Bumiputera no longer need a leg up or do they?

People receiving their 1Malaysia People's Aid (BR1M) in Kuala Lumpur. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
People receiving their 1Malaysia People's Aid (BR1M) in Kuala Lumpur. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

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KUALA LUMPUR, June 6 ― When 28-year-old middle class entrepreneur Kamil Abu Bakar was asked for his views about the government’s latest programme to enhance the Malay community’s economic well-being, the Bumiputera Economic Transformation Roadmap 2.0, he shrugged.

To Kamil, who runs a profitable barber shop in Setiawangsa, one of the capital city’s many Malay middle class enclaves, his affluent surrounding as well as his ability to compete in the city’s tough business environment proved that the Malays can be independent.

“The Malays are doing very well already from small to medium to serious corporate business, you can see the Malays or the Bumiputera are deep in the game so if you ask me, this whole subsidy or incentive thing given out in the name of Bumiputera will only make our race look weak and dependent,” he added.

Subsequently, Kamil was asked to comment about the Malaysian Indian Blueprint (MIB), which, like the BTER 2.0, is yet another form of race-based affirmative action aimed at improving the social mobility of a particular community through targeted financial assistance and other “positive discriminatory” policies like employment quotas.

Kamil felt the blueprint was justified. “Well, the Indians are poorer which I think explains why many of their youths end up being in gangs. So I think it’ll help if you give them education, and, with that, jobs,” he said.

Two distinct presumptions outlined the different opinions Kamil had about the listed affirmative action programmes despite both using racial indicators to achieve more or less similar targets:

With the former, the 28-year-old did not ask about the programme’s merits and proceeded to assume that BTER 2.0 was unnecessary, and later described it as mischievous racial sloganeering aimed at manipulating Malay sentiment for political support.

On the MIB, however, Kamil, while admitting to thinking that the initiative was also intended to score political brownie points since it was announced amid strong rumours that the 14th general election will be held later this year, presumed to justify his support for the programme because there is “a general understanding” that the majority of the Indian community in Malaysia are poor.

Many Bumiputera poor

When Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak unveiled the BTER 2.0 in April, it unleashed a flurry of criticisms that again consisted primarily of allegations that the so-called “targeted assistance” would only fatten the Malay political largesse and deepen an already entrenched rent-seeking culture.

If observers gauge social media (due to the unavailability of concrete data or a specific study) to understand the thinking that fuels the opposition against such programmes, be it the BTER 2.0 or other Bumiputera-preferential initiatives that came before it, the gist of the criticism is mostly focused on the politics, with little attention given to the merits of the programmes.

Malay Mail Online’s observation found that among the key themes used to justify calls to repeal pro-Bumiputera policies is that the community has already attained a comfortable standard of living, with many basing this on the perception formed from their immediate surroundings: ownership of expensive cars, homes or general purchasing power as seen in shopping malls around the city or the success of some of its notable business “celebrities.”

Many of the same critics also had the tendency to dismiss facts about Bumiputera poverty by pointing to Malay corporate leadership in government-linked companies as proof that the community as a whole held significant economic power.

The majority of those who hold such views also often come from urban and middle-class backgrounds. In fact, many of them are Bumiputera themselves.

While it is true that Bumiputera-based affirmative action like the New Economic Policy (NEP) has created a large pool of middle-class Malays (65 per cent of them make up the Medium 40 category while the Chinese and Indians make up 25 and 10 per cent respectively), the majority of them remain trapped in the Bottom 40 category.

The government defines the B40 as those with median income less than RM2,600 and the Bumiputera make up more than two-thirds of this category. The Chinese and Indians, on the other hand, only make up 18 and 9 per cent respectively.

As for the M40, defined officially as those with median income of RM5,465 or mean income of RM5,662, the Bumiputera, while forming the biggest chunk of the group, occupy the lowest spot in terms of income, earning almost RM2,000 less than the Chinese community which has a median income of RM7,049.

Surprisingly, contrary to the “general understanding” that the Indians are poorer, the community’s mean income of RM5,646 is still RM500 more than what the Bumiputera make, although this does not necessarily give an accurate picture due to the extremely imbalanced income disparity between their top and bottom earners.

It is also worth noting that close to half of the seven million recipients of the Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia (BR1M) cash handout programme intended for poor households are from the Bumiputera community, according to government data.

So what is causing this disconnect between the perception held by many of the critics of race-based affirmative action and the grim economic reality faced by the Bumiputera community?

