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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, January 09, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #39

Chapter 6: People: Our Most Precious Asset (Cont’d)

Shared Malaysian Identity

It was through Malaysian unity that enabled the nation to achieve its independence. It was the spirit of give and take, and of mutual understanding that enabled early leaders to pursue the common purpose of achieving independence. Even though their followers in the various communities did not necessarily share the same sentiments nonetheless these leaders led the way. Through personal deeds and words, those leaders convinced their followers that collaborations and compromises were sensible and fruitful.

I do not like the term integration in referring to diverse societies. That implies the forced or subtle acceptance by the minority of the norms and ethos of the majority. Integration is the American model, where immigrants willingly adopt the ways of the majority, to be “Americanized.” In the process they all but bury their original identity and heritage. Unstated, the ideal of integration is homogeneity.

I prefer the Malaysian model of shared ideals while maintaining our separate heritage and identity. To use a culinary metaphor, Americans opt for the melting pot, with all the ingredients blending into one stew. There is no mistaking that it is still an English stew—an Anglos Saxon ethos—with all the other ingredients merely adding flavor but not changing the overall taste, look, or form. Malaysians choose the mixed salad (rojak) model, where each ingredient retains its original look, identity and flavor, but combined they enhance the overall taste and presentation. There can be problems; too much onions and the overall flavor becomes pungent while too much black olives overwhelm the look and taste. There is no mistaking that it is still a salad mixture; the salad being the prime ingredient. This rojak model is well suited for a globalized world. The world can never be homogenous; we should maintain our separate racial, cultural, and national identities.

We all hold multiple identities simultaneously; we are Malaysians and at the same time an Iban or a Malay; Malaysian as well as global citizen; father and son; teacher and learner; and leader and follower.

With many new immigrants to America no longer coming from Europe, this melting pot model is increasingly stressed. America is becoming multicultural and moving however reluctantly towards the Malaysian mixed salad model. The Malaysian model of shared identity needs to be consciously and continuously nurtured; it cannot be taken for granted. There are too many conflicts and issues that could arise, and if left unattended would undermine peace and harmony. Seemingly minor issues could quickly become deeply polarizing.

This spirit of solidarity that led to merdeka was not nurtured in the years following. Leaders and followers alike thought that the goodwill and trust enjoyed in the struggle for independence would blossom on their own accord without further nurturing. For the lack of this nurturing, Malaysians gradually grew apart. The glaring economic inequities between the races, small to begin with, widened until it became a crisis point, further pushing the various communities apart.

That rude awakening triggered by the 1969 riot prompted Tun Razak to address the central issue of social and economic inequities. Prior to that, the prevailing attitude was that they were best solved through benign neglect; the government had no essential or effective role. Overall economic growth and the magic of capitalism would solve these problems, the rising tide lifting all boats. The government’s role was to ensure that the flow of this magical tide remained unimpeded.

This would be true in an open sea where all boats from huge cargo carriers to the smallest sampans were free and unfettered. In the limited confines of harbors and narrow waterways, the dynamics are very different. Big ships have to be regulated lest their wakes would swamp the smaller crafts. Small boats stuck beneath a bridge or tied to a short rode would be pulled under with a rising tide unless they are freed.

The socioeconomic dynamics in post-independent Malaysia resembled a harbor more than the open sea. As such, the rising tide of market capitalism favored the big ships and swamped the little prahus. What Malaysia had then was far from a true market economy, the open sea, rather a cartel operation in a closed economy, metaphorically a cloistered harbor.

At the top were the colonial corporations controlling the “commanding heights” of the economy—the major banks, insurance, plantations, mines, and transportation companies. The shares of the largest bus company at the time, the General Transportation Company with its distinctive green buses plying the streets of Kuala Lumpur, was traded at the London Stock Exchange. Such colonial companies enjoyed an effective monopoly because of their size and market control, as well as the residuum of colonial power.

What was left, the sundry mom and pop retails stores, the small construction and bus companies, were in the hands of non-Malays. They too imitated the colonial corporations in muscling their way and protecting their turf through their trade and clan organizations. The Indians had their usurious margins and obscenely lucrative small credit market cornered with their chettiar (money lending) outlets.

The economic environment of the1950s and 60s was anything but an efficient free market. The consequence was that, far from alleviating existing socioeconomic inequities, the system aggravated them. Far from stimulating growth, they inhibited it.

It took the genius of Tun Razak to recognize this. He sensed that government has a major role in ensuring that the rising tide should indeed lift all boats, not just in the ideal world but also in reality. For this to happen, the government must first ensure that the big cruisers must be held responsible for their dangerous wakes, and that they do not have a free rein in the harbor and interfere with the free movement of the other legitimate waterway users. The government must ensure that small boats are indeed free from constraints that would prevent them from rising with the tide, and that they too are free from the dangers of being swamped over by the big boats’ wakes.

Thus was born the New Economic Policy (NEP), a bold and imaginative social engineering experiment the likes of which Malaysia and the world has never seen before, or since. NEP’s principal mechanisms were the massive expansion of opportunities together with aggressive affirmative action programs.

The initial NEP was remarkably successful, at least in its first decade. The expansion of educational opportunities in particular was the hallmark as well as the secret of its success. Poverty rates among Malays plummeted, and the dangerous socioeconomic gaps separating them from non-Malays (horizontal inequality) narrowed dramatically. Malays began contributing their share to the economy, repaying the massive investments made on them. NEP’s initial success was also its undoing.

In the pre-NEP era, race was an accurate predictor of socioeconomic status. In my Sixth Form class of 35 students at Malay College in 1961, all received scholarships. Of these, less than half a dozen could afford university education without government help, meaning, the remaining 30 (nearly 90 percent) needed scholarship for them to continue their studies. In contrast, a study published in the late 1980s revealed that nearly 80 percent of scholarship recipients among Malays at the University of Malaya were from upper middle-income families. The predictive value of race as an indicator of need had dropped significantly. Equally noteworthy, a study by the eminent economist Ishak Shaari revealed that inequities within the Malay community widened—not narrowed—since 1990.

The first generation under NEP did well. Less certain is whether today the NEP (and its many progenies) is reaching those Malays who need the help most. Answering that requires more meticulous study. It would involve surveying the poorest Malay communities over a period of time. To date I have not seen any such studies. Indeed since the untimely death of Ishak Shaari, there have been very little credible studies on the impact of NEP. Nor does the government encourage such rigorous evaluations. There are a few sociological surveys like those by Shamsul A B and Norazit Selat, but theirs are heavy on the narratives and light on empirical data.

Nonetheless one can sense the degrading effect of poverty by visiting Malay villages in Kedah and Kelantan. The wrenching poverty so poignantly described in the classic novels of Shahnon Ahmad and Syed Othman Kelantan still persists. For those villagers, the NEP has bypassed them.

In the first decade of the NEP, improving the socioeconomic standing of Malays enhanced race relations. Today perversely, NEP’s various successor programs harden racial identities. Preferential polices are now used less to improve the lot of Malays or make them competitive but more as a symbol of Malay hegemony (Ketuanan Melayu). The policy further divides rather than brings Malaysians together. Later I will discuss ways to enhance NEP’s effectiveness and at the same time increase its acceptance by non-Bumiputras, or at least reduce their hostility towards it.

Unless this is done soon, we risk seeing a program that once enhanced race relations reduced to one that would aggravate it. That would be a cruel and dangerous irony.

Recent Phenomenon of Urban Poverty


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