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Armed Forces Chief, General Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Zainal, recently called for greater participation in the armed forces by non-Bumiputeras (Straits Times, January 31st 2009). He revealed that non-Bumiputeras comprise less than 2% of armed forces personal at the present time. He complained that non-Bumiputeras seemed uninterested in signing up.

Our political and military leaders regularly lament the low level of non-Bumiputera participation in our armed forces. There is often a hint that somehow the non-Bumiputeras are not as loyal in serving the country, preferring instead to go into business or other professions which are more lucrative.

It is true that non-Bumiputeras are greatly under-represented in the armed forces but one has to look into the culture of the armed forces, as indeed other government institutions, to understand why.

Since May 13th, there has been a deliberate and calculated policy to “bumiputrarize” the armed forces as well as other government institutions. Recruitment into the civil service has been based on a system of open preference for Bumiputeras at the expense of non-Bumiputeras. If anyone has any doubts about this, just walk into any government department.

The more a department or institution becomes the redoubt of a single ethnic group, the more parochial and racist it becomes. Minorities are marginalized and made to feel very unwanted. And they are excluded by religious and race-based activities as well.

And then there is the question of fair treatment. Promotion is very largely based on ethnic preference instead of performance. Stories of senior non-Bumiputera officers being routinely bypassed by their more junior, and often less-qualified, Bumiputera colleagues is legend throughout the civil service and armed forces.  Most of the top posts are reserved for Bumiputeras with only a token number of relatively unimportant positions set aside for non-Bumiputeras. Look at how many non-Bumiputera generals, secretaries-general, directors-general, professors, deans, even head-masters, etc., we have and you’ll get the picture. Non-Bumiputeras know that in any government department or institution they will face discrimination and will often not be very welcomed. They also know that no matter how hard they work there is only limited opportunities for promotion.

Surely, nothing destroys incentive, commitment and loyalty to our institutions as much as preferential treatment and discriminatory promotion practices.

I remember some years ago, when I was High Commissioner to Canada, receiving a delegation from the Canadian armed forces in my office. They came because they were studying how to make their armed forces more accommodating to Canadian Muslims and wanted to know how best to accommodate Muslim preferences in terms of uniforms, food, prayer schedules, etc. I could not help marveling at how far the Canadian Armed Forces was prepared to go to accommodate such a small minority in their country. It said something about their commitment to multiculturalism and tolerance. It made me sad that despite all our talk about national unity, and Malaysia being a model of tolerance, we are still so far from that kind of enlightened thinking.

If the government really wants to see more non-Bumiputeras in our armed forces, as well as in the civil service, it should take steps to ensure that all are treated fairly and that there is a culture of respect and tolerance for all, irrespective of race or religion.

I know that many will accuse me of being insensitive, racial even, but race has been the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about and it is undermining our national institutions, sapping our resources and destroying faith in our country. Shouldn’t we at least talk about it?