Being Defence Minister must sit well with Zahid Hamidi, for it has turned him into a trigger-happy man. Now, if only he could move his aim away from his own foot.

In my last post I highlighted his jingoistic call to stand up against the ‘neo-colonial’ government of Penang. And just when you think that such a marvelous statement could not be outdone in asininity, he follows it up with this classic piece of pronouncement:

“The reasons (for the low participation of non-Malays in the armed forces) could be because of a fear towards a tight discipline. It could be because of a low spirit of patriotism. It could be because certain ethnic groups had a negative perception of the armed forces and did not encourage participation,” said the minister.

Bravo. As expected, a commotion soon ensued, with denouncements and debates from both sides of the fence. Certainly, such a statement is nothing less than a stinging insult to the countless deeds and sacrifices made by non-Malay servicemen over the course of our country’s history.

Yet at the same time, it does raise a pertinent question. Why does there seem to be such dismal interest in the armed services amongst the non-Malay community (recruitment of non-Malay personnel from 2008-2009 is a paltry 1.2%)?

Dr Lim Teck Ghee, for example, suggests that the low incidence of non-Malay participation in the armed services may in fact be due to socio-economic factors, hence turning the discourse into one involving class rather than race. Others have suggested a lack of awareness and perhaps a remuneration structure that is less than attractive.

While I would not suggest that the salary scheme is not in need of review, nor would I go so far as to say that socio-economic conditions do not play an important role in the issue, I would however like to submit that the crux of the problem is far simpler than envisaged. As pointed out by our first Navy Chief, K Thanabalasingam, it is the simple and pragmatic reason of career advancement that makes non-Malays think twice.

In other words, non-Malays are less interested in joining the armed forces because of unequal promotion opportunities.

Simply ask yourself this: would you join an organisation if you knew from the get-go that no matter how hard you worked, no matter how dedicated you were, you will never receive due recognition simply because you weren’t born on the right side of Bumi?

Of course, Zahid Hamidi has since denied the existence of racial discrimination in the armed forces, citing the fact that there are:

  • ‘A few’ non-Malay generals in the army (three according to my sources)
  • Two non-Malay admirals in the navy
  • One non-Malay general in the air force

Now, while the Minister may be proud to boast of the above data as ‘proof’ that non-Malays are able to hold ‘high positions’, I on the other hand see the existence of a racially-based quota system (3-2-1 for Army-Navy-Air Force) that is also evident in every branch and twig of our public service.

What does this (unwritten) quota mean in practical terms? It means that yes, while a non-Malay can definitely earn a ‘star’ or two on his uniform (and nowadays, rarely more than two), he would have to compete with other non-Malays for a share of the available quota. In other words, a non-Malay army officer is reviewed and measured relative to other non-Malays, instead of to all his fellow officers.

Furthermore, in today’s environment, it is virtually impossible for a non-Malay to attain anything more than two stars, much less to be considered as chief of one of the armed services (in contrast, our country’s first Chief of Navy was an Indian Malaysian gentleman who held the post for 9 years).

Now, we ask ourselves, which ‘non’ would be interested to join the armed forces in such a climate? Well, I know of one.

This particular officer, a ‘non’, had enlisted at the age of 18, spurred by dreams of dressing in uniform and defending his country. Today, on the verge of retirement after nearly 40 years of service, and despite being one of the most senior officers (in terms of length of service) in his chosen armed service, he will likely never attain a ‘star’ simply because the ‘non’ quota in his chosen service has already been filled. Never mind his ability, never mind his dedication, never mind that he could be more capable than some of the other ‘stars’ that have passed him by (lucky stars indeed for they were born on the right side of Bumi), he must resign himself to the unfortunate fact that he is, in his own country of birth, a ‘non-entity’.

In contrast, his counterpart in Singapore who was his classmate in Defence College, is now a 3-star general in the island republic. Would this officer be forgiven for wishing he had been born in Singapore instead of Malaysia?

So, dear Minister, what do you have to say about this? Oh wait, I know. You would probably say that this gentleman officer does not deserve to be a general because as a ‘non’, he is innately less patriotic and averse to discipline. What else can it be right? After all, in 1Malay(sia), everything else matters for nought.