For one, most of the poorer Bumiputera live outside the major cities, making their struggle less visible to their richer urban counterparts. 

Secondly, Muhammed Khalid, who wrote the book Colours of Inequality, a well-documented work about the country’s rising income inequality inter- and intra-ethnicity, said the misrepresentation reflected the growing polarity not only between the major races in the country, but of class and geography as well.

“What this shows is we do not know each other. Yes, they say we all eat at the same mamak stalls but do we really talk to each other? And this division is not only a matter of race.

“We also have to look at it from the class perspective and the urban and rural divide there is no real integration. People only mingle with their own,” he told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview, noting that the income disparity between top earners and those below are also growing exponentially within each race.

Patronage is raceless

Does all this mean that the criticism against or suspicion of Bumiputera affirmative action are invalid? Not necessarily.

Economists and some leaders from the ruling party Umno who have argued for race-based affirmative action as a necessary policy to promote genuine equality, including Muhammed, acknowledge that the system had been widely abused to enrich cronies of the political elites at the expense of the Bumiputera majority.

“I would say that the suspicion is justified because it has been perceived that the beneficiaries of such programmes have been the politically well-connected or the undeserving,” Muhammed said.

Syahril Hamdan, executive councillor of Pemuda Umno, the youth wing of the ruling party and the main protagonist behind all of the government’s race-based affirmative action policies, had this to say:

“To say that they are dominant and hence no longer require assistance is to ignore some statistical facts.. (but) of course this doesn't mean there is no case to relook at how to tweak our affirmative action policies to work better.”

And as has been rightly pointed out in the past, race-based affirmative action has also contributed to discriminatory policies that have marginalised the minorities from attaining basic rights like education and cheap housing.

But what many of the system’s critics often failed to grasp is that just like the minorities, poor Bumiputera too have been victimised by the abuse; the clearest example being how richer Bumiputera children secure spots in the best public universities or receive government scholarships due to their well-connected parents.

So while the criticism against the abuses may be valid, the underlying tone is often mired in prejudices that is also inversely racial. Another example is the general assumption that the beneficiaries of the abuse are only Malay politicians or businessmen.

Commenting on the matter, Muhammed said the prejudice critics have about race-based affirmative action can be seen in their tendency to conflate state contracts distribution systems with preferential treatment that is perceived to be motivated by communalism, when in actuality, companies owned by wealthy and well-connected minorities have also profited from large state contracts.

“We have to be mindful (that those who profit) are not only Bumiputera businessmen.. the capture of state contracts is not ethnocentric; in fact they are homogenous,” he said.

Malay Mail Online’s attempt to solicit data from the Economic Planning Unit on non-Bumiputera capture of state contracts was rejected as the data is classified as an official secret.

Informed critique

The end result of this widespread misinformation and skewed perception about Bumiputera poverty has contributed to a poorly formed critique of race-based affirmative action that only serves to worsen the existing distrust between the races.

One clear example of this racial mistrust can be seen in how we debate racial quotas in public education: while the minorities’ resentment over race-based admission into public universities is valid, the discontent often leads to a misplaced belief that Bumiputera graduates are of poor quality simply because their admission was assumed to be based on race alone.

Thus in such situations, the more critics, especially urban non-Malays, attack race-based affirmative action without first understanding the economic reality that forms the basis for such assistance, the harder the intended beneficiaries of these assistance, the poor Malays and Bumiputera, will resist.

“If you look at history when the NEP was introduced in 1971, everybody supported this, why not now?

“We cannot run away from discussing how to ensure national unity and with that we have to look at the over-riding objective of the NEP which was not to promote wealth among the Bumiputera, but to achieve national unity,” Muhammed commented.

In fact, it would do the Barisan Nasional government good to ponder upon the reasons contributing to the decreased minority support for Bumiputera-based affirmative action like the NEP and its succeeding programmes; one of it being the overt race-baiting that accompanied the initiatives.

Ooi Kee Beng, senior fellow at Singapore-based think tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said as long as the “racist element” continues to “hijack” race-based affirmative action, the end product will always be that of discontent and suspicion.

“The NEP was framed to fight poverty and inequality it did not need to have developed towards the enhancing of  racial politics in the country, but that did happen due to race being the easy and effective way to gain support and to gain short-term political benefits,” Ooi told Malay Mail Online in an email interview.

“To continue along a path built on a misrepresentation and on the hijacking of the NEP by racist elements is therefore not a wise move.

“In fact, it could very well worsen the lack of social cohesion and nation-building direction the country now suffers from,” he added.

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