AN in-class experiment conducted in one of my university classes a lifetime ago seems to have stuck with me for quite some time.

The experiment involved giving each individual a simple choice involving said individual and a stranger sitting beside him or her.

Option A: I will give you 10 dollars and I will give the stranger beside you 20 dollars.

Option B: I will give you 20 dollars and I will give the stranger beside you 500 dollars.

Take some time to think about the choice that you yourself would make (the quantums chosen are somewhat arbitrary, and can be altered).

The results from the class that day, and from my recently conducted straw poll were the same: a considerable majority would choose Option A.

This finding was deemed significant because many classical economic theories might have predicted that most people would choose Option B, simply because this maximises their utilitarian gain – 20 dollars is after all twice of 10 dollars, a hundred percent increase in personal gain.

Why then do so many people choose to receive less?

It would seem that humans tend to have a strong, inherent sense of justice.

In Malaysian parlance, Option B would appear to be “tak achi” (unfair) for us. It offends some sensibility wired into us somewhere.

The government recently announced that in response to protests concerning a return to the 90%-10% (bumiputra-non-bumiputra) quota system for the matriculation programme into public universities, they would keep the quota, but increase the number of spots from 25,000 to 40,000.

The experiment above seems to explain why this “solution” was met with considerable outrage and frustration.

Even say a quota based on the demographics of Malaysia would be debatable, but 90%-10%?

One might justifiably speculate that it was exactly this type of discrimination that formed a large part of non-bumiputra voting sentiment over the last decade or so; indeed, for many Malaysians, this was supposed to be a big part of what differentiated Old Malaysia from New Malaysia.

Education is a particularly sensitive topic in Malaysian ethnopolitics, because education is seen as the primary vehicle that enables social mobility – the key for those from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds to better their lives.

Being told that you are going to be denied this opportunity because of the colour of your skin is probably one of the worst things someone can hear.

I know people in my parent’s generation who believe they were denied a place in university because of their race, and who have carried that scar and grudge their entire lives – making it the source of resentment and racism towards bumiputras.

In the experiment above, it is true that Option B does give the individual greater personal benefit.

Likewise, there is no denying that increasing matriculation spots from 25,000 to 40,000 will result in more opportunities for the non-bumiputra.

Still, it seems like many cannot shake the feeling that something is still very wrong.

After the announcement about increasing the total number of spots while maintaining the quota, the iconic “Senyum Kambing” comic on the front page of Utusan Malaysia commented on this issue: “Harap semua puas (Hopefully everyone will be satisfied)”.

For many years, I have tried as a writer to avoid feeding into this narrative of bumiputers against non-bumiputers.

Hearing “harap semua puas” however, one cannot help remember the decades of condescending Umno type thinking which can be summarised as: you should consider yourself lucky to have whatever leftover scraps we generously feed you from our table.

This is especially galling for those who feel that they contribute as much as anyone else to the nation and its prosperity.

In the days of Pakatan Rakyat, the economic solution that was proposed was to make needs-based aid the core principle of all such policies.

The concept was simple: aid should be given to those who need it the most.

The justification was equally simple: If bumiputra were in need of more assistance because they formed the majority of those from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds, then they were just as likely to receive that assistance under a needs-based system as they were under a race-based system.

Under a purely race-based system, a very rich bumiputra is equally likely to receive aid – say a spot in a matriculation programme or a housing discount – as a poor bumiputra.

Surely that does not make sense?

This discussion would not be complete without at least a brief examination of the educational aspects of this decision as well.

There are about 45,000 spots in public universities. If the number of students offered spots in a matriculation programme is raised from 25,000 to 40,000, then either only 5,000 spots will be available to other students, or not every student from a matriculation programme will be offered a spot in a public university.

Neither option sounds good. The former option would render STPM almost useless, while the latter option makes the whole exercise somewhat redundant.

This is an example where a “solution” is chosen based on its perceived political marketability, instead of a proper understanding of its wider repercussions.

The double whammy in this case is that not only does this “solution” create problems for national education, it does not even solve the political problem.

There is no space here to go through every angle of the educational aspects of this problem. Scholar Lee Hwok Aun however has written a good overview in pursuit of this goal, in which he outlines several variables that need to be considered carefully in pursuit of a holistic, comprehensive set of principles with regards to our meta policies for education – it is well worth a read.

The reason this issue is in the headlines is of course because it involves more than just education.

Malaysia has been torn apart for long enough due to race-based policies. This is our single best opportunity to move away from such divisive mentalities, towards core values that emphasise helping Malaysians who truly need it the most – no matter what they look like, or where they come from.


NATHANIEL TAN is director of media and communications at Emir Research, a think tank focused on data-driven policy research, centred on principles of Engagement, Moderation, Innovation and Rigour.