By Shazwan Zulkiffli

Malaysia is home to many species of animals, and as a country with the oldest rainforest in the world, culturally we’re quite attached to our fauna, especially the ones with unique features and colors – much like how much the hornbill represents the state to Sarawakians, the barking deer to the Kelantanese and the Malayan tiger to all Malaysians. Despite our love for our wildlife, it is evident that we aren’t big fans of the elephants, no matter how cute it is to see them cross the Grik highway once in awhile. It seems that being the largest mammal on land doesn’t mean that you’ll get acknowledged, or appreciated because Malaysians have neglected the biggest elephant in the room for over decades now.

For the first time in awhile, the gates of the elephant sanctuary are wide open, as the sunlight wakes her from her long slumber. The new management responsible for this change was recently appointed by the rakyat ourselves, who took over from the Najib administration that faltered in a general election that had a fairytale ending. However, a sigh of relief from most people could be heard when the gates were unlocked for an inspection – hardly a proper check up. But what came afterwards was what worried me and the rest of us: fury and rage from the very same people who rallied together with everyone else to bring a new Malaysia to the table.

That’s exactly what happened on social media yesterday. Metaphorical pitchforks, war cries – it felt like all those friendly faces from the elections have turned sour and now ready to defend whatever they feel the need to defend. The newly-elected government’s popularity is slowly declining among the rural Malays after Mahathir decided to consider HINDRAF 2.0’s plea to allow non-Malays into the Bumiputra’s last fortified enclosure or as some call it, Benteng Melayu Terakhir.

You have to go back to why UiTM was established. UiTM, which started as RIDA, a project inspired by Onn Jaafar’s trip to Ceylon, was initially established to help improve the economy of rural Malays who were strategically placed in rural areas by our English colonists under their divide and rule protocols. RIDA later upgraded to ITM, shifted its focus to produce more professionals among the bumiputeras before rebranding itself to become the UiTM we know today; one of the most affordable network of universities with the best facilities in the country. 60 years have passed and UiTM has produced dozens of quality products with big names including co-founder of Air Asia Kamarudin Meranun, managing director of DRB-HICOM Khamil Jamil, international artist Yuna, and current Minister of Defence, Mohammad Sabu @ Mat Sabu.

Mat Sabu, former culinary graduate from UiTM, now the talk of the town.

Despite its position in the hearts of the Bumis, UiTM’s reputation has slowly regressed in recent years as the quality of their products declined, not to mention how the management often position themselves in unnecessary sticky situations and controversies, like allowing anti-Christian talks to take place within campus grounds. A significant portion of the left see UiTM as a breeding ground for ultra-right Malays especially with the rumors that they sleep on the same bed as BTN while the right see it as the Malays’ ‘last resort’ – worse part is, both sides see UiTM in a negative light in general. It doesn’t matter whether these perceptions are accurate or not, because the damage is already critical, and UiTM is still bleeding. Having the word ‘UiTM’ on your resume is no longer a seal of excellence like in the yesteryears.

Even so, the Bumiputeras are still afraid to lose the UiTM privilege. The general Bumiputera understanding is that the Malays are poor and unable to compete with their rivals, who, allegedly ‘control’ the economy. The strong fear-mongering machines in rural areas work tirelessly to make sure that this general understanding, that has successfully divided us for decades, is alive and well to keep a certain group of old and crooked men in power. When the group lost, one can’t simply expect the idea to die with it. The victory is merely a spark of a long-term change, and that starts with pulling out the poison from the flesh – this poison has turned into a decades-old parasite that almost took over its host, so the extermination process should be gentle, and will take time.

Let’s face it, the idea of having a network of universities with the finest facilities but questionable reputation, while exclusively set aside for one race will eventually become futile. It’s inevitable. If we are so keen on becoming a first world country, the restructuring of UiTM as a whole is vital not only for the betterment of the rakyat, but also for the UiTM’s own survivability. Other than diversifying the intakes, UiTM should look into giving more slots to the poor regardless of race. No more stories of students getting a slot at UiTM using Papa and Mama’s ‘cables’, give the right people the right chance to change their lives, and you’ll see a different result. If the university remains as it is, UiTM’s credibility will continue to drop even more at the start of the next decade, and might even be obsolete at the end of it. Allowing a tougher sense of competition will ignite a new fire in the campus, a fire that will act as a torch for the poor and the nation, as they’ll blaze through to success with hard work and determination.

For that matter, if UiTM is indeed as inviolable as its champions claim, there is no reason to not open a new UiTM that caters exclusively to poor and needful Malaysians in order to equalise the economic pie. Indeed, the British division of labour in the colonial years benefited the trade-friendly Chinese, but to say all who came benefited in this same way is like painting those defending UiTM’s Bumi policy in the very same brush as the Red Shirts and other unsavory elements of that society.

That being said, reviewing the iconic Bumiputera-only policy so soon after taking over the office may not be the best of decisions. Then again, Dr Mahathir might have foreseen this, and this might even be a part of a bigger scheme of plans. That’s probably the reason why I don’t blame my Malay comrades for being angry with the fact that their ‘privileges’ are allegedly being taken away (or so they say). They have lived all of their lives with the idea of having this privilege to hold on to, even when it doesn’t serve them much on a day-to-day basis anymore. They may not understand Dr Mahathir’s position in this matter, since he was famous for standing up for them. Hence, why if this needs to happen – the Doctor is the best person to pull the lever. But this will eventually pass because you cannot stop the wheels of progress from moving. Change will come, and it will come at a great expense and with much debate – but we will be the better for it.

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