One of the cornerstones of UMNO’s perpetuation of the culture of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ is the insistence that special Malay rights are enshrined in the country’s constitution. So time and again, any grievance that marginalised minorities may have tend to get brushed aside by UMNO as implicitly or otherwise challenging the special Malay rights protected by the constitution.
We see the most recent manifestation of this scenario in the exchange in parliament regarding Public Service Department (JPA) scholarships. Apparently, in an exchange with the DAP-MP Fong Po Kuan, the UMNO-MP Tajuddin Abdul Rahman got on his feet and let it be known that: ‘The constitution is clear on bumiputera rights and we can't compromise [on] that. No more compromises!’ (see Malaysiakini)
And Tajuddin, in response to another comment by S Kulasegaran (DAP), retorted: ‘This is Malay rights. I have met several cabinet ministers and they agreed me with me that scholarships should only be reserved for Malays. There should be no compromises!’ The UMNO MP is also quoted to have later said: ‘I’m not racist.’
Now, I’ll take the UMNO MP at his word that he's not a racist. But we might be well-served to recognise that just because something is in a constitution that does not render it absolute or just. And it really doesn’t take much to realise this rather elementary point.
Now I may not be an expert on jurisprudence or the study of the constitutions of nation-states. But if memory serves me right, the U.S. constitution, for example, prior to the passage of the fifteenth amendment, prohibited slaves and blacks from being able to vote. Therefore, white Americans had special rights! That didn’t make the constitution free of racism. In fact, during the height of slavery the American constitution was a central instrument for the perpetuation of slavery! Actually, the original version of the U.S. constitution designated slaves as 3/5 of a whole person. Whatever the intricacies of this constitutional legacy and compromise among the Americans, it was not racially neutral; far from it. Today, it is plainly - and without second thought - regarded as having been racist by designating 'special rights' for whites.
You know, the case of South Africa in 1948 also comes to mind. With the National Party coming to power, various laws segregating the races were passed and rigidly implemented. For example, there was the Group Areas Act which designated areas where certain races may live. There was also the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, which banned marriages between people of different races. These apartheid laws, as you might well know, gave ‘special rights’ to white South Africans.
I don’t suppose the good UMNO MP would care to reason that because – in these historical examples from other societies - ‘special rights’ were enshrined in the constitution and the law, they were therefore absolutely just?
Racism is a system. It is a system that emerges when people intentionally (and even unintentionally) impose laws, regulations, policies and practices that perpetuate 'special rights' for some and the unequal treatment of their fellow citizens (and humans) based on racially defined terms.
History shows us that in human societies, there have been seemingly credible rationales and 'special rights' used to justify and legitimate racist systems. And these rationales and 'special rights' often have been (and are) spelled out in a constitution.