Why needs-based affirmative action makes no sense

By Lee Hwok Aun
June 01, 2011 | The Malaysian Insider

JUNE 1 — We commonly hear these days that Malaysia should shift from a race-based affirmative action (AA) to needs-based affirmative action. Pakatan Rakyat started advocating this; Barisan Nasional followed.

The idea seems too nice, constructive, and harmonious to criticise. Both political alliances believe they have found a formula that can gain popular support and shift us away from the testy and rancorous debates over race-based AA and the New Economic Policy.

Unfortunately, needs-based affirmative action makes no sense, much as even I want to believe in it. The notion is, at best, imprecise and partial; at worst, incoherent and delusional.

The idea that we can replace race-based affirmative action with needs-based affirmative is deeply flawed on both conceptual and practical grounds.

Let’s first establish a common understanding that policy-making follows a sequence, from setting objectives to evaluating options toward attaining those objectives, then selecting the most appropriate and effective policies. This order of things will be widely accepted, but is rather elusive in our thinking on affirmative action, where objectives and policies tend to be muddled.

At the conceptual level, affirmative action has a specific objective: to increase the participation of a disadvantaged group, in Malaysia’s case a race group, in positions that confer social esteem and economic influence — tertiary education, high-level occupations, asset ownership.

The framers of the NEP got it right in setting out the policy’s two prongs: (1) to eradicate poverty irrespective of race; (2) to accelerate the restructuring of society to reduce and eventually eliminate the identification of race with economic function. The second prong corresponds with affirmative action. Bumiputeras were overwhelmingly under-represented in the ranks of university graduates, managers and professionals, and equity owners.

Affirmative action is principally not about poverty alleviation or needs-based distribution. At root, it aims to empower a disadvantaged group through elevating individuals from that group to positions in the upper rungs of the educational and occupational ladders.

Helping the poor and redistributing income through progressive socio-economic programmes in general, addresses more basic provisions and derives in a fairly straightforward manner from the principle of need.

The question does arise, why not target the poor, since most of the poor are Bumiputera anyway? This line of thought is appealing, but acutely misguided. Targeting the poor purely on socio-economic grounds surely helps the Bumiputera poor, such as through improving public schooling, infrastructure, and boosting rural economies. However, do these address the problem of Bumiputera access to and attainment of tertiary education and upper-level occupations? Not really.

If poverty is the primary problem, then pro-poor policies are the direct solutions. But where group under-representation is the primary problem, other solutions are called for. There is undoubtedly some overlap. For instance, fixing schools in poor regions would augment prospects for youth to enter university and move up the occupational ladder. This is possible, but only indirectly and slowly.

At the risk of redundancy, but in view of the difficulty in registering this point, let me reiterate: The problems that poverty alleviation and affirmative action attempt to solve are distinct; therefore, the policies must also be distinct. Again I must also stress the relationship: Needs-based considerations can reinforce, but not replace, race-based affirmative action. The two are complements, not substitutes.

That’s a hard truth on a “sensitive” subject. But let’s face is squarely.

Regrettably, we would rather replace the rhetoric, evade the sensitive part, and make believe we are replacing the system. If only we could. It’s odd, though, that we do this about affirmative action but not other policies. I do not hear anyone advocating an end to rural poverty programs and just doing general poverty alleviation.

A parallel argument could be made: Since most of the poor live in rural areas, do away with rural development. Just do income-targeted programmes and the rural poor will benefit disproportionately more. No, we do not apply this logic, because we recognize that rural poverty demands specific rural-based policies. And because the urban-rural divide, unlike the racial divide, is less sensitive.

But there’s an even harder truth: Affirmative action is inherently discriminatory. It confers preference toward a beneficiary group. The areas of intervention are characterized by structural barriers to entry — grade points for university admissions, tertiary-level qualifications for professional work, on-the-job experience for promotion to management.

Affirmative action is premised on the requirement that some degree of preference be accorded in favour of the disadvantaged group, who lack the requisite qualifications, past opportunities or work experience to compete on an equal footing. Over time, the preferential selection should diminish.

This is controversial, and agonisingly difficult to accomplish, yet I don’t know of a credible alternative. So it must be done, but it must be done productively, effectively and temporarily.

The case for AA is stronger in productive spheres, and weaker in areas potentially corrupted by acquisitive behaviour, such as equity and wealth ownership. Effective affirmative action demands focus on developing capability and self-reliance, especially through attaining tertiary education and accumulating work experience.

Again we are faced with realities that frame the basis of AA. For practical reasons, in addition to conceptual coherence explained above, affirmative action is executable primarily as a race based programme. Need-based considerations can reinforce AA, but to a limited extent.

For AA to be effective, we should select those within the beneficiary group who are most capable of coping with the challenges of upward mobility. The implications vary by sector. In education, the scope for giving preference to the poor is broader, and family background is a legitimate criterion for assessing young dependents’ admission to university.

However, while we want more youth from poor families to attain tertiary education, we must acknowledge that they are on average less equipped than middle- and upper-class kids to handle tertiary level study.

