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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #105

Chapter 15: Examining Past Policies

NEP and Quotas


A prominent feature of NEP was the aggressive use of quotas. Prior to NEP, Malays enjoyed “special privileges” in terms of scholarships and quotas in the civil service. The problem with that initiative was the rewards were at the end. You would have to have attended good schools in order to get good grades in order to qualify for the scholarships. Similarly, you would have to graduate from university before you could be preferentially considered for the civil service. The critical point was that most Malays attended ill-equipped village schools, so few could qualify for these scholarships, and even fewer still could be recruited into the civil service. The blockage was way further upstream.

Tun Razak recognized this deficiency. With his NEP he expanded quotas for university admissions so those Malays who attended ill-equipped rural schools could stand a chance at entering universities. In the decade before NEP, over 80 percent of the undergraduates at the University of Malaya came from just seven or eight urban schools.

He went further and expanded opportunities for rural pupils by building many new, especially residential, schools. He provided another portal of entry for students from Malay primary schools to enter the English stream through a year of total English immersion in “Remove” classes. The residential schools were particularly helpful as they enabled poor rural Malay pupils to escape their home environment of poverty and lack of intellectual stimulation.

Consequently, the first half of the NEP (1970–80) saw the greatest improvement. This was most visible on campuses. Whereas in the 1960s the students, being mostly non-Malays from urban areas, were aping the latest Western fashions and tuning into the latest hit parade, by the late 1970s the scene was decidedly different. They were now mostly Malays from rural areas, and instead of jeans and blouses hanging out of their dorm windows, we had sarongs and kebayas. Instead of the campus being blasted by the blaring of jukeboxes, there were the serene calls of the Azzan.

There were changes in the faculty too. Whereas before the science, medical, and engineering faculties were the exclusive preserve of non-Malays, and their attitude and behaviors reinforced that conceit, now a few Malay faces began appearing.

By the second half, NEP began losing its efficacy. In part this was due to the very success of the program. Whereas in the 1960s and 70s, being a Malay was a good surrogate indicator of underprivileged status (meaning, being poor and lacking opportunities), by the 1980s a substantial proportion had successfully entered the middle class, and some, the upper class. In 1960, if a Malay student were given a scholarship, there was better than 90 percent probability that he or she was poor, the first in the family to go to college, and would not have been able to do so if not for the scholarship. Race was a reliable indicator of need.

By 1990s, with the burgeoning Malay middle class, if you pick any Malay student qualified to enter university, the probability that he or she would be from a poor family and the first to go to college would have dropped to below 50 percent. Yet race continued to be the only criterion on conferring these privileges. Consequently, those Malays who had succeeded through the NEP were now crowding out the truly needy. The residential schools, once filled with children who would potentially be the first in their family to go to university, were now enrolling mainly children of graduates and the affluent. These parents would now claim that meritocracy should prevail, and that those poor Malay children should not get any preferential treatment!

Had the government not catered to those emerging Malay middle and upper classes and instead focused on the poor and truly needy, the benefits of these expanded educational and other opportunities on the Malay community would have been that much greater. Had the quotas and other preferential elements been more selectively doled out to factor in the element of need, the program would suffer less leakage and be considerably enhanced. More Malays would have benefited; more importantly, it would also not arouse the resentment of non-Malays.

With many children of “big shots” and the powerful benefiting from these quotas, the mentality quickly developed that these privileges were now a right by virtue of their being Malays. Instead of being embarrassed at receiving what essentially was government dole, there arose a culture of entitlement. Ministers and top officials were openly bragging about their children getting government “scholarships” without any hint of embarrassment when they should rightly be ashamed of themselves. Soon the entire Malay community developed the same mentality. It would be extremely difficult now to eradicate this subsidy mentality as it is already entrenched.

Quotas in civil service recruitment too were corrupted. As the entry requirement was relatively modest (any degree would do), and with many more Malays now graduating, family and social connections became the overriding factor, not ability. Again, those who were the first in their family to enter university would lose out to the children of the middle and upper class as the latter already had connections in the establishment.

The program to develop a Bumiputra Industrial and Commercial Class (BICC) too became corrupted and prostituted in its own unique ways. Instead of truly nurturing budding entrepreneurs, the program quickly degenerated into a massive political patronage system. Malays, no matter how enterprising and qualified, could never benefit from any of those programs unless they actively supported UMNO. Active support means just that, the loot must be shared with UMNO operatives, resulting in increased operating costs and other burdens.

The same pattern is seen in academia, GLCs, and other governmental agencies. For a Malay to be promoted, he or she must actively support UMNO. Thus emerged a “supra special” privileged class among Malays, the so-called UMNOPutras.

Such leakages occur in any system. With Malaysia however, the scale is massive and unprecedented, and at a time when the nation could ill afford such inefficiencies and leakages.

These weaknesses of the NEP remain uncorrected; they are continued and aggravated with the New Development Policy (NDP), and other successor programs. These latter programs, with their more expansive reach and much more expensive price tag, satisfy those who measure success only by the amount of money expended.


Next: Enhancing the NEP

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