Sep 20, 2013
QUESTION TIME The recent RM30 billion package (although I am not sure how it works out to that) for bumiputera economic empowerment is certainly not something that will help or have any kind of impact on the vast majority of bumiputeras who form 67 percent of the population.
Just think of that figure for a moment. Nearly seven out of ten people in the country are bumiputeras. Help everyone in the country who needs it and you help the bumiputera community the most. More on that later.
Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s plans to economically empower bumiputeras will not help the ordinary bumiputera because he is not the one who owns shares, or will become a major entrepreneur, or live off government contracts. That affects only the rich bumiputeras.
Realistically, the economic empowerment programme is a thinly disguised ruse to help those who continue to live off the government through patronage and corruption. And in this case this is the Umno elite and many of them are likely to be among the 150,000 delegates who will vote in Umno’s forthcoming general assembly.
It’s another form of vote buying.
So what will help ALL bumiputeras and especially those who are in the poor and middle classes and thereby help bridge the income gap between bumiputeras on the one side and Chinese and Indians on the other?
For that, you simply go back to the basics. Here are are 10 things we can identify immediately. If the government had been doing this without respite and full sincerity for the last 56 years from independence we would long ago have become a developed a country, even far surpassing that of our southern neighbour Singapore which has no natural resources to speak of.
1. Raise school education levels
In the haste to increase Malay usage and hire more Malay teachers into the education system after 1970, educational quality dropped in national schools. Until today this is a major problem because of poor quality of teachers (entry standards were foolishly dropped) and lowering examination standards to favour bumiputera students.
It will require much more than the national education blueprint, a document laced with political considerations. Education has to be de-politicised, secularised and its syllabus reoriented to modern needs.
And this has to be done by true educationists, not nationalists who tend to be blinkered because of their political overzealousness and who think of education as brainwashing instead of a development process. Education needs to be taken out of the hands of politicians.
This is crucial for bumiputera development. If they don’t get good education right from the start – and that includes preschool – then they are going to be handicapped relative to the rest because most bumiputeras go to national schools. National schools must be at least as good as vernacular schools. That would also mean that non-Malays will start coming back to national schools.
Education is such an important thing to improve incomes that it covers several of our other points. No country has managed to improve and equalise incomes without a superb education system. Putting as much resources as possible into this is vital.
2. Revamp higher education
The entire education system must be revamped to put meritocracy and higher educational standards in place. If bumiputera students lack minimum standards, you must enable them to reach those standards through tuition and other means and not drop minimum standards. Only then will bumiputera students take the trouble to be on par.
Genetic studies have shown beyond doubt that no race is superior in terms of intelligence which implies that attitude and environment is all important.
There is really no point in government universities churning out graduates in the thousands if they don’t have the basic skills to be employable.
3. Don’t compromise on education quality and standards
In education as in life, one cannot aim for equalisation of outcomes – you can only hope to equalise opportunities. Then it is up to those given the opportunity to make use of it. If results are adjusted to sort of equalise the eventual outcome, inefficiency and incompetence will be the result.
If our programme of eradicating poverty and eliminating the identification of race with economic function – the original and oft-forgotten twin pillars of the New Economic Policy of 1971 – was premised on these methods, we would most likely have been able to bring about the change in attitude necessary to produce better outcomes. Instead spoon-feeding has needlessly lengthened dependence.
4. Empower bumiputeras with English
Sometime back, I witnessed the unhappy spectacle of a young, suave, urbane, Malay Oxford graduate defending the move by the government to revert to teaching of science and maths in English who swore blue that evidence is that teaching these subjects in the mother tongue made it easier for them to understand them. I told him that in his case – he was the son of a diplomat, I believe, and educated all over the world – it did not seem to have done him much harm.
That young man is Khairy Jamaluddin, son-in-law of former prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and current Umno Youth chief. I just cannot understand the attitude of people who have benefited so much from the English language and yet who are so keen to deny this benefit to millions of others from their own race. Does being a politician blind them to what is good for their own race? Or is it something else that motivates them?
