it. He did. He had to. Otherwise, his administration would look even more bumbling. Consider the matter closed, says he. The headmasters should not sue, "they are trying to make money". How did they threaten to sue without consulting the education ministry? If they did, did the ministry advise them to go ahead? If they did not, why did they not? And would the education ministry discipline them? The mainstream newspapers fanned the flames, focussing on the man who made the allegation and not the allegation itself. Too many questions rise. None puts the government in a good light. Why is the special committee report not made public? The NUTP is given a summary, not the whole report. Could it be it is not, for what it contains that would make it a laughing stock?

So, as almost always, this manufactured end to a manufactured crisis undermines official confidence. Even the deputy prime minister, in charge while the Oracle was on official visits outside the country, believed racial discrimination and segregation could occur in apartheid South Africa, not in Dr Mahathir's Malaysia. If on a matter of such importance, indeed a cornerstone of Malaysia's multiracial policy, it fumbles and bumbles through, can one trust its intentions and actions in other serious issues. If the prime minister has to step in to defuse a crisis, it suggests a cabinet which knows not what it does, happy to fan it into a conflagration, and shut up when the Prime Minister steps in. And this is the best solution the National Front could come with? Where were the Indian and Chinese ministers, who know what happened and kept quiet.

In the end, it is yet another storm in a teacup in a land where a million teacups break out in storms simultaneously. But the government chooses to deal with the one it focusses on. And that it fumbles and bumbles. What frightens is it is unaddressed as it should: calmly, rationally, with a view to rectifying it. When the Prime Minister stepped in, it is an order to push it under the proverbial carpet. To stop discussion, the Sedition Act is invoked. But what is swept under the carpet grows bigger. And could one day unleash a conflagration that would make the May 1969 riots a garden party. Especially when the government insists it knows what is best, and those who disagree is better off in jail or bankrupt. What is also ensures is that it causes racial tensions further down the years when today's architects of it have all gone to the Malaysia In The Sky.

M.G.G. Pillai