Jun 21, 2002

Mahathir takes gamble on Malay rights issues

By: Vivian Ho

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sounds truly exasperated with his flock, the ethnic Malays who make up 60% of the country's 23 million population.
"I have tried to show by example. I have scolded, cried, prayed...I have tried everything," he said, but they have refused to change their subsidy mentality.
Years of receiving preferential treatment from the government, underpinned by an affirmative action policy called New Economic Policy (NEP), he said, have turned the Malays lazy and unable to compete independently.
So Mahathir decided it is time to give the Malays, also known as bumiputeras (literally translated as "prince of soil") a wake-up call, just a tiny jolt first, by leveling the playing field in education.
"We want to see whether they would be able to withstand the competition. Obviously if they can prove themselves able, then we can think of maybe reducing further the protection," he said.
University entrance this year was based on meritocracy instead of a race-based quota system.
Then he announced that a 10% intake of all government-run junior colleges be opened to non-Malays.
The ensuing outbursts among the Malays are only to be expected.
A highly regarded academic, Ungku Aziz, said the 10% move is "unfair" and "would deny bumiputeras of their special rights."
"The strange thing is that the basic problems and the deficiency of the Malay student is not being given priority. Instead, we are busy talking about competition," he was quoted as saying in a local Malay daily.
Dissenting voices came even from within Mahathir's own party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), long proclaimed the defender of Malay rights.
One renegade UMNO division recently passed a vote of no-confidence against Education Minister Musa Mohamad but Mahathir knew the message was directed at him.
The Malays are understandably miffed. Their sacred cow is no longer safe. First it was education. What will be next?
For more than three decades, NEP has guaranteed them special privileges.
Their children have easier access to government scholarships and extra placements in public universities. Older Malays get to buy houses at a discount and at least a 30% equity holding in companies, not to mention easy credit and top priority in government contracts and projects.
The 33-year-old NEP, designed to help the Malay underclass, came about after racial clashes in 1969.
"Some of them, of course, think this is a privilege and an honor, that I think is a misconception," Mahathir told reporters Thursday during his party's annual assembly.
Mahathir knows he is putting his newly gained political fortune on the line together with his party.
UMNO members chose to sidestep the issue during their annual meeting this week.
The change of policy has come amid strong speculation that Mahathir will call general elections soon, as early as the first half of next year, although the parliament's current five-year term will end in 2004.
But as an analyst said, "If it is not Mahathir, who else could push the Malays."
The 75-year-old premier, who will mark 21 years in power next month, has never been in a better position.
He is riding a new wave of popularity both inside and outside the country.
His liberal Islamic credentials, his tough stand against Islamic militants and the country's economic resilience have won him new ground.
But Mahathir also realizes he does not have much time left to lead his flock. The next elections could be his last.
"We don't have much time...the world is developing very fast," he has said when telling the Malays why they must change their mindset now.