IT would be a mistake to think that Datuk Ibrahim Ali is a true champion of the Malay Malaysian poor. But it would be equally silly to think that the Malay Malaysian poor do not support or sympathise with his call. After all, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s failure to increase support in Malay Malaysian rural heartlands — like Hulu Selangor or Bukit Gantang — indicates two potential problems.
First, there is an information blockade that denies the rural folk an informed choice. And second, rural Malay Malaysians genuinely fear losing the ethnic zero-sum game. For some, the two questions are actually part of a bigger issue — if you have enough information, then you won’t be trapped in a zero-sum mentality. In other words, the fight for ethno-religious interests is really based on the outcome of false consciousness.
I see it differently — defining and articulating socio-economic interests in ethno-religious terms can be rational if one’s interests are more effectively advanced by a communal agenda rather than a class struggle. In other words, if the Malay Malaysian poor do not gain from de-ethnicisation of state policies, even well-informed urban Malay Malaysians may revolt against the so-called new politics.
At the moment, however, the centrist competition between the PR and Barisan Nasional (BN) to build a more inclusive Malaysia is being constantly challenged by Ibrahim & Co. In order to analyse what is holding back this centrist competition, one important question needs to be asked: What will the Malay Malaysian poor — not necessarily all Malay Malaysians — gain from a more inclusive Malaysia?
Traditionally, Malay-based opposition parties such as PAS and Parti Rakyat Malaysia were supposed to represent the underdogs in the Malay-Muslim Malaysian community. The 1998-1999 wave of Reformasi then brought a big portion of urban Malay Malaysians — middle-class and poor — into the fold of the opposition. And so, the 2008 electoral gains by Parti Keadilan Rakyat and PAS in urban areas from Kota Raja to Wangsa Maju could not have happened without substantial support from the urban Malay Malaysian electorate.
Will these Malay Malaysians continue to support a more inclusive Malaysia where ethnicity and religion should carry less — if not minimal — weight in one’s socio-economic and political well-being? After all, this is what the PR’s ketuanan rakyat and BN’s 1Malaysia are supposed to be about.
Every policy will have winners and losers. The sure losers in such a new Malaysia are the distributional coalitions of Malay Malaysian political, bureaucratic and business elites and their non-Malay Malaysian allies. Ibrahim, for example, allegedly had links with billionaire tycoon Tan Sri Vincent Tan‘s gaming company, which he denies. Ibrahim has also hit out at Tan and other Chinese Malaysian tycoons for “controlling” the economy.
However, there are middle-class Malay Malaysians who do not support the New Economic Policy (NEP). They think it either doesn’t benefit the Malay-Muslim/bumiputera Malaysian community in globalised competition, or is unjust to the excluded non-bumiputera poor, or both. Often, these Malay Malaysians drive four-wheel-drives or multi-purpose vehicles to attend PR rallies.
But what about the Malay Malaysian poor, urban or rural? Who would they side? Malay nationalists such as Ibrahim and Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin who vow to protect Malay Malaysians’ economic interests? Or Malaysian-minded Malays such as Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Datuk Zaid Ibrahim who promise a better future for the poor regardless of ethnic and religious background?
In this sense, the Malay Malaysian poor are the most powerful bloc of electoral deciders. They will decide which direction the country will move in.
Affirmative action vs welfare state
The competition to win an alliance with the Malay Malaysian poor is not new. In fact, we should re-examine the historic juncture in the aftermath of the 1969 general election and 13 May riots.
No matter how one attributes the causes of the ethnic riots, the undisputed fact is that the Malay Malaysian poor clearly felt a sense of relative deprivation. They simply felt marginalised compared to other groups.
Many — including the critics of NEP within the PR — have used this as a departure to argue that the NEP was good and necessary. What went wrong was the implementation of the NEP and its successor policies.
I beg to differ. Present-day Malaysia actually has three choices before it, as it did in 1969, and not two:
1 A free market and meritocracy where the strongest competitors win.
2 An ethnic-based affirmative action policy where individual members — regardless of individual wealth — of the collectively poorest ethnic group are given preferential treatment.
3 A welfare state where the poor — regardless of their ethnicity — will be given support.
Because Malay Malaysians constitute the largest portion of the nation’s poor, both options 2 and 3 could achieve the NEP’s noble goals: eradication of poverty and restructuring society.
What are the differences between the two options then? Answer: The process and priority.
An ethnic preferential policy assumes that ethnic solidarity and inter-ethnic discrimination prevail in society. So to help a disadvantaged group, you need to cherry-pick and help the strongest within the group so that they will in turn help other members — the so-called trickle-down effect — and become role models for others.
Following this line of thought, stronger Malay