5. Cut corruption
If the government wants to reduce income gaps, then it must cut corruption, bring it down to virtually zero. Look where it got Singapore to. Just one illustration will be sufficient for this. Let’s say our chief ministers were corrupt. Then this land proposal comes up – one of them de-gazettes forest reserves, allocates the land to a developer and then approves the conversion for mixed development.
The chief minister, who may be bumiputera, will get, oh, let’s say anywhere between RM1 million and RM10 million. And the developer, most likely non-bumiputera, will make anywhere between a RM100 million and RM1 billion from the deal. A precious state resource is sold way below its value and the income gap between the bumiputera and non-bumiputera is considerably widened – because of corruption.
And to make it worse, this bumiputera chief minister may well go out on his political rounds and talk self righteously to rallies and such and rail against the wide gap between bumiputera and non-bumiputera incomes!
This is just by way of illustration of course, the point being corruption when analysed and tracked almost always increases income gaps..
6. Cut subsidies and import taxes
One of the myths is that the poor are helped considerably by subsidies on say fuel and electricity. That’s wrong because the poor don’t use much of this. The rich and industries use much more of this than the poor. The clear implication is that subsidies while helping the poor, help the rich much more.
What should be done in tandem with subsidy cuts is to cut or remove import taxes altogether so that the prices of goods come down and local industries (such as cars for instance) are not protected by tariffs which make their product prices higher. This is a policy which will help the poor but since probably more than 70 percent of them are likely to be bumiputera, they will be the prime beneficiaries.
7. Have open tenders
Contrary to popular belief negotiated tenders are not likely to benefit bumiputeras – instead they are likely to benefit connected bumiputeras through patronage. Best to have an open tender. If it is deemed necessary to give bumiputeras an advantage, then this can be done via a price differential, say 5 percent.
That does two things – one, bumiputera pricing is not way out of line with the others, and two it still does give a preference to bumiputeras but a quantified one.
8. Use all resources available
Any wise country will use all the resources available to it and not restrict it to a particular race. It is important to staff government departments on merit to ensure proper performance and to cast the net for recruitment as far and as wide as possible.
The rush and needless urgency to put more Malays into the education system ahead of time resulted in a huge and rapid decline in the quality of education as entry standards for teachers were lowered. This directly affected most the quality of national schools which most bumiputeras attended.
9. Raise government efficiency
There is one imperative for raising efficiency – those who are not efficient must be made efficient or removed altogether. Government departments cannot be made refuge for idlers and shirkers. They must earn their income and to do their part for the betterment of the nation – we can’t afford a subsidy mentality in government.
Once that is established, we must put in all effort needed to make our government services really top class and one that facilitates rather than hinders all legitimate private efforts to initiate economic and other activity.
10. Give loans, not grants
Najib’s bumiputera empowerment programme even envisages grants for entrepreneurs. That’s absolutely the wrong move which is sure to encourage abuse and breach of trust. Instead grant loans instead. That way only those confident of their projects will seek them. And the repayment of these loans will ensure that financing is available for future generations.
The same should be the case for scholarships. Limited number of merit scholarships are fine but it is pointless extending scholarships in the thousands indiscriminately. What is given free is seldom appreciated. Instead, these can be loans which will have to be repaid and which will then enable others to take advantage of opportunities in future.
These measures are not anywhere near rocket science and I trust most Malaysians will agree with them. But unless politicians eschew race politics and become really and genuinely interested in helping their communities, things are not likely to change.
I wish these politicians had the “scrotal gumption” (to borrow the words of retired judge Mahadev Shankar) to put aside politics and do the best for their own race. In the process, they can’t help but do well for all Malaysians too as all these 10 measures will help all of them no matter their race, religion, creed or social status.
With seven out of 10 people in the country being bumiputeras and perhaps more in the lower income category, Isn’t it about time we moved to a Malaysian agenda? Even if it is 56 years too late?
P GUNASEGARAM is the founding editor of KiniBiz.