Saturday, July 30, 2005

VIEW: Are the Malays an ‘endangered species’?

By Farish A Noor

For those who are unfamiliar with the socio-political and cultural arithmetic that underscores Malaysian politics, here is a one-line synopsis: Malaysian politics is fundamentally communitarian and race-based in its orientation. A legacy inherited from the divisive politics of the British colonial era, postcolonial Malaysian politics has been shaped by ethno-nationalist considerations from day one. When Malaysia achieved its independence in 1957 its leaders established what was then called the “racial compromise” formula to ensure political stability.
This effectively meant power sharing of sorts: The Malays who made up around half of the population then (in fact in 1957 the Malays barely accounted for 50 percent of the population) would concede to giving the Chinese and Indians equal citizenship rights if they tacitly accepted the notion of Malay political dominance.
The ruling coalition then was cobbled by the nation’s founding father Tunku Abdul Rahman who worked with the Chinese business and political elite to create a Malay-Chinese (and later Malay-Chinese-Indian) alliance that kept the country together. The Malays ruled the country while the Chinese dominated the national economy.
By the late 1960s it was clear that this compromise was unravelling at the seams. Malay discontent, fuelled by more and more urbanised Malay professionals and university-educated urbanites who craved well-paying jobs, led to racial clashes in May 1969 which in turn led to a state of Emergency and the creation of the “New Economic Policy” (NEP).
The NEP was meant to solve the problem of uneven development by making poverty eradication one of its primary targets. Crucially, it tried to overcome the association of poverty with ethnicity, in order to generate wealth among the Malays and giving them a shot at running their country’s economy. Its goal was to ensure that the Malays owned 30 per cent of their own economy by 1990.
Things however, did not work out the way they intended. By 1990 it was evident that the NEP had failed to secure tangible results. Malay ownership of national equity did not come close to the 30 percent target, despite the creation of an army of Malay millionaires during the Mahathir era of 1981-2003.
At the recent General Assembly of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party this week, there were calls for extending NEP or for reintroducing it in different forms. Party leaders fulminated against what they saw as the injustice of the system and the cruel world we live in that Malays could not even control their own economy. They pointed to the demographic boom among the Malays (who now make up around 60 per cent of the population) and UMNO leaders warned of unrest if the situation was not corrected.
Some UMNO leaders even called for greater unity and for the Malays to unite behind UMNO on the platform of Malay communitarianism, this in a country that is multiracial and multireligious and whose original secular constitution guaranteed equality for all!
What the leaders of UMNO failed to note was the fact that the failure of the NEP was partly due to the misdeeds of UMNO itself. As a conservative right-wing party that is pro-capitalist in nature and ideology, UMNO has sponsored and patronised a host of liberal economic ventures that did little to spread economic and social justice in the country. The list of allegations of corruption, nepotism and favouritism is long and ever-growing, and despite the calls for reform and greater transparency by the new Badawi administration, the country has yet to see some heads roll in the fight against both governmental and institutional corruption.
If the distribution of wealth among the Malays is so low at the moment, who has UMNO to blame save itself, turning a blind eye to corrupt practices, including vote-buying in the party itself in the past?
Then there is the other thorny issue that has not been addressed at all: Most economists and political scientists studying Malaysia will tell you that the UMNO party is simply one of the two main pillars of the Malaysian political system, the other being the all-powerful Chinese business lobby.
It has been shown by many scholars that UMNO’s power base partly depends on the support of the Chinese business lobby, that has an interest in keeping UMNO in power (for fear of having to work in a country ruled by the opposition Islamist party, PAS). The close intimate relationship between the Malay political elite and the Chinese business elite, both of which are mutually supportive (though they may quarrel publicly at times) is the central tenet of Malaysian politics and the engine that keeps the country going.
But thus far the government’s crusade against corruption has not touched any of the big Chinese business concerns, some of which are known to have supported the previous Mahathir administration. The fact that Malay politicians and Chinese businessmen can work together to keep afloat a system riddled with irregularities and contradictions shows that as far as their vices are concerned at least, Malaysians can remain united. This then makes Malaysia’s economy a truly Malaysian problem that spans the racial and ethnic divide.
However the pervasive racism in Malaysia — made worse by its communitarian politics — ensures that it is difficult to see this as a national issue. Can Malaysians unite to tackle the twin problems of political and business corruption, and see beyond their own parochial ethnic loyalties? Unless and until this is done, no number of “new economic policies” or “even newer economic policies” can remedy the ills of this country.

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist, based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin

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