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Meritocracy the loser, thanks to stories from the wilderness

Will we ever see a qualified non-Malay again occupying a critical post after Tommy Thomas' flippant remarks?

Abdar Rahman Koya
3 minute read

Just a few decades before Barack Obama was proclaimed the 44th US president in 2008, it was unimaginable, a fantasy – indeed an aberration – to even suggest that a black man, whose ancestors were kidnapped from a faraway land, put into ships little better than human cages and sold as slaves, could become the main tenant of the White House.

But Obama did, and after eight years as the world’s most powerful leader, his biggest legacy was probably this: that he would not be the last non-white person to hold that position.

Today, the idea of a black man, or a man with Indian, Chinese and Arab heritage, becoming the US president is no longer an aberration or a utopian fantasy.

Why? Because a huge psychological barrier has been lifted – mainly because Obama left office without venting about the biases with which he grew up, or mixing ancestral sufferings with current realities in an environment that has been the playground of white America.

Such psychological breakthroughs are not unique to the US. In other parts of the world, too, we have seen individuals from minority groups climbing to places of power in societies that were long dominated by a single race.

In 2018, Tommy Thomas became the first non-Malay to be given one of Malaysia’s most powerful legal positions – one that allows even a prime minister to be charged with wrongdoings.

The road to getting him appointed was filled with thorns. Activists and NGOs worked hard to lobby for him, with statements calling on the Agong to accept the recommendation of Dr Mahathir Mohamad – also after a series of meetings to convince the veteran politician to take the huge risk of appointing Thomas as the attorney-general. And from Thomas’ own community came an abundance of prayers, as he himself put it after being named as attorney-general.

It was a risk Mahathir took at the cost of further accusations by Malay groups that he was undermining Malay dominance in key positions.

But a huge racial barrier to a key post normally given to a Malay man with equal if not more qualifications than Thomas had been lifted.

Here was an opportunity for Thomas to correct the national narrative. He would prove to his critics that a non-Malay AG was just as good and fair, if not more so.

It was with this confidence that Mahathir chose Thomas, knowing that he was risking the vote bank of both he and his party.

Thomas’ book “My Story: Justice in the Wilderness”, however, dashed these hopes. He mixed up his personal failures in getting things done with a deep racial bias developed within the perspective of his minority upbringing.

He also failed to understand the repercussions that his misplaced honesty would have on the future of many qualified non-Malays.

Thomas left a bitter taste in the mouths of a huge section of the population by the arrogant and patronising words in his memoir, a book that even Anwar Ibrahim, who was spared some of the worst attacks, found hard to stomach.

Will we ever again see a non-Malay occupying a top office such as that of the AG after Thomas decided to go public with his rants?

All of the hard work, the lobbying and the prayers that went into his appointment as AG have come to naught.

And this is not because of his failures or weaknesses, for a man can still leave a good legacy despite these.

It is because of his attempts to shift his failures by frequently slipping into Freudian biases about a community persuaded to accept that meritocracy would be good for the country.

The fact is that Thomas, despite the opposition from right wing groups, was given the goodwill of the vast numbers of Malays who voted in the previous government.

They had begun to accept the experiment of a non-Malay occupying a post intrinsically linked to the complicated world of post-colonial Malay political dominance.

That goodwill was squandered by a writing littered with personal biases, based largely on an ignorance of the majority. It is a mistake often committed by minorities, including many pockets of Muslim minorities in the West.

Thanks to his stories from the wilderness, it will take decades of rebuilding trust, lobbying, and a good dose more of prayers for a miracle like a non-Malay AG to happen again in Malaysia.

Abdar Rahman Koya is CEO & editor of MalaysiaNow.