MALAYSIA Tanah Tumpah Darahku


Thursday, February 29, 2024

Malays, the eldest sons in our Malaysian family


The Bumiputera economic congress is an event that’s become a national fixture.

Every Malay leader, whether elected or self-appointed, whether in politics, business, religion or society, hypes it up and shows up at this mythic event.

Many big decisions and resolutions are made at this congress. Since making those decisions are the most powerful people in the country, much of what they decide will happen, for better or for worse.

Often for the worse. By next year, cries of anguish will rise again about the need to organise yet another Bumiputera economic congress, proving that the congress has become sacred, invincible and beyond reproach.

This year, the congress’s unofficial but oft-mentioned “theme” is that Bumiputeras make up 70% of the country. That is certainly significant – 70% means there’s more than two of “us” to one of “them”.

You sense the pride, and also underlying threat, in that statement. We are many – so don’t play-play with us, OK?

But let’s get real on what the Bumiputera economic congress is all about. It’s a mechanism where the Malay elite, some token non-Malay Bumiputeras, and in the background a clique of non-Bumiputera “friends”, ensure their own continuing prosperity.

This obviously is not stated in any brochure regarding the congress. But it’s right there at the very foundation of the event, as well as the politics that gave birth to it.

To understand the politics, let’s look at the history of the Bumiputera economic agenda.

It started with the New Economic Policy, or NEP, a legislative reaction to the race riots of 1969. It was a series of affirmative actions meant to help the Malays, then conveniently classified as Bumiputeras, climb the economic ladder.

The NEP started in 1970, setting some aggressive goals to be achieved by 1990. I remember growing up in that period where the year 1990 wasn’t seen as an exciting finishing line, but rather an increasingly foreboding and dreaded deadline.

After all, two decades, less than a generation, is hardly enough time to correct whatever problems that had taken centuries to form. The Malays’ problems are deep-rooted, and quick fixes unfortunately don’t address the real underlying issues.

These underlying issues are all caused by the lack of confidence and hence insecurity many Malays feel. These come from a culture formed by centuries of colonisation, whether by western colonialist powers, or later by our own local feudal masters.

They are what caused us to endure our colonisation, whereas our cousins in Indonesia, the Philippines and Indochina spilt much blood fighting against theirs. They are not found in the Thais because they never allowed themselves to be colonised in the first place.

We never had an armed struggle for independence, regardless of how the rewritten, often invented, history (and movies) of today claim. Such an armed struggle would have been bloody and costly for sure, but it would also have been cathartic to our psyche.

The colonisers, especially the British, knew that as long as we didn’t starve, could practice our culture and religion and keep our leaders and rulers, we’d be timid and docile enough. It was to their advantage, and to the advantage of our own Malay elite back then, that the Malays remained timid and docile.

But insecurity aside – (and which race doesn’t have insecurity?) – not everything was wrong with the Malays. As a race we were kind, easy-going, forgiving, generous. We didn’t top any world history about conquest or civilisation, but neither did we commit genocide or decimate other peoples.

We were pretty decent people, all things considered. We didn’t pillage the environment to create extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Literally, if everybody was like us, the world, and the planet, would be a safer, kinder place.

But this mindset also meant we were unprepared for the modern world, one mostly of zero-sum economic games that the more motivated, no-return-ticket migrant population tends to win. Our culture, not our brain or brawn, held us back.

It holds us back still. The laissez-faire attitude of the early national leaders, including, and perhaps especially, Tunku Abdul Rahman, our first prime minister, didn’t help at all.

The attitude back then manifested itself as “let the Malays keep political control, whilst the Chinese keep the economy” mantra. It simplistically assumed that both sides would be happy with it forever.

The Malay leaders of those days were the hereditary elite of the Malay society – the nobility and the royalty of a very feudal society. Whilst they were less corrupt and rapacious given their inherited wealth and power, they were also disconnected from the real world the Malays lived in.

There was growing resentment amongst the Malays seeing the increasing wealth disparity. And no, in spite of whatever modern invocation of how life was back then, it wasn’t all hunky dory with every race living harmoniously with each other, except perhaps for the English-educated urbanites.

The majority of the Malays then lived in the vast neglected rural hinterlands and under difficult circumstances, where most were born poor and died poor too.

Even I, born in Penang, grew up with no electricity or running water, whereas minutes down the road was the most prosperous city of Malaya. But it might as well be on the moon for many of us in the kampungs. Imagine then the lot of the Malays in the deepest parts of Kelantan or Kedah.

Much of this resentment was what sparked the tragedy of 1969, aided and abetted, as always, by opportunistic politicians. But whilst these politicians provided the sparks, there was plenty of fuel already on the ground.

You can easily say if the Malays can’t play the modern economic game, then tough luck, stay poor and wretched, then. But this assumes the powerless will remain subservient forever and will not rise up and upend things, perhaps violently.

We’ve seen such upendings happen elsewhere, especially in Africa and South America. Nothing good ever comes out of this. So, leaving things be was never a good option. Hence the NEP.

Much of the NEP provisions were necessary – quotas, allocations, subsidies, discounts etc. Affirmative actions are after all discriminations meant to bring about positive changes for all of society.

The fact that it had an end date – 1990 – showed the framers of the policy understood the need to wean away from it at some point. Whilst not everybody was happy, the country by and large accepted it as a necessary, albeit temporary, inconvenience.

But it didn’t take long for the NEP to become corrupted and, over time, weaponised as a political tool. It soon became a big stick used to bludgeon others on the way towards illegitimate power and riches.

It created a culture that focused too much on rights rather than responsibilities, on blaming others rather than accepting accountability.

That’s how we went from a relatively mild, manageable “Mr. Ten Percent” level of corruption to “Everything On The Table, Including Half the Postcode The Table is located on” level of today.

Back to today – do we need a Bumiputera economic agenda? We certainly do. After decades of independence and almost total political power – the lot of the typical Malay or Bumiputera, whilst better, hasn’t improved as much as it should and could have.

The fact we haven’t reached our goals in spite of billions, and likely trillions, of ringgit spent on us means something somewhere has gone wrong. It means we must start looking at it from a new angle and with more humility and less arrogance and fear.

The Malays are like the oldest son in this Malaysian “family”. Our parents are the political leaders who call the shots, and who are overwhelmingly Malays too. The Chinese and Indians, who are non-Bumiputeras, are the younger siblings.

Being the eldest, and hence the biggest and strongest sibling, however, has only turned us into bullies. We don’t bring in enough income to take care of our family, or even ourselves. We insist instead on our rights to the ever-diminishing wealth of our “parents” – the country of Malaysia – and the wealth brought in by our younger siblings.

Whilst we are 70% of the siblings, we are not 70% of the family’s income, though we are certainly more than 70% of the family’s expenses.

This is just not sustainable. The parents are running out of wealth to cater for the increasing appetite of the eldest sibling. The younger siblings who are giving more than what they are getting from the family are also getting increasingly restless and frustrated.



The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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