The Black-and-White of Reverse Meritocracy

“With the power accorded to me, I now pronounce you as an Advocate and Solicitor of the High Court of Malaya.”

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Only half an hour earlier, I stood at the mercy of the Judge’s discretion; while bombarded with questions that only served to remind me of my lowly position in her Chamber. I was especially puzzled to be cornered without having my replies cut short by more questions, or rather, by her own answers.

I did not hold any grudges against her, but why must it be me and why does it have to be on my special day?

My Master then walked towards me from the lawyers’ bench to drape the wizardly black robe over my shoulders. She held my right arm firmly, and nodded affirmatively with a meek smile. I stood my ground and I was glad that we were on the same page.

Family and friends shared the joy and congratulatory remarks were aplenty. It was as though my future path is now emblazoned with prosperity, prestige and success.

As the slight tears of many dried up at the corner of their eyes, another group of to-be-lawyers readied themselves for a similar process to be repeated as the Judge stood tall –reaffirming her position of authority.

It so happened that this time around, every one of them was Malay from local institutions. And so the same process began, albeit with simpler curiosity:

“So, why did you choose to be a lawyer?” as she darted her most cunning stares into each of theirs’.

“Err…errr, my parents told me it’s good for my future.”
“I didn’t want to but, but…somehow I ended up getting the offer.”
“I…I…like reading, and I didn’t know what else should I study…mumbles in Malay”.

The Judge stopped proceeding further and moved on to the next one, and to the next, and to the next.

***

I remember one time in my early months of law school, my young lecturer was throwing tantrums in class for an apparent plagiarism. What made it particularly rememberable was that the plagiarised work was copy-pasted directly from Wikipedia; complete with the unchanged fonts and the website link.

Having graduated valedectorian in her graduating batch before later completing her postgraduate studies at Oxford University, I could understand why was she so insulted.

She took time to justify that she had chosen to be in academia to re-align the impression of the legal industry that Malay lawyers are of low-quality and incompetent. As a former litigator and a hijabi, the first impression upon her in court was often stereotypical of an unsophisticated, Malay local graduate.

One does not have to be brilliant to feel emphatic to her rage.

It is also saddening that there is only so much that an academician can do to remedy a systemic policy flaw. The academician’s responsibility is to excite one’s curiosity and intellectualism, not to correct a 20-something’s spelling and grammatical errors.

This problem is compounded by the lack of meritocracy in most of our local tertiary institutions. In my graduating batch’s convocation picture, there were almost 300 of us–that the main stairs leading to our grand library was fully-occupied by the black-and-whites.

I was embarrassed that more than 95% of us were–as you can guess it–of Malay race, more so when the university claims itself to be a ‘Premier Global Islamic University’. With that amount of graduating students every semester, our law faculty essentially churns out almost 600 Malay lawyers every year. One has to take into consideration that the passing rate to graduate is a CGPA of 2.0, which is about 50% of the overall scores (or an ‘E’ by American standard).

Not only that one does not need to have passion to read law, the threshold to graduate is also of bare minimum — unlike in more developed jurisdictions such as in Singapore and Australia. To top that, I don’t have to go into details that a systemic discrimination is ingrained in the students’ intake process itself.

Although many had above-average SPM results, there were also aplenty of foreigners who did not have any internationally-recognised pre-university qualifications (such as the SAT, Cambridge A-Levels, etc.), as well as the intake of local students who performed so poorly in SPM that were somehow admitted through the ‘back-door’.

I feel sorry for those who deserve better; such as my former lecturer, and those who had  dedicated their hard work and undivided passion to reach the pinnacle of their future legal career.

The reality, as it turns out to be, will gobble on the aspirations of many deserving ones.

***

Shortly before I graduated from law school, I had applied and attended several job interviews in private legal firms. My academic results were mediocre but that did not stop me from applying to some of my favored future employers. I was surprised then that a renowned, US-based international law firm wrote back for me to attend the interview at their Kuala Lumpur’s office.

I knew a friend who had previously worked there for 3 years, and naturally I wrote to him asking for tips. He was already based in Amsterdam then, but eager enough to mentor me that he took his lunch hour off (very nice of him!) to discuss my preparations for the interview. Technicalities aside, one mutual point of concern is to shackle the impression that local law graduates are not fit for the job.

While agreeably many Malay graduates have problems with their English proficiency, a blanket stereotype of Malay incompetency only shows how prevalent the problem is. It is inevitable for employers, especially in large legal firms, to presume that Malays from local institutions are generally less capable than others.

Considering that it’s harder for Malay local graduates to compete, many of the well-connected Malay graduates leverage on their parents’ connection to push themselves through the system.

As commonly expected, this class of Malay graduates are forced to work beyond their comfort-zone and deliver high-quality work within short period of time, only for them to fall short from their employers’ expectations–simply because they were not employed out of meritocracy to begin with.

***

So, will the legal employment market be any better in the coming years?

We are only short of two years from achieving (be positive!) the coveted ‘developed’ nation status, but it’s worrying that our mentality still reeks of systemic racism and discrimination.

On the other side of the fence, the Attorney-General Chambers (AGC) had just received its new intake of Federal Counsels, Deputy Public Prosecutors, and Legal Advisors. Similar to my graduation batch’s photo, more than 90% of them are of Bumiputera background.

While there may be various factors that skew the racial ratio of the AGC’s lawyers’ intake, it does create an impression that non-Bumiputeras will have it harder to make through, just like how the local Malay law graduates are struggling to be employed in established private legal firms.

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