OCTOBER 14 ― Based on the prime minister’s 12th Malaysia Plan speech and the debates it has spawned, you might think that the 12MP offers nothing for other groups besides the Bumiputeras. In fact, it does ― and its coverage of group-targeted policies is both a mark of progress and proof that things must change.
Following on the 11MP, the 12MP outlines Bumiputera-targeted policies on six pages, and programmes for the Orang Asli, low-income Indians, new village Chinese, women and persons with disabilities on about three pages.
Previous Malaysia Plans had not presented this domain of policies as methodically, but now we have a clearer idea of the government’s efforts to foster an “inclusive society.”
The planning document also reflects how group-targeted policies ― especially for ethnic minorities and women ― have become more mainstreamed in recent years. At the same time, omission of key policies and overall tokenism to non-Bumiputeras embody old habits and show that Keluarga Malaysia has a long way to go.
Above all, the debate continues to revolve around Bumiputera policies, and tends to be reduced to the provocative, emotive and dead-end question: continue or terminate? Malaysia really needs to find different ways to hold this conversation.
Here are four steps that might help.
1. Clarify the scope
We should start by comprehensively and systematically outlining all the relevant policies.
The 12MP’s presentation of Bumiputera policies is wide and looks thorough, but this current planning template confines the “Bumiputera agenda” to programmes under the jurisdiction of “Bumiputera mandated agencies” (Teraju, MARA, PNB, etc).
A host of important and massive institutions, which maintain Bumiputera exclusive access, ethnic quotas or other forms of preference, are omitted, including matriculation colleges and pre-university programmes, public university enrolment, public procurement, and employment in the public sector and GLCs.
Importantly, many of these excluded policy spheres also involve a significant extent of balancing access for different groups. Matriculation colleges, for instance, maintain a 90 per cent Bumiputera quota.
The efficacy of the matriculation system in preparing students for university, and issues surrounding ethnic quotas and access for disadvantaged students, ought to be a subject of serious policy deliberation. Alas, the 12MP ― and responses to it ― are silent.
The need for clarity also comes across in the form of stray arrows, most glaringly the 12MP’s suggestion that “[i]nitiatives will be introduced to encourage equitable employment for Bumiputera in the private sector to promote fair opportunities.”
This is a definite no-no; those words do not belong in a Malaysia Plan. Promoting fair opportunity is a matter of labour market conduct that must cover all groups, and should apply across private and public sectors.
It is wrong to single out a particular group as a beneficiary. The sentence rankles all the more in light of studies showing Indian job applicants facing unfair discrimination.
2. Be consistent about the priorities
The 12MP recognises that the main shortfalls in Bumiputera economic empowerment are in skills and knowledge acquisition, high-skilled occupations, and SME growth and development.
I have addressed the problematic fixation with 30 per cent Bumiputera equity ownership in a previous article, but the point is relevant here as well. Prioritisation of skills and capacity building applies to all group-targeted programmes.
Higher education, including technical and professional certification, and SME support should take precedence for all communities that lack participation in these areas.
The 12MP presents initiatives for Orang Asli microenterprise, but on the whole, neglects a methodical and purposeful plan for all communities, and women, for whom the 12MP adds new commitments to legal protection but treads timidly on socioeconomic development.
3. Shift to identity-based, group-targeted policies
A range of group-targeted policies is already firmly established in Malaysia’s policy regime. It is time to acknowledge that these special measures ― focused on promoting participation, achievement and diversity ― are part of the same policy domain, whether designated for Bumiputeras, East Malaysian indigenous groups (officially conferred Bumiputera status), Orang Asli, Indians, other minorities, women, or people with disabilities.
The prevailing debate which revolves around retaining vs abolishing Bumiputera policies fuels polarisation and stalemate. Adversaries draw lines in the sand and talk past each other.
The reality is, group-targeted measures have arrived and are here to stay. Undeniably, implementation can become politicised or hijacked; the ongoing controversy surrounding Mitra (Malaysian Indian Transformation Unit) comes to mind.
However, Malaysia has already joined the company of many advancing economies and maturing societies in which the rakyat value and expect fair representation of gender, ethnicity, religion, language and culture in higher education, decision-making positions, business, and so on. The pressing issue is how to execute group-targeted policies effectively and equitably.
4. Foster inclusiveness by balancing identity, need and merit
The popular ― certainly the most loudly propagated ― alternative to “race-based”, pro-Bumiputera policies proposes replacing them with fuzzy notions of “need-based” policies.
This stance faces two major problems. First, the logical inconsistency and double standard of (typically) accepting pro-Orang Asli, pro-Indian, and pro-women policies while rejecting pro-Bumiputera policies.
Second, confusion over the purpose and instruments of need-based policies, which primarily provide basic needs through cash transfers, universal primary schooling, minimum wage and social protection, whereas the existing programmes that target Bumiputeras, Orang Asli, low-income Indians, and even Chinese new villagers pertain to participation in business, higher education attainment, and upward mobility in general.
Desire to dispense with Bumiputera policies often springs from a principled upholding of inclusiveness and a moral unease with race-based policies.
However, to reinforce the point earlier, the shift that Malaysia should make is not toward elimination of race-based policies, but integration of identity-based policies.
Of course, pursuing inclusiveness must also take into account need and merit – that is, giving consideration to the disadvantaged, and developing talent and self-reliance.
Bumiputera policies must urgently and effectively focus on developing capability and competitiveness, to find ways of graduating out of receiving overt quotas and preferences.
The 12MP meekly hints at “exit plans” to avert prolonged dependency. There is also great need, and more scope that we may realise, for broadening access in line with the overarching objective of inclusiveness.
Opening up hitherto Bumiputera-only domains benefits all sides, by signalling to the majority that they can progress without depending on exclusive access, and assuring the minorities that Malaysia is tangibly moving in the direction of greater inclusion.
More recently founded and less baggage-laden institutions possibly offer better prospects for change. Yayasan Peneraju Pendidikan Bumiputera started in 2012, offering scholarships for technical and professional programmes for not just Bumiputeras in general, but specifically those from disadvantaged and difficult family backgrounds.
This abiding principle surely provides grounds for Yayasan Peneraju to offer spaces to disadvantaged non-Bumiputeras as well, especially Indian and Orang Asli youth.
Tekun and Perbadanan Usahawan Nasional Bumiputera (PUNB), under the auspices of Permodalan Nasional Berhad (PNB), extend loans and advisory services for micro, small and medium enterprises.
Tekun maintains one scheme for Indians. There is ample reason and noted precedent for PUNB to follow in the footsteps of Tekun and its parent PNB, both of which started out exclusively for Bumiputeras but later became accessible to more Malaysians.
These institutions receive public funding, of which some disparities might spur thought. Based on Budget speeches, Yayasan Peneraju was allocated RM590 million between 2017 and 2020, while PUNB received at least RM750 million.
For 2021, PUNB, together with microfinance institution Tekun, were slated to get RM510 million ― while only RM20 million was designated for Tekun’s scheme for the Indian community.
Are we interested in probing specific possibilities? Do we even want to start new conversations?
* Dr Lee Hwok Aun is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.