Illustration: Tim McEvenue
Peter T. C. Chang
Peter T. C. Chang

Mahathir’s new Malay dilemma: tackle poverty among the majority without excluding others, particularly the Chinese

Forty-eight years after his book diagnosing the problems ethnic Malays faced, Mahathir Mohamad is once again leading a country where Malays are still mostly poor, despite a decades-old economic policy that has favoured them and angered other groups

After the stunning May 9 electoral upset of the ruling government, some Malaysians are eager to roll back the country’s bumiputra policies, or preferential policies for Malays and indigenous people. But “New Malaysia” chief architect and once-again Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has cautioned haste, countenancing that the Malays have yet to achieve economic parity, specifically with the ethnic Chinese.
Now taking shape as a protracted lifelong struggle, Mahathir's Malay rights campaign began at around the same time that the civil rights movement in the United States successfully enacted affirmative action to extend equal opportunities for black Americans.

The burden weighing upon Mahathir, then a young backbencher, was to counteract a numerically inverted disparity: of a weak majority marginalised by dominant minorities.

In The Malay Dilemma, Mahathir, a trained medical doctor, critically dissected the weaknesses of his own race and warned that without government aid, the bumiputra (a Malay word meaning “sons of the land”) would become subservient in their own land. This dire diagnosis coloured the Malaysian outlook, leading to the promulgation of the New Economic Policy to boost the prospects of the Malays.

Half a century on, ethnicity-based preferential programmes are facing resistance. In the US, working-class whites complain that affirmative action is unfair. Likewise, Chinese and Indians in Malaysia are protesting against restricted access to public-sector employment and universities. Opponents of affirmative action say any form of discrimination, whether for or against any race, is a violation of fundamental human rights.
Malaysian workers divide durians into baskets at a farm in Karak, outside Kuala Lumpur in the nearby Pahang state, on July 24. Photo: AFP

Affirmative action has other inherent flaws. Preferential treatment inevitably entails lowering of standards. Over-reliance on government support can breed dependency, even compounding the disadvantaged group’s inferiority complex.

In Malaysia, these drawbacks were aggravated by other failings. The New Economic Policy, administered by the politically dominant Malay majority, was susceptible to unchecked ethnocentrism.

Critics charged that some pro-Malay schemes were so discriminatory as to fracture Malaysia with apartheid-like segregation. Non-Malays felt relegated to second-class citizenship. Many who leave the country do not return, precipitating a brain drain.

Cronyism further distorted the policy. Inter-race social-economic gap has narrowed as a significant portion of the country's economy has shifted to Malay ownership. But due to selective patronage, this state-engineered transfer of wealth has chiefly benefited the Malay elite. The result is a widening of intra-racial class divide between rich and poor Malays.

The reality is that most of the Malay population remain impoverished. Sadly, they still make up most of Malaysia’s poor. To abolish affirmative action now may leave them even more mired in poverty.

Watch: Malaysian prime minister says perception of the government divides Malays

Mahathir is understandably anxious about the Malay plight. But the country is deeply polarised and the national psyche badly bruised by decades of missed opportunities. To reboot the quest for parity, Malaysians must be willing to extend the olive branch to one another, with mutual concessions and compromises.

To begin, minorities have to take a step back and concede that Malaysia is not yet a level playing field. For the greater good of all, full enforcement of meritocracy may have to wait a while yet.

As a gesture of reconciliation, the majority should step forward and assume ownership for the failure of the New Economic Policy and, in a “social contract” with the rest, avow a more inclusive and equitable administration of the bumiputra policies.

The make-up of public universities, for instance, should better reflect Malaysian demography.

Fairness aside, disparities in academic performance between the races is best evened out through mutual learning in a multicultural setting. Malay-only institutions are safe havens that deny students the competitive environment needed for holistic development.

The Glenmarie Golf Club in Kuala Lumpur. Discounts for membership in golf clubs may not technically be contrary to laws designed to help ethnic Malays but are contributing to the gaps between the rich and poor among them. Photo: Handout

Dispensation of Malay benefits has to be means-tested. Discounts for high-end properties or golf club memberships are incommensurate with the spirit of affirmative action. Closing the intra-Malay income gap is key to eliminating inter-race inequalities.

As Malaysians wrestle with these discrepancies, the elephant in the room is China. And this giant's increasing footprints can induce stress across Malaysia fragile socioeconomic landscape.

Exhibit A is the multibillion-dollar Forest City project. Mahathir has warned that such a humongous resort-like development will morph into a colony of rich foreigners.

For most Malays, local and mainland Chinese are indistinguishable. If it proceeds as designed, a super-affluent enclave like this can exacerbate prevailing perceptions of wealth inequality.

Because of ethnic Chinese mediation, China’s inroads into Malaysia have largely bypassed, with minimal contact, the Malay communities. Beijing must increase people-to-people engagement with all Malaysians.

Nested within the University of Malaya, the Confucius Institute language programme for non-native-speakers is a proper move. But in addition to the limited nature of this approach, excessive preoccupation with the Chinese language would be inimical to Malaysian race relations.

Watch: Malaysian prime minister says he is not anti-China

China ought to make greater effort in reaching out through the Malay language and/or English. On that note, the newly established Xiamen University in Kuala Lumpur’s choice of English as the medium of instruction is expedient.

Xiamen will inject fresh impetus into Malaysian intellectual life. But this top-ranking university from China must strive for a scholarly community that reflects Malaysia rich diversity.

Meritocracy, if calibrated by strategic affirmation action, can transform the Xiamen campus into a hub where Malaysian of all races can study together and compete with each other in pursuit of excellence.

Mahathir's unwavering quest for Malay empowerment began almost 60 years ago. In the intermittent decades, the world witnessed a resurgent People's Republic of China, whose looming presence is infusing new dynamics into the Malay-Chinese relations.

China's formidable soft power, if deployed judiciously, can help narrow Malaysia's socioeconomic gap and bridge the ethnic divide.
A vibrant multiracial and multi-religious New Malaysia, when actualised, could be a model upon which Beijing can emulate, in pursuance of President Xi Jinping‘s grand vision: the harmonious coexistence of world civilisations.

Peter T.C. Chang is a senior lecturer at the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Correction: The book The Malay Dilemma was first published 48 years ago, not 38 years ago as the summary stated in an earlier version of the piece.