In an opinion piece for Japanese business news service Nikkei Asian Review today, academic Lee Hwok Aun said the government will likely face strong resistance to initiatives to dismantle the decades-old patronage culture, but must persist with efforts to groom the Bumiputera demographic group to be more competitive and more resilient.
The senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore added that Dr Mahathir’s chance for success is high as he “has a long record of favouring a more robust approach to Malay preferences, focused on competitiveness rather than benefits”.
“Circumstances present a window of opportunity. The unprecedented electoral swing against the National Front reflects a growing self-confidence among Malays and repudiation of the former ruling party’s claim to be their sole protector and patron.
“This will make it easier for reformists to persuade Malays that calibrated reform is in their own interests,” Lee said.
He also said that Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, touted as Dr Mahathir’s successor, could aid the reform process.
He noted Anwar already has the community’s trust with his pledge to ensure a gradual removal of the privileges the Bumputeras are used to, until they are ready to compete on a level playing field.
“In Mahathir and Anwar, Malaysia has towering political figures who have articulated a vision of the Bumiputra community standing confidently and independently, weaned from dependence on political patronage.
“Moving in that direction requires a coherent set of program-specific reforms.”
The preferential system is most visible in higher education and public procurement, the academic noted.
Universiti Teknologi MARA, for example, which enrols more than a third of all public university students in the country, is reserved for Bumiputera.
Young Bumiputera also overwhelmingly attend what are called matriculation colleges. These offer easier courses than other types of schools and maintain a 90 per cent Bumiputra enrolment quota.
Lee said these practices ensure Bumiputera admissions to public universities, but fail to prepare them for academic challenges. Studies show that students entering university from matriculation colleges fare less well than those who gain entry via more challenging routes.
“To reform the system, matriculation programs should be made more rigorous and demanding so that Bumiputra applicants are better prepared to compete for university admission,” he said, adding that Bumiputera preferences should be eventually phased out in university enrolment while kept in place for matriculation colleges in the near term.
Lee also suggested reform in the government procurement system, with focus on spurring growth and competitiveness.
“The authorities could offer incentives for medium-sized contractors to form partnerships and consortiums to bid for large contracts; give preferential treatment in procurement for businesses that have graduated to a higher size tier; and set limits on the number of times contractors can claim Bumiputra preferential treatment within each tier,” he said.
Bumiputera businesses constitute more than 90 per cent of government-licensed contractors. But three-quarters of them are categorised in the smallest of seven official size tiers and there is little upward movement.