Commentary Economics

Empowering out of affirmative action trap

By Salahuddin Hisham

DURING a Sunday breakfast conversation with an old boarding school chum, Ali entered the subject of expensive tuition at private colleges.

His story was that while his child had good results, he could not secure a place to do medicine and had to settle for another course at a private institution.

Ali blamed his senior government position that put him at a disadvantaged, middle-class situation – not poor enough to be given special consideration into a public university and not financially strong enough to afford the fees at a private medical school.

The character Alfred Doolittle in the classic musical My Fair Lady complained that social upliftment placed him in a middle class morality trap while our New Economic Policy  uplifted Ali socially through access to education but placing him in a middle-class financial trap.

Educational grouse is a populist political issue raised by the opposition but wanting to change the current government on this premise would be similar to changing horses in midstream. It comes at a time when the government is midstream into the National Transformation Programme, which is the manifestation of the cry for change one has been hearing since 2003.

Pro-government supporters argue that changing the government for the opposition could lead to chaos because they don’t see a clear policy direction between the conflicting ideologies of DAP, PKR, PAN and PPBM, together with PAS thrown in.

If Pribumi Bersatu can convince its Pakatan Harapan partners into reverting to past policies, it will basically be a return to policies that critics of the NEP described as perpetuating a feudal dependent mentality among Bumiputras which merely enriched the ruling elite.

It may not address the economic supply and demand realities of education for the Bumiputras.

It is unreasonable to provide university entries and scholarships to all presumably qualified Bumiputras. Lowering qualification levels to the minimal requirements of the 1970s to 80s will be like opening the flood gates.

Past educational policies are inextricably linked to policies to attract job-creating foreign direct investments (FDI) by maintaining low wages and spending on subsidies to keep the cost of living low.

The affirmative action-subsidy model was popular enough to enable past administrations to perpetually secure the two-third majority in the general elections for 22 years. However, it neither achieved significant wealth creation among Bumiputras nor the economic efficiency of the Asian economic tigers.

The abuse of the NEP to enrich the Malay ruling elite and its political expediency made Bumiputras more dependent on politics and the government for a living. As a result, Malay malaise and the widespread indifference to raise competency in education, employment and economy lingers on.

By the time Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamed left office, Malaysia was heading towards a middle income trap nation – wages rising and no more competitive as a low cost producer but an economy structure not in place to move up the ladder.

There is no other option left but to restructure both the economy and public finances.  The oil market crash and tightening of the fiscal position only made the NTP more critical for the country’s survival.

NTP has its weakness and part of it is poor understanding of the social impact to the common folk.  Nevertheless, political expediency should not divert necessary nation building agenda to strengthen the fundamentals of the country.

It is a painful process to correct past mistakes. The hundreds of billions wasted to leakages, bailouts and unfocused subsidies cannot be reversed.

The likes of Ali, who is approaching retirement, will have to swallow the bitter pill before the structural transformation could be widely beneficial and the FDIs make Malaysia a high income and high productivity economy.  

Despite the few shortcomings in policy implementation, the philosophy behind government policies towards empowerment is in the right direction. Malaysia cannot continue to live in denial of market forces and global economic trends.

In his 2008 book, Empowerment, participation and social work, Robert Adams provides a minimal definition:

‘Empowerment: the capacity of individuals, groups and/or communities to take control of their circumstances, exercise power and achieve their own goals, and the process by which, individually and collectively, they are able to help themselves and others to maximize the quality of their lives.’

Often is said of political empowerment as a tool to increase the responsibility and participation of the people and voters in government. No more is the thinking that government knows all.

Social change is moving public psyche away from past attitude to obey and remain loyal to government towards more critical assessment of public policies. Public is applying pressure through their voices against unpopular policies that it is often heard of new policies planned to be introduced get cancelled. 

Women empowerment movements have been around in the West since the 1960s.

It was to enable them to participate fully in economic life and reduce the gender gap. Empowered women essentially build stronger economies, sustainable development, and improvement in the quality of life for women, men, families and communities.

Economic empowerment of Bumiputera does not arise out of their need for change but to imbue within themselves to change and take the difficult path to be economically independent.

Policy measures should be towards increasing the degree of economic autonomy and self determination in the people and in communities. That way, it allows them to take more responsibility and have more self-determination in taking charge of their economic interests.

The original intention of NEP was an empowerment process by Government to provide basic opportunities to the marginalised directly and actively thwarting attempts to deny them opportunities.

In today’s perspective, empowerment process has changed to the need for access to market and capital, leveling of the playing field, and breaking up of monopolies and oligopolies, barriers to entry and exclusivity to social class.

It far surpasses the need for affirmative action policies. More meaningful progress for Bumiputera will be achieved through policies to encourage, and develop the skills for self-sufficiency than continual provision of charity and welfare.

The process of self-empowerment by government empowerment policies together with support of Bumiputra professionals, activists and self-help NGOs should be to enable the Bumiputra community to overcome their sense of powerlessness, and economic insecurities to recognise and use their ability and resources.

It should no more be policies of giving fish to put food on the table, and beyond how to fish, but enabling policies for self initiative to farm fish, identifying new fish species, creating fish products, opening new market or even exporting abroad, and exploring into high technology aquaculture.

This process can be difficult to start and to implement effectively but it must be done. The world will not wait.

The continual dependent on government for education, and livelihood is financially unrealistic and wasted resources. There is a need to progressively move out of this affirmative action-subsidy trap more towards empowerment.    

Off course, the politics of an empowered population will be different, but it will be more mature, positive and productive.

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