Democratic plural societies everywhere strive for two things, both in theory and practice.
These are meritocracy and diversity in every facet of any nation’s life.
In some countries — and most especially ours — the interplay of these two desirable characteristics can be very contentious.
It even led to the partial break-up of Malaysia just two years after it was created, with Singapore leaving the federation in 1965.
Somewhat ironic that Singapore had recently made exceptions to its strict meritocracy so a second Malay may become its head of state again.
The difficulty invariably has to do with these two policy objectives being mutually exclusive.
Meritocracy is only possible if policies are strictly “colour-blind”.
But a desire for diversity necessarily means a compromise must be struck, as Singapore has lately discovered, albeit at its most elite level.
For years, a similarly burning debate has raged in the US related to the desire to keep its university enrolments diverse so as to reflect that nation’s increasingly multi-racial make-up.
That had necessitated various relaxations of university entrance requirements so minorities such as blacks and hispanics and even whites from rural America are given certain breaks to ensure they are adequately represented in university campuses across the US.
Predictably, such policy tweaks have riled some among the majority white population who argue, not unreasonably, that affirmative measures favouring non-white minorities discriminate against deserving whites who would have been admitted into university otherwise.
This anti-affirmative action cause has ignited a long-running battle kept very much alive by those in the conservative right politically.
Of late, a most interesting twist to this traditional majority-entitlement-versus-minority-exception debate in most countries has developed in the US.
The minority in question is the Asian-American one and it has found an odd (sometimes strained) ally in the American white majority.
For some time now, Asian-Americans have been widely regarded as a “model” minority in the country they have come to call home.
Somewhat inconveniently, they have become “over-represented” in American university campuses and — especially contentiously — in the most prestigious “Ivy League” universities.
The model-minority tag has slipped a bit as ugly racially-tinged characterisations have been employed to explain away Asian-Americans’ “over-achieving” proclivities and, most crucially, to justify placing non-academic handicaps in order to check their preponderance in some American campuses.
Not unexpectedly, the controversy is running its course through US courts.
In a case initiated against Harvard University for an admissions process decried as discriminatory to Asian-Americans, Massachusetts judge Allison Burroughs has finally issued a decision in favour of Harvard’s “discriminatory” policies targeting Asian-American applicants.
Burroughs pointedly noted in her decision: “For the purposes of this case, at least for now, ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race conscious admissions.”
In other words, where two perhaps equally socially-desirable objectives (meritocracy and diversity) inevitably collide, some tinkering of one to achieve the other objective is justified.
This decision — which may eventually be appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court — ought to have far greater resonance than it is likely to get here in Malaysia.
Like in the US, our public-university entry policies — indeed the whole panoply of affirmative economic and even public-service recruitment policies — have been endlessly burning questions in public and private forums alike.
Some among us go around lamenting how “discriminatory” our public policies have been, as if affirmative actions are anything but.
Our own debate also has a peculiarly Malaysian twist: that policies are discriminatory in favour of the majority rather than a minority.
Meritocracy rests on the foundation that, as the US Declaration of Independence unequivocally asserts, “all men are created equal”.
Is Burroughs, through her Harvard judgment, going against this most fundamental idea of what America is all about?
Probably not, if the US founding tenet is taken as merely aspirational and whose realisation still a work-in-progress even nearly 250 years later.
The Harvard judgment, even as it pronounces that affirmative/discriminatory actions pass constitutional muster, strikes a helpful tentative note with its “at least for now” caveat.
This also can be taken to mean that the interplay between what meritocracy demands and diversity requires is always dynamic and new equilibriums regularly needed to be arrived at to defuse any build-up of tensions.
Policies, unlike laws, are not set in stone and never should be; they have to be updated from time to time.
At the end of the day, not everyone will end up happy.
Superhuman inter-racial empathy and understanding will be needed to preserve overall social harmony.
The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak