February 7, 2018
By Salahuddin Hisham
AFTER graduation and starting work in the early 80s, we had a group of friends that met regularly to discuss the Malay question and brainstorm initiatives.
It was usually Friday after work at the then popular Hilton corner hawker centre behind Jalan Sultan Ismail in Kuala Lumpur’s golden triangle .
On one Friday, a bank officer from Perwira Habib Bank (now Affin Bank) joined in. He listened attentively to the conversation without uttering a word. Then he popped up a view that the Malay struggle needed to change with the times.
The early struggle was for independence, then to attain development and economic progress, and the time will come when each Malay will be out for their own.
It turned out true as each of us went on to pursue our endeavours.
Nevertheless, the bank officer’s view is relevant today in understanding the dissatisfaction among certain segments of the Malays towards current government.
The issues raised by these contemporary Malays on rising cost of living, graduate unemployment, driving Uber and selling Nasi Lemak, GST and so on, are not quite contemporary, but indicative of their failure to adapt to the transition towards a developed nation status.
Unlike the days of the New Economic Policy (NEP), opportunities are now no longer largely exclusive to the Malays and the competition is intense.
Today, barriers are crumbling in the increasingly borderless world. Malaysia had to embrace globalisation, dismantle protection, and accept the expectations of an open economy and free market.
GLCs, which were safe havens for the Malay private sector employment, are forced to adopt corporate best practices and be cost efficient.
Despite the challenges, Malaysia is still blessed.
Our strategic location and foreign policies successfully attracted FDIs like never before. That in itself presents its own set of challenges to the protected and complacent among the Malay middle class.
The NEP was a national agenda to create and open opportunities in education, management and professional employment, business, and entrepreneurship to the Bumiputera.
The products of the NEP were supposed to be independent, self-sustainable and confident, but instead, the were the spoilt ones who were still lamenting over GLCs not giving employment priorities to Malay graduates, or reputable Malay managers given the boot and replaced by younger, less experienced, and Chinese or non-Malay employees.
Adding to their insecurity was the long-held belief that local Chinese companies were discriminating the Malays.
The complaints might be genuine but the real reasons ran deeper and beyond the dynamics of each of the issues raised.
It is more that Malaysians are still learning to cope with the realities of a maturing economy and a business-driven corporate culture.
The stark reality is that the segment of the Malays raising the sentiment-driven, politically-motivated, and poorly-articulated issues tend to be the urban middle class group of M40.
The Malay M40 are generally urban and the beneficiaries of the NEP.
The latter batches had opportunities to enter top British and American Ivy League universities. Already in their mid-40s to early 50s, they achieved greater success than the earlier batches to reach the top in GLCs.
Despite the success, the M40 retired into complacency. They became more dependent on the government to the point of having unrealistic expectations on the role of government.
The changing environment from the reform of public finance came as a rude shock to the M40. The encroachment into their comfort zone angered them.
Ironically, the lower 40 per cent income class or the B40 group is more in need of government attention, but accessibility limitation made them less reliant on government.
The help that reached them only made them grateful.
Mahathirism, it was apparent, had a lot to do with this.
The dependency mentality can only be attributed to the policies of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He diverted the NEP launched by Tun Abdul Razak in 1970 from its original objective.
From the emphasis on poverty eradication, which was then acceptable to the non-Malays, Dr Mahathir took it beyond the constitutional special rights to a non-organic and fast track wealth creation path.
Dr Mahathir made instant millionaires and corporate leaders among the Malays. He enlarged the size of the Malay middle class to reduce potential class conflicts.
However, he manipulated the policies to perpetuate a feudal dependency culture. He made them complacent to resign their fate to him in solving all their woes.
He did it so well that it became a burden to him so much so, he lambasted the middle class at one of the Umno General Assembly for having the “tongkat” (crutches) dependency.
Ironically today he is seizing on their dissatisfaction and reaching to them to help his political comeback.
These are the lot that are romanticising for a return to the Mahathir days and who fell for the visual but artificial success of his policies.
To use the term by a Bank CEO, NEP was “bastardised” for political purposes and through the various challenges to his 22-year leadership.
True enough, the Malay corporate leaders he supposedly created for Malay economic leadership in the private sector were removed to contain a political rebellion from simmering.
The Mahathir romantics may not realise that a return to NEP is not feasible and practically impossible.
For one, the Malays lost their political dominance due to series of political turmoil attributed to Dr Mahathir.
Secondly, it is a different era, global condition and social environment. It is regressive to return back to the Mahathir era when the country has adopted more openness under the premierhsipm of Datuk Seri Najib Razak who has given leeway to civil liberties.
Lastly, the Malays blew their chance. There is no more credible justification to revive NEP. It was not meant to make the Malays continually dependent till the next generation.
Reverting to the old ways of Mahathirism will only lead to a national disaster more devastating than the former prime minister’s long list of failed economic ventures.
Dr Mahathir was a constant barrier in preparing the country for the challenges of globalisation and the knowledge economy. Industrial Revolution 4.0 will be more challenging and the country should not be detoured from plans for OBOR (One Belt One Road) and the digital economy.
For the Malays, the practical solution is for each and every Malay to better and develop themselves, their family and the smaller community unit.
The Malays should stop wasting time discussing their problems and focus on the effort to overcome their problems.
If it is too simplistic a solution, consider that it was the view of a member of the Friday group, who today is a successful CEO of a public-listed company.