A recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education had the front-page headline: "The Global Debate Over Affirmative Action." Inside, there were five full pages on group quotas in Brazil, India, and Malaysia.
While it is unusual for American journalists to recognize that group preferences and quotas exist in other countries, what was all too usual were the slippery semantics with which affirmative action has been discussed in countries around the world.
The Chronicle of Higher Education's discussion of affirmative action in Malaysia, for example, says that it began because "ethnic Malays held relatively little economic power" and because of a "colonial legacy under which the country's more urbanized Chinese inhabitants tended to prosper."
In reality, under colonial rule the British provided free education to Malays but the Chinese minority had to provide their own -- and the Chinese still completely outperformed the Malays, both in educational institutions and in the economy. Performance differences are what slippery semantics try to evade, whether in Malaysia or elsewhere, when affirmative action is discussed.
One of the architects of the quota system in Malaysia is quoted as saying that before affirmative action "there was a wall in Malaysia and outside of it were the Malays."
A wall against Malays in Malaysia? With Malays in charge of the universities and Malays also in charge of the government that controlled the universities?
Again, such semantic gymnastics attempt to evade the obvious: Some groups perform a lot better than others, whether in education or the economy and whether in Malaysia or elsewhere around the world.
Back in the 1960s, when university admissions were based on academic performance, students from the Chinese minority outnumbered students from the Malay majority. When it came to engineering degrees, the Chinese outnumbered the Malays 404 to 4.
None of this was mentioned in The Chronicle of Higher Education. My own research over the years turned up these facts.
While quotas changed the numbers in Malaysia, they could not change the performances. After three decades of quotas favoring Malays, the government finally acknowledged that the universities were simply not turning out enough people with the high-tech skills that the country needed.
As a result, the Malaysian government announced last year that admissions to the universities would now be by academic records, with computers determining who gets in and who does not, without regard to ethnicity.