This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 28 - October 4, 2015.
THE subject of Malay angst is a popular one lately. Not everyone is upset, of course, but there is a segment among the Malays, perhaps driven by a sense of insecurity, who have created mental models that put themselves under siege. They feel disunited, threatened, and their honour besmirched. This, despite the Malays controlling almost all parts of officialdom in the country and constituting more than 60% of the population.
Many commentators have pointed out the unreasonableness of these sentiments. That this is an imagined reality, propagated for less than honorable intentions — to develop a political constituency among the Malays based on their fears and, perhaps, on their prejudices. Stoking racial sentiments is really going down the slippery slope that can have terrible consequences. We should do everything to avoid even approaching that slippery slope. Thus far, I am quite disappointed with the kind of leadership exhibited on this.
We should make Malaysians realise what is happening in Syria — a beautiful ancient country now decimated by internal strife caused by sectarian differences. People who used to live together are now killing one another, fleeing their homes, becoming refugees in other lands.
We have forgotten what happened to Yugoslavia — the barbarism, murder and bloodshed that saw the country broken up into pieces. It existed as a country for over 60 years prior to that and what happened seemed to suggest that they lived a lie all those years. Are we living a lie ourselves?
The Malays do have some problems and the real issue is under-development. It is not an uncommon problem — the sociological and economic dimensions of development are well studied and understood, and some of them are applicable here. But the departure point must be the proper phrasing of the problem — this is a developmental problem that requires developmental solutions.
The Malay under-development is multi-faceted. There is still a sizeable segment of the community whose income levels are low, low enough and numerous enough in numbers that the average Malay income is below the national average. That says something about their levels of human capital.
There is also the issue of distribution of income which is highly uneven. It is more uneven than the distribution of income between the races as indeed, over time, there are greater intra-racial variances in income than inter-racial variances. Why, in spite of everything, are the Malays, on average, still laggards in the development story? Which Malays have benefited and what happened to the rest?
Clearly, the model of development that created access to basic education and health is over. That was in the early decades after Merdeka and it was done well. This greater, almost universal, access to educational opportunities created capabilities, which were then translated into upward mobility as more Malays entered the labour market. From that point onwards, further development went beyond providing access through physical development into the “softer” areas of values and institutions.
Over time, however, solving a developmental problem, which is a national problem, became a Malay problem. There seem to be dual but parallel tracks of national and Malay or more generally bumiputera developments. How did the objective of the New Economic Policy (NEP) — to promote national unity by removing racial identification of economic functions — become entrenched instead by this mutation of public policy and institutions.
The public sector, the national institutions, became predominantly Malay and the Malay agenda is one conceived by the Malays, for the Malays and by the Malays. It lost its national character. What was supposed to be a corrective treatment, based on need, became a special treatment, based on some sort of right.
And a myth was created and perpetuated — that this institutional framework is necessary to safeguard the Malay interests. All the while, the Malay developmental problems — of low income and a skewed income distribution — persisted and in some specific instances, worsened. This is the contradiction that needs to be broken, and get reshaped. The Malay mind, its psyche, is not liberated, what more developed, by this fallacious mental model. There has to be true independence of the Malay mind for it to reach its full potential.
What should then be the Malay agenda?
1. The deeply ingrained feudal mentality must change. It is at odds with globalism, competition and the pursuit of excellence. There must be the belief that each individual Malay is in control of his or her own destiny, that upward mobility is a function of how he or she performs, not determined by his or her station of birth or by a helping hand from somewhere, or someone’s patronage. Self-reliant is a Malay agenda.
2. The Malays should ensure that democracy works, that it is not hijacked by any minority group. They need a healthy competition in politics because only a healthy competition will yield an effective government, one that will deliver their agenda, which is also a national agenda. In that regard, there needs to be free flow of information, freedom of the press and debate. So long as the democratic process works, the wishes of the majority will prevail. Democracy is a Malay agenda.
3. Their relative under-development means that the Malays will have to rely on public institutions. Therefore, an important Malay agenda is to ensure that the public sector is an efficient one, an effective one and most of all, one that is not crippled by corruption, and a system that is fair. Anti-corruption is a Malay agenda.
4. Education is the great leveller and its broadened access has raised the first post-Merdeka generation upwards, but the education system — the national education system — has deteriorated when the need for it has been amplified by the demands of a very competitive globalised world. Malaysia needs a world-class education system that develops the students’ individual potential, produces a united citizenry and prepares them for the challenges of globalisation. Educational reform is a Malay agenda.
5. That Malaysia is well placed geographically and is endowed not just with this geographic advantage but that this geographic advantage has resulted in Malaysia having such a cosmopolitan populace, a truly Asian tapestry that can be wielded for the nation’s advantage, indeed, for the benefit of Malays generally. The future of the country in the globalised world depends on taking advantage of this dynamic. Thus, multiracialism is a Malay agenda: to mix, to do things together and to learn from each other.
6. As a community, the Malays must strive to be multi-dimensional. There must be a thriving civil society — of all sorts — within the community and tolerance of differences between groups in the community. It must reduce dependency on officialdom and rely more on volunteerism and community-driven initiatives. The future is about networked living. Social capital formation is a Malay agenda.
7. I have concluded many years ago, that even if the institutional framework is there and the incentive structures are the right ones, success will only come to those who work hard. Striving for excellence, in any enterprise, is hard work. Hard work means diligence, persistence and a certain stubbornness — of failing and trying again, and again. So, finally, working hard is a Malay agenda.
The Malays’ survival and development, indeed, their advancement will depend on themselves, not on anyone’s patronage. They cannot be lulled into believing that the state, the government, will provide for them. They have to think for themselves, believe in themselves, in competing and winning. The danger about relegating thinking to others is that there will be the tendency of relegating accountability altogether. Pretty soon, there will not be personal responsibility even for personal matters.
A person’s dignity, or maruah in Malay, lies in his character and his behaviour — the Malay word is akhlak. Hence, the interdependencies of maruah and akhlak, which is neutral of one’s economic standing. Keeping your dignity is therefore about having the right character and displaying proper behaviour. There is nothing dignified in being insolent, crude and rude. It simply is kurang ajar, a lack of nurture.
The Malays must learn to reject these traits and those who peddle them. They should choose leaders who dignify them, who elevate them to become better human beings, not those who appeal to their base instincts and exploit their weaknesses.
On man-to-man relationships, Islam teaches Muslims to be generous to mankind and to take care of this earth, to be the guardians of life on earth. To fulfill that role, they must strive to possess the economic means and the command of knowledge. That is the imperative — to strive to create wealth in order to share it with and to give to, others.
The Malays must also strive to learn in order to teach and use knowledge. In fact, this is not only the Malay agenda but also a national and human agenda.
Dr Nungsari Radhi is an economist and managing director of Prokhas Sdn Bhd, a Ministry of Finance advisory company. The views expressed here are his own.