By Joachim Ng

Orang Cina Kaya! You will hear shop assistants mouthing this quite often, perhaps half jokingly. The impression that all Chinese are rich comes from the annual Forbes Malaysia Rich List which unfailingly places Chinese names high up. The casualties of such myth-making include hundreds of Perak students such as Chew Man Fei of Teluk Intan, whose mother is just a clerk.

He scored 8As in last year’s SPM exam and had hoped to enter a public university through the matriculation programme. But the Forbes label attached to his name ensured his rejection — three times.

Lawyer-activist Siti Kasim exposed this myth of the Orang Cina Kaya when she publicized official statistics that showed the Chinese having only 37 per cent of the Top Income Earners cake. The biggest share of the cake is taken by bumiputras at 53.8 per cent. These figures are no surprise to anyone familiar with the urban scene. Visit 100 public-listed and government-linked companies where there are Chinese employees. The vast majority are holding non-managerial positions as executives and non-executives. Most are also non-degree holders.

If the ordinary Chinese are in business, these are usually one-man or small-scale operations. Merdeka folks will remember that back in the late 1950s, many Chinese students could not pay their school fees as family sizes were larger and household incomes were stretched thin. Fortunately, the Education Ministry was persuaded to abolish school fees.

The most worrying consequence of this Orang Cina Kaya myth is its negative impact on the family institution, especially as successive governments believe this myth that all Chinese parents can afford private university education for their children. The ground reality is that most parents — whether Malay, Indian or Chinese — want their children to do better than the previous generation, and this goal has become the focus of family achievement. When their child gets into university — whether govt-funded or private institution — it means that the family has pulled through well.

But when the varsity application results are known, and it soon becomes clear that success in life does not depend on your family integrity but on your racial identity, the family institution takes a hit. Each succeeding generation of Malaysians is getting the idea that life is all about race and not integrity.

Ironically, high scorers can play a significant role in national poverty reduction, as witnessed by student outreach service programmes successfully run in many countries that inspire highly motivated undergrads to think of careers that help the poor. Let’s put academic talent to use, not push it away.