Chapter Six: Malaysia: Assets and Liabilities
The Barnacles of Special Privileges
Malaysia’s affirmative action programs can be viewed in one of two ways. One, they were designed to ameliorate the deteriorating socioeconomic status of Bumiputras; and two, they are part and parcel of the inherent rights of Bumiputras consequent to their being the indigenous people of the country. With the first, the primary objective is to enhance Bumiputras’ competitiveness so they could compete effectively not only with non-Bumiputras but also the rest of the world. The program’s effectiveness could thus be objectively evaluated by this ready criterion.
The second premise views these privileges as essentially being part of our heritage. It is a right. There is nothing to assess; the program would be permanent. Whether such privileges are boon or bane depends on how they are administered and on the recipients. Native American Indians have many privileges not afforded to ordinary Americans (sovereignty of their reservations, free education, tax free status, etc.), but they still remain far behind. They have become essentially wards of the state; their initiative and industry sucked dry out of them.
Non-Bumiputras regard such preferential policies as quotas favoring Bumiputras for university admissions and government jobs as acts of discrimination. I disagree. There is a qualitative difference between active discrimination and affirmative action. For without affirmative policies favoring the disadvantaged, they will continue to be left behind. There cannot be social harmony if a significant segment of the population feels disenfranchised and marginalized, in perception or reality.
America has remarkably peaceful race relations because members of the minority feel that they are included in the American dream. Blacks today feel less threatened even though they are disproportionately overrepresented in the underclass because there are enough of them in the corporate offices, professional suites, and legislative bodies to give hope for the rest. That has not always been the case. There was a time when young Blacks aspired to be members of the Black Panthers and other rebellious movements because they felt that the American dream was beyond their reach. Today’s young Blacks however, are busy working hard to excel in sports, politics, and entertainment because that is where the rewards are. Today, nobody cares about the Black Panthers anymore, least of all young Blacks.
In contrast, the Philippines (a nation that unabashedly apes everything American) experiences considerable difficulty with its Muslim minority. Muslims constitute about 15 percent of the population, comparable to Blacks in America. While there are many Black American cabinet members and ambassadors, there are no Filipino Muslims in comparable positions in Filipino political life. No wonder that country has continuing secessionist problems with its predominantly Muslims provinces. Sadly, this obvious observation has yet to dawn on even the most enlightened Filipino leaders.
Likewise in Northern Ireland; the Catholic minority feels shunted. They are not being adequately represented in the political and social elite. It matters not whether those perceptions are real or not. Until the Catholics are made to feel as if they have as much chance as an Orangeman, there will never be peace. Catholics in America on the other hand bear no particular animus on the Protestants. Both groups have an equal shot at the American dream.
It is not enough to just say give the disadvantage equal opportunities to succeed. While we cannot and should not guarantee equal results, nonetheless we must make sure that the results must also be seen to be comparable. Continually complaining that the disadvantaged have been given ample opportunities is not enough if that is not reflected in the subsequent results. For if the results are not there, then we must reexamine our premises to make sure that the opportunities are indeed equal and that there are no subtle obstacles.
We must be mindful that opportunities may not be viewed as such by the disadvantaged. America has the ABC (A Better Choice) program started by generous philanthropists whereby bright Black students from the ghetto are given scholarships to attend exclusive boarding schools. For the most part it has been remarkably successful, but there are failures. To some, the chance to go to Exeter is viewed not as an opportunity but a huge cultural barrier.
I am reminded of the days of British rule when they kept harping on that everyone was treated equally. They claimed that educational opportunities were equal and that their schools were open to all. In truth the opportunities were never the same. Those schools were in major towns while Malays were in rural areas. Malays attending those schools incurred significant additional expenses not faced by city pupils. For example, my parents’ biggest single item of school expenditure was for bus fares. Town children were spared such costs. Thus when opportunities are apparently equal and the results are not, then we should reexamine the premise to ensure that the equality in opportunities is indeed real and not illusory.
The American jurist Felix Frankfurter once wrote, “It is a wise man who said that there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.” The British should have been cognizant of this barrier faced by rural Malay students and provided free bus transportation, just like they do in America. Only then could they claim that the opportunities were equal. Indeed that would be the only just way. In Islam, the emphasis is not on equality, rather justice and justness.
If the current debate on special privileges were framed along the question of justice and not equality, we would elevate considerably the quality of such discourses and at the same time lessen the animosities generated. More importantly, such approaches would lead to enhancement of the program.
We must also be mindful of the reverse. That is, the “help” given by the government can sometimes be more hindrance. In the American west when someone says, “I am from the government, and I am here to help you!” the farmers and ranchers would flee to the hills, their hands tight on their wallets. Much of what passes for government “help” in Malaysia is nothing more than numbing narcotics to ease the pain of Bumiputras. Those schemes do not prepare them for the global realities; instead they insulate them. Malay entrepreneurs “helped” by the government still remained hopelessly dependent on the dole decades later.
After a generation of special privileges, I am convinced that they are now more hindrance than help. If current programs are not modified, they will remain as barnacles, impeding the progress of Malays and other Bumiputras, and with that, also of Malaysia. These privileges will suck out the life and initiative out of Bumiputras. Ending special privileges is not a political reality. Besides, it would be too socially disruptive. Doing so would only distract the nation away from development and into endless divisive debates.
Instead the emphasis should be to use special privileges to enhance Bumiputras’ competitiveness. By doing so we would be better able to track the program’s efficacy or lack thereof.
Next: Enhancing Special Privileges