UCA News

Malaysia needs to address class, not race divisions

Lawmakers must stop camouflaging the class issue as a race one to end inequality
A Malaysian homeless man begs for alms under a footbridge in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 16, 2016.

A Malaysian homeless man begs for alms under a footbridge in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 16, 2016. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 11, 2024 11:46 AM GMT
Updated: April 02, 2024 06:38 AM GMT

There is a group of Malaysians who automatically get privileges that are not accorded to many of the nation’s people outside this group.

They are entitled to privileges that include quotas in placement and scholarships in public universities, the civil service, government contracts, business loans and permits, housing at discounted purchase prices, and many others.

They are the Bumiputera (natives, or sons of the soil in Malay), made up primarily of Muslim-Malays, as well as Muslim and non-Muslim indigenous groups. They make up 70 percent of Malaysia’s 34 million people, while the rest are mainly Chinese and Indian.

This has been going on since 1971. That was when the New Economic Policy was framed with the noble intention of eradicating poverty and elevating the socio-economic position of Malays to be on a par with the other races.

This policy was supposed to end in 1990 but it did not. Instead, it underwent numerous reincarnations. In the last 53 years, hundreds, if not thousands, of initiatives costing RM2 trillion were rolled out for the Bumiputera (about US$426 billion in present-day conversion rate).

Out of each year’s national budget allocation for support programs designated for the country’s ethnic groups, more than 90 percent goes into Bumiputera support programs. The rest is for the remainder of the population.

There seems to be an element of perpetuity to this policy. To justify continuing it, the government uses the same script — that the initiatives are just not enough and Bumiputera are lagging far behind ethnic Chinese.

The Bumiputera is truly lagging — in equity ownership, participation in skilled labor, household property ownership, and income distribution compared to other ethnic groups.

This is ironic because the economy is under the control of the Bumiputera, specifically the Malays. They run state-owned corporations, the civil services including public universities and schools, and most lawmakers and cabinet ministers are Malays,  

The median monthly wage earned by a Bumiputera is US$465 which is 45 percent lower than the US$845 an ethnic Chinese earns. This was the figure given by the chairman of the Malaysian bourse, Abdul Wahid Omar, who was one of the key speakers at the recently held Bumiputera Economic Congress. It is a platform to formulate policies to help raise the Bumiputera’s socio-economic status.

Another statistic mentioned in the congress was that more than half of Bumiputera households have a monthly income of less than US$1,274. Ethnic Chinese and Indian households fare better.

The congress decided that there would be more of the same affirmative action for the Bumiputera with more funds for businesses, more land set aside for housing, and more skills training. These would be rolled out in the New Empowerment Agenda for Bumiputeras (2024-34) in June this year — the latest reincarnation.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim made this announcement when closing the congress.

It is ironic that when Anwar was the opposition leader, he was a big critic of affirmative action. He even claimed that it was a backdoor way to enrich cronies of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the political party that was in power from independence in 1957 until 2018 and was invited to join the ruling coalition in December 2022.

Veteran Umno politician Salleh Said Keruak said recently that although Malaysia had a small number of wealthy Malay businessmen, there was a much larger number of wealthy Malay politicians. Politicians in Malaysia do not need to publicly declare their assets, and their net worth is not known.

There are constant statements that the policy has been hijacked and manipulated by Bumiputera elites across the nation, from those in the peninsula to those in Sabah and Sarawak.

In these two Borneo states, indigenous Muslims are said to have had the lion's share of the benefits, leaving crumbs for the non-Muslim ones.

So, why does the policy still exist when it is said to be flawed and wrought with abuse by so many, including the prime minister himself?

To remove it would mean stopping the gravy train to the elites but, more importantly, claiming race is the reason for economic inequality is less stressful on political stability than if the social-economic class division was said to be the reason.

Malaysia learned to deal with race division from its British colonial masters. British policies created economic imbalances along racial lines where the Bumiputera were the poorest lot. Despite 53 years of support, they still are.

Income inequality has decreased over the years, but the level of inequality is still high. Malaysia, as of 2018, is more unequal than most of its ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) neighbors, and even higher than the US which is one of the world’s most unequal advanced economies.

The present slump in Malaysia’s economy is likely to make matters worse for the bottom 40 percent (B40) of the population in Malaysia, where a strong majority are the Bumiputera.

They serve as the power base for Muslim conservatives. Once the lower-income group feels that it can no longer put up with benefits being constantly hijacked by the elites, then it might turn into a force that will be hard to control.

Lawmakers need to call a spade a spade, and not continue camouflaging a class issue as a race-based one. Then, support can be channeled to the right people.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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