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Malaysia’s Multiracial Promise Marred by Bigotry

Race-based incentives, crackdowns on opposition figures, and an exodus of non-Malays: how Malay supremacists are creating a divided and fearful society

Malaysia is that rare country with an unequivocal national narrative. It goes something like this: Malaysia’s 28 million people, comprising mainly Malays, Chinese and Indians, make up a moderate and modern emerging democracy. Unlike members of other multi-ethnic countries, they respect one another’s beliefs and values and share a commitment to achieving prosperity. The official religion is Islam, but other faiths are freely allowed and celebrated. This is one harmonious place.

Much of that narrative is true — but not all of it. Malaysia’s economic miracle has stalled, and while the nation is, indeed, somewhat pluralistic, it is no melting pot. Indeed, it is a society where people define themselves first and foremost by race.

The Malay Card

PM Najib is facing the same dilemma his predecessors have since the earliest days of Malaysian independence: balancing the perceived needs of the Malays, both political and economic, with those of the country as a whole.

At the heart of the problem is the reverse-pyramid shape of the Malaysian economy. Though the Malays and other indigenous peoples, together known as bumiputra in Malay, make up about 60% of the population, they have traditionally been poorer than the Chinese and Indian immigrants, who have long dominated the nation’s business and trade.


After Kuala Lumpur was struck by murderous race riots in 1969, the  leadership, amidst  an air of alleged conspiracies in political jostling for power,( intriques which surfaced years  later)   determined that it may be a good opportunity to transmit the message that communal peace was impossible without economic balance.

The result was the New Economic Policy (NEP), introduced in 1971, which aimed to raise the Malays’ share of the economic pie. Malays were given preferential access to public contracts and university scholarships. Any company listing on the stock market had to sell 30% of its shares to bumiputra investors.

Though some measures have been softened or eliminated over the past two decades, many pro-Malay privileges remain. Certain government contracts are available only to bumiputra-controlled firms, for example. Malays even receive special discounts on home purchases. The affirmative-action program has become so ingrained in the Malaysian psyche that it is akin to a national ideology.

It is also controversial. Critics contend that the pro-Malay program too often benefits the connected few over its intended targets: the poor and struggling. All car-import permits, for example, are awarded to bumiputra-controlled firms, a policy intended to foster entrepreneurs in the community. But government audits have revealed that Malay businessmen with access to the permits sometimes sell them to minority traders who don’t — at an instant profit.

“Unfortunately, as [the NEP] was implemented over time, some of the zealots, politicians and bureaucrats included, tended to become more racial and emphasized more on the people who have relationships with them,”. “That’s where it went wrong.”

Malaysia is fond of presenting itself as a beacon of multiculturalism.

But intolerance and division are increasingly the hallmarks of the current administration with Najib and UMNO at the helm.

Political expediency at any means without scruples is the accepted norm for retaining power.

The return to court of 66-year-old opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim — who has spent the last five years fighting “sodomy” charges that he insists are politically motivated, and now awaits the verdict of a government appeal against his acquittal in January — is the latest fissure in the nation’s fractious politics.

Others include the announcement of $9.4 billion worth of race-based incentives and a worsening climate of racial bigotry and hate speech that has seen Malaysia declared one of the world’s least tolerant societies.

Despite lauding itself as a democracy, Malaysia has been characterized by racial politics since 1971, when statutory privileges for the Bumiputra, or “sons of the soil” as the Malay and smaller indigenous minorities call themselves, were introduced in the wake of bloody race riots.

Ethnic Malays make up roughly two-thirds of the population, but Malaysians of Chinese immigrant ancestry are generally wealthier and better educated. (According to Najib, they are 50% wealthier.)

On Sept. 14, statuary entitlements for secondary education, government-linked jobs, entrepreneurship and housing were increased for ethnic Malays at the expense of the Chinese and Indian population.  “[The government is] insisting on a racist agenda at the expense of the country,”

PM Najib, however, insists that the policy is fair. ”We are doing what is right and we are doing what is equitable,” he said upon announcing the move.

Nobody takes the PM reassurances that the non-Malays will not be sidelined seriously, merely because, the non-Malays have for the most part managed to thrive in spite of,   as they figured out how to manuever around and  exploit opportunities under the Umno system.

All these so-called new empowerment programs will encourage is the perpetuation of a rent seeking culture, patronage, corruption, cronyism and entitlement which would merely encourage a whole new generation of Malay, Indian and Chinese charlatans, tricksters and opportunists who would play the system, all the while whining of how corrupt the system is.

When the prime minister ask the people  “not to misunderstand the Malay economic empowerment”, only the most ignorant, uniformed, myopic Malaysian would view these programs as anything other than restrictions to their community and a possible boon to the unscrupulous Malaysians,especially cronies and their network who will make use of the system to further their own agendas

.The near unanimous opinion among economists is that racial entitlements for Malays come at a cost for the country.

“Racism does not have a good track record. It’s been tried out for a long time and you’d think by now they’d want to put an end to it instead of putting it under new management.’The problem with Umno is that they have not realised how deep the hole they have dug for themselves and the Malay community.

Curiously, Najib,  previously described himself as a reformer who wanted to dial back Malay entitlement through his 1Malaysia drive, which championed ethnic harmony, national unity and needs-based instead of race-based assistance.

The promises did not last long, however. “This guy has portrayed himself as a reformer of the highest level, but what he is actually doing is very much against reform,” .

Instead, Najib appears to be focusing on hardliner and ultra racist  support , which he needs in order to avoid losing his job and stay relevant at UMNO .

Reserving key posts for unqualified people, for example, simply drives talent away. One out of ten Malaysians with a tertiary degree migrated in 2000 — double the world average — while 90% of Malaysian migrants to Singapore were educated Chinese. Currently more than one million Malaysians work abroad out of a voting population of around 13 million.

“Economic advancement and progress will suffer and we will lose competitiveness because of the brain drain,” . Last month, Malaysia cut its 2013 growth forecast from around 6% to as low as 4.5%.

Malaysia is  already entering  2013 and to prosper and be competitive in a Global setting ,the Malaysian Goverment has to acknowledge at some point that , to keep talent in the country ,  those who need help should be helped , but it should not be based on race.

To modernize ,Malaysia needs to move beyond race based politics, and identify  the best and brightest minds in the nation by singling them out early and give them a boost , overlooking whatever ethnic background they are from.

If the Malaysian goverment wants to inculcate patriotism or loyalty to the nation among the up and coming generation of the best and brightest minds in the talent pool..

Allow them to be only  Malaysian , and nothing else.!


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