In employment, the scope of needs-based considerations is more limited, if not impossible. Needs-based AA in employment would entail employers granting preference in hiring and promoting professionals and managers on the basis of socio-economic background.

Such a scheme would consume an inordinate amount of resources to process an extra dollop of information — imagine employers having to verify and evaluate applicants’ parents’ income and assets to determine who’s poorer and should be given priority. It would also conflict with the principle that working adults are independent from their parents and responsible for themselves.

In other words, for the purpose of increasing Bumiputera representation in professional and management positions, the choice is simple: Either some form of race-based affirmative action, or no affirmative action.

So why are we entertaining the delusion that needs-based AA can replace race-based AA? Let me suggest three reasons.

First, as discussed above, race-based AA is a “sensitive” topic. We wish it away. It stays.

Second, race-based AA has become a blunt and abused instrument. Yes it has, which makes us further want to wish it away and focus on other instruments. But those other instruments (poverty alleviation) are fixing other problems (poverty).

We have ignored the core AA programmes — matriculation colleges, university admissions quotas, public sector employment — that are entrenched and unchanged (while somehow believing that AA is being reformed). Yet these are stifling Bumiputera advancement and diminishing the effectiveness of AA in recent times, and are the institutions in greatest need of real, gritty reform.

Third, we have mistaken the racialisation of anti-poverty measures as a form of affirmative action. We have come to think that the greater help extended to the Bumiputera poor over the Indian poor, to take a popular example, amounts to AA. Thus, to deracialise poverty alleviation is to reform AA.

Let’s not fall into such erroneous thinking. Where pro-poor schemes have become racialised, that’s because racial politics and power abuse undermined what are essentially race-blind programmes. Removing racial elements is not a reform of affirmative action; it is a repair job, a restoration of pro-poor policies to what they are supposed to be.

Make no mistake, I am not proposing that we maintain the status quo. Far from it, I am saying we must pay critical attention to neglected issues and ask tougher questions about the current AA regime.

For a start, put needs-based and race-based policies in their proper perspective. Needs-based poverty alleviation is conceptually and practically distinct from race-based affirmative action. Needs-based AA cannot replace race-based AA. However, we can and must reinforce AA, where pertinent, by incorporating socio-economic considerations prioritizing poor Bumiputera over well-to-do Bumiputera.

Next, we need to make race-based AA more effective. This begins by addressing shortcomings in the education system, especially the matriculation programmes and under-challenging environments that most Bumiputera graduates pass through. Beneficiaries must be imbued with self-confidence and a responsibility to excel because preference will be temporary, rather than unthinking loyalty to a party-state seeking permanent patronage.

This shift in attitude and educational content is necessary to lay the groundwork for negotiating a clear and steady plan for rolling back the current affirmative action regime and finding ways to balance the principles of diversity/multiculturalism, equity, and equal opportunity — which I believe we will continually need to safeguard. Right now we are either ignoring critical issues, or perpetuating a polarised stand-off, between those defending the privileged status quo without assessing the downside versus those demanding meritocracy without thinking of viability.

Of course, some will ask whether it is viable at all to transform affirmative action.

I don’t know. But I do know that we are still not asking the right questions.

* Lee Hwok Aun is a lecturer in the Department of Development Studies, Universiti Malaya.

  1. #1 by undertaker888 on Sunday, 5 June 2011 - 11:14 am

    Lee can debate until the cows come home, but doesn’t matter whether it is race based or need-based, if it is under umno and cohorts to implement it will not succeed. The root cause is their corrupted practices over the years. Every single funds allocated to alleviate the poor, they will pocket it. end of story.

    and the thieves are using every dirty tactics known to man to cover up their acts. race, religion, crusade Ali, ketuanan and other cra(p)s. mamak is the greatest pretender of all. The great bumi-pura pura.

  2. #2 by Bigjoe on Sunday, 5 June 2011 - 11:23 am

    His analysis is actually quite correct. BUT the whole piece is based on not asking the even harder question of whether ANY Affirmative Action program can achieve its highest ideals. The truth is while AA can be justified, its doomed NEVER to achieve its ideals. The very concept of AA being able to re-write so much wrongs of natural selection and human failings is simply arrogance. We have not solved climate change, we can’t solve the imperfection of human society and human failings.

    The realistic goals of AA that can be achieved is simply to prevent marginalisation and in the words of the author, “..to increase the participation of a disadvantaged group, in Malaysia’s case a race group, in positions that confer social esteem and economic influence — tertiary education, high-level occupations, asset ownership” – its done.

    If the goal is to achieve perfect equality up and done each race – dream on. fantasy. How far each race and group can get, can only be done based on the laws of natural selection – merit. One group will be better at something, other group at another. Its can never be truly the same. Its simply the laws of natural selection and the diversity of human race. There simply is no reason to be absolute – the communist taught us the lesson well at a high cost. Its not even good for us.

    We can’t pre-determined our future entirely. The future is too uncertain, we can only try and make things better always falling short of our ideals. What is important is there is room and things are not completely pre-fixed. What is important is keep the dynamism and changes going even if it means some groups have some distinct advantages for a long time, so long as they don’t have most of the distinct advantages most of the time.

