JUNE 13, 2002

Flurry in Malaysia over Malay rights issue

By Brendan Pereira

KUALA LUMPUR - Guaranteed university seats and study grants. Easy credit to start a business. Discounts when you buy a house.
Pink forms that entitle you to shares in public-listed companies. Or a windfall of building contracts.
Think about all these and it becomes clear why it would be a rare day when Malaysian Malays agree to give up the special rights that they have enjoyed for the last three decades. This is despite robust exchanges in recent weeks over whether the time has come to throw away the crutches.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad lit the fuse of the debate when he announced that 10 per cent of places in 34 all-Malay government junior colleges would be reserved for Chinese and Indians.
His rationale: The injection of non-Malay students into this closed environment would provide keener competition for Malay students, help them reach greater heights and prepare them for the global economy.
He also felt that this experiment could improve race relations.
Others pushed the boundaries further. Utusan Malaysia, the influential Malay language daily, suggested the special privileges had become a disservice. The comeback from some Malays was swift and biting. Even ruling-party politicians who supported meritocracy in public had serious misgivings about it in private.
At a closed-door meeting of Umno Youth members, several young leaders viewed the partial opening up of junior colleges to non-Malays as a major erosion of Malay rights, a slide down the slippery road of dismantling something that has come to be taken as a birth right.
Many Malays view the provision of special privileges as something permanent. It has become part of their identity. What started out as a well-meaning, temporary, affirmative-action policy to help put Malays on sounder economic footing has turned into a cradle-to-grave proposition.
That explains the comment by Royal Professor Ungku Aziz in a recent interview. He disagreed with the decision to tweak the quota system that reserved 55 per cent of places in universities for Malays.
He said: 'The quota system was settled in the 1970s. Why is there any need to change it? The most important factor is to make sure that the deficiency of the Malays in education is taken care of first.'
And it is not only people of his vintage or Malay nationalists who think along those lines. Even Malaysia's young professionals do not want to give up the protection. They want more.
Education Minister Musa Mohamed received a delegation of local accounting graduates recently. They had a special request. They wanted the government to intervene and make sure that the Big Five accounting firms introduced a special quota for Malay accountants.
Do not expect the Mahathir administration to dismantle the structures of the affirmative-action programme. It cannot, because of a little-known fact: The income disparity between the Malays and Chinese widened in the last decade.
The quantitative goal of the New Economic Policy was to give Malays a 30-per-cent share of the economy. Up till 1990, 19 per cent of corporate ownership was in the hands of the Malays. That figure remained the same in 2000, mainly the result of a change in government policy to focus on qualitative rather than quantitative goals.
The main culprit was the privatisation policy in which much was put in the hands of a few entrepreneurs - some of whom went belly up during the currency crisis.
Studies also show that despite the phenomenal growth rates in the early 1990s, Malays could not bridge the gap with the Chinese.
The reason: They were small players in the main engine of growth, the manufacturing sector.
With this backdrop, it is likely that the government will spend the next decade trying to edge closer to the 30-per-cent ownership target it set for itself and the Malays.
So, if the administration knows that its job is only half-done, why all the talk about giving up the special privileges and exposing the community to more competition?
This is because Dr Mahathir and some second-echelon leaders like Abdullah Badawi, Najib Tun Razak and Hishamuddin Hussein Onn truly believe that some element of competition and merit has to be injected into the education system for the future of Malaysia and the Malays.
Said Mr Khairy Jamaluddin, an Umno Youth exco member: 'The leadership realises that the Malay polemic must shift from Malay rights to one of competition.'
But in an environment where their main constituents do not want to give up even an inch of a good thing, government leaders must draw extreme scenarios to persuade people to move half an inch forward.
That is why when the administration wanted to give more importance to the English language in the classrooms, it started on the premise that it was looking at making English the medium of instruction in schools.
There was a fire-storm of objection from Malay nationalists and academia. The government then backed down and agreed to a compromise - only mathematics and science would be taught in English from next year.
In the same way, when the government announced that 10 per cent of the places in junior colleges would be given to non-Malays, Umno Youth said that it wanted a 10-per-cent quota of places in private colleges for Malays.
Said an Umno Youth exco member: 'The perception is that we are taking away something from the Malays. We have to show the Malays that we are giving them something.'
No one ever wants to give up a good thing.