I came to journalism via a circuitous route. In August 1990, at the age of 17, I was actually a JPA scholar with a place to study engineering at Virginia Tech, then ranked in the 30-40 bracket in the world for engineering programmes.
It was a major leap compared to school, where I had largely gotten by without doing my homework or much studying. Suddenly I found myself in a very competitive environment and unable to cope with the steep learning curve. The assumption was that I would be good at engineering because I had scored well in Maths, Add Maths and Physics. But I was not.
I eventually transferred out of the programme and did not complete any degree from that university which I left in 1992.
That’s why I was all the more impressed by the achievements of Irdina Shahriman, who consistently achieved a 4.0 cumulative grade point average (CGPA) as an Electrical Engineering undergraduate at Virginia Tech from 2018 to 2021.
She ranked first among almost 10,000 students, bagging the Phi Kappa Phi medallion for the College of Engineering – an award which is conferred on the graduating senior with the highest academic standing.
Having struggled at the first hurdle, I am blown away by her ability to finish top in that environment.
Mind you, it is quite a male-dominated faculty too.
“Throughout my time at VT, I had never had any female team members in my group projects, which intimidated me at times,” she told The Star, but she persevered and came out on top!
And these are not ordinary students she beat – during my time, the top students in Virginia Tech’s aerospace programme often got to intern at Nasa. This is no small achievement.
That’s why I was so annoyed when the latest face of bumiputera backwardness, Wan Ahmad Fayhsal Wan Ahmad Kamal, insisted that Malays needed to be protected by those who share similar identity politics.
“The Malays need a protector. They have a neo-feudal mentality and are not ready to embrace a full-blown liberal democracy yet. At the end of the day, the societal nature of embracing a tribal mentality will persist,” said the Bersatu Youth chief in explaining why a majority of his people don’t want to support multiracial Pakatan Harapan.
Cheated by a rotten system
These sort of insulting claims have been going ever since – you guessed it – a certain racist Umno MP from Kedah started touting the Malay dilemma. It’s simply not true, and people should call them out on it every time instead of giving it credence and allowing it to be a bedrock of national policy.
I have spent most of my time in Malaysia in multiracial neighbourhoods like Taman Tun Dr Ismail and Bangsar, working at The Star and now Malaysiakini, in contact with activists and intellectuals at Parti Rakyat Malaysia and PKR, and musicians and artists.
There is no shortage of Malay talent in a wide variety of fields and no need for the crutch feudal mentality.
Now I know very well that the groups that I mentioned are not the majority since many voters think that making the racist choice of Umno and PAS is acceptable. But still, there is every indication that the current system of propping up the majority race through affirmative action is a disaster.
Take for example, a UiTM graduate from a small town in Kedah who applied for a job at The Star when I was working there a decade ago. Her entrance essay was clearly a google translate hack job, and she was actually unable to speak passable English. Nonetheless, her GPA was nearly 4.0 … and mind you, her degree was in English for Professional Communications!
I was sad after that episode. I thought to myself that everyone is being cheated by our rotten system. This poor girl has gotten a false education, a piece of paper that means nothing.
And who knows what she could accomplish if she got a real one instead of some politicised, propped-up degree.
If we truly open up the doors of imagination and creativity and questioning, the sky is the limit for Malaysians. It’s still not too late after even 50 years of brain drain.
But if you still want to follow these wicked opportunistic politicians playing the ‘bangsa dan agama’ game, we can buy a one-way ticket to failed nationhood.
How can we thrive if power is put in the hands of a race and not all the people? And that race is told what to think from start to finish, and liberal dissenters – often the best minds – are punished? Or if gifted but cynical people just sit back and accept cushy jobs and titles that come with the ketuanan narrative.
To the supremely talented Irdina Shahriman, we true Malaysians are proud of you. I hope you do something special with your life.