    Yes, affirmative action based on need is actually simply socialism. But it does not mean it does not make sense. Our industries is not based on productivity but based on cost, we have very limited diversity of competitive enterprise. Those with capital and resource of power, not skills win disporportionately. Its undynamic, does not encourage enterprise, innovation and leadership. The only way to change that is to spread the dynamism, spread it to rural areas so that they will be encouraged to create more dynamism, take more and different risks and ideas.

    At least for now and while we can afford it, socialism make some sense. Its not AA, yes, but it still make sense.

  3. #3 by limkamput on Sunday, 5 June 2011 - 11:38 am

    Why write long and complicated story? First, ask what is NEP or AA for? Is it to make selective people rich or is it aimed at making the poor people less poor? I believe no public policy should try to make certain community rich. If you want to be rich, you have to struggle, work hard, be frugal and be smart. On the other hand, it is the business of the government to see that extreme poverty does not exist in our country. So programmes that make people less poor or provide opportunities for them to move up the social ladders should be emphasised, it does not matter it is race based or need based.

    Let me quote you with some specific examples:

    Million ringgit shares allocated to selected and privileged bumi is no go. Million ringgit shares allocated to PNB so that the benefits can be allocated to all PNB unit holders are okay. There should be cap on the maximum amount the rich can buy PNB unit trusts.

    Allowing handicaps for entry into universities for certain community is okay. But to lower the standard to pass them is not. We have seen too much of this nonsense and the consequence is the erosion of professional and ethical standards all round.

    Giving discount to certain community to buy terrace and low cost houses are okay, but giving discount to buy bungalows and commercial properties are not. If you want to stay in bungalow, you must work for it. Similarly, discounting commercial properties only gives arbitrage profits, not genuine promotion of businesses.

    Some subsidies by the government for the private industries to relocate to rural areas to create jobs there are okay. Similarly building roads, ensuring water and electricity supplies should continue. However, giving free laptops, building unused community halls, and set up poorly run community colleges are stupid.

    Civil service appointments must reflect the racial composition of the country at least for the time being. Otherwise, too many public policies are parochially made. Please don’t always argue the private sector is also discriminating. They don’t; if certain race is preferred, it is out of economic expediency.

  4. #4 by Loh on Sunday, 5 June 2011 - 12:34 pm

    ///The framers of the NEP got it right in setting out the policy’s two prongs: (1) to eradicate poverty irrespective of race; (2) to accelerate the restructuring of society to reduce and eventually eliminate the identification of race with economic function. The second prong corresponds with affirmative action. Bumiputeras were overwhelmingly under-represented in the ranks of university graduates, managers and professionals, and equity owners.///–LKA

    The motherhood statement was meant to justify why there was May 13 to hide the fact that it was a coup d’etat.

    Poverty came about because of the lack of ability to earn a decent living. The poor suffer. On compassionate ground the poor should be assisted, especially in modern age when the government can utilize taxation as a form of social transfer to alleviate the hardship of the poor. There is no need for a NEP which was intended to prevent a repeat of may 13.

    The elimination of identification of economic function with race was a government target which it chooses to jelly pick. At the time NEP was initiated, the distribution of civil servant by race had Malays dominate the service, at slightly above it share in population. After 40 years of NEP, Malays now formed 90% or more of the civil service.

    Equity ownership should have no relevance to the identification of race and economic functions since it is a reward for the success of business. Only the communists consider wealth distribution their social mission, and Malaysia is not a communist country. To distribute by race is racial communism. NEP has now been utilized to achieve racism and communism.

    Nobody is born equal. Affirmative actions in the west were needed to right the wrong of its racist policies in the past. Malaysia so-called affirmative action, such as the NEP was to introduce racial discrimination based on the excuse of some irrelevant statistics through parliamentary dictatorship.

    It has been said that Chinese owned such a huge percentage of the wealth in the country. As a Chinese the wealth owned by YTL or any other Chinese gives me no benefit but the curse that I have to suffer NEP. When Lee Kah Seng invests in Malaysia, and later chooses to buy a Malaysian citizenship, it would mean that NEP has to be further extended. The few rich Chinese are causing harms to the others. How I wish there is a law to make billionaire Chinese a Malay!

  5. #5 by Winston on Sunday, 5 June 2011 - 12:35 pm

    Race based, needs based or whatever based, what’s the difference!
    As long as the government is clean, willing to work for the good of the people and the country and fair to all – that’s what Malaysians want!!!
    And that’s the government we’ll put in place in the next GE!!!!

  6. #6 by tak tahan on Sunday, 5 June 2011 - 12:43 pm

    Yalah,based this and that shit..so confusing.Equal and fair policy in one for every Malaysia!End of story with good ending!

  7. #7 by HJ Angus on Sunday, 5 June 2011 - 8:51 pm

    Yes I agree the writer does not seem able to articulate his thoughts clearly.
    Somewhat like the ReCaptcha that is so irritating!

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