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A More Balanced Perspective On The ATM And Non-Malay Participation

Lately, the question of racial discrimination and the recruitment of non-Malays to the Malaysian Armed Forces (ATM) has re-emerged.
In fact, debates over race and the military are not something unique to Malaysia.
For instance, in June 2021 the senior leadership of the US military had a sharp exchange with Republican congressmen over whether the military was studying “critical race theory”, i.e., academic theories about racial supremacy and privilege. In Singapore, the issue of the longstanding discrimination against Malays in the Singapore Armed Forces has received widespread coverage.
The ATM, like all human institutions, is probably not free from the flaws of human nature, including prejudice.
But it is wrong to assume that no progress at all has been made.
For instance, recently we had the achievements of Lieutenant General Datuk Stephen Mundaw, Lieutenant General Datuk Dr William Rangit Stevenson and Major General Datuk Toh Choon Siang.
Also, in addressing the issue of race and recruitment to the ATM, its chief General Tan Sri Affendi Buang has disclosed that non-Malay recruitment to the Navy increased to 18 percent of the intake over 2016—2020. For the Air Force, the figure rose from 19.5 percent in 2019 to 24 percent in 2020. Overall, non-Malay intakes into the Army has stood at 20—25 percent from 2017—2020.
Of course, more could have and must be done to encourage non-Malay participation in the ATM.
It is important that our military must not only be able to defend the rakyat but also be representative of it as much as possible.
The key is to listen to actual former, current, and future ATM personnel on their lived experiences as well as how they, rather than just politicians, think the country can move forward together on this.
As an MP who has a large community of military voters and veterans in my constituency, Setiawangsa, as well as via my work with the youth, I am compelled to observe that combatting prejudice and other social barriers to entry, while necessary and laudable in and of itself, is only part of the solution to a large problem.
The Armed Forces too face a problem in recruiting graduates and those from the middle class – Malays included. Therefore, we cannot reduce this to a racial issue alone.
In short, there are other factors as well that are not encouraging non-Malays to join the ATM.
For one thing, and again, I speak from my constituency work in an area with many military families and veterans, pay for ATM personnel, whether officers or NCOs leaves much to be desired.
And that’s just pay—the retirement situation isn’t also that better. As an MP, I’ve come across many Malaysian veterans who struggle to survive despite giving years of their lives to defending the country.
Some are not able to earn pensions for various reasons. Others—and this is a particular problem for the NCOs – struggle to get jobs in the civilian world.
Such shortcomings will make it difficult to recruit Malaysian youth—Bumiputera and non-Bumiputera alike—to the ATM, including those with elite qualifications.
Moreover, demographic realities must be considered. In 2017, the UN reported that Malaysia would become an aged nation by 2030 and that our family sizes would shrink. The Department of Statistics that year found that average family sizes dropped to 4.06 from 4.09 the year before. In urban areas, the figure was 3.89 and in rural, 4.68.
This means that the ATM will also have a smaller pool of talent and manpower to work with.
This again highlights the need to address the livelihood issues mentioned above, to say nothing of the greater cultural and familial resistance which may ensue as parents become more reluctant to let their children join the military—particularly if conflict flares in the Indo-Pacific in the years to come. This problem is more apparent in non-Malay families which have smaller number of children compared to the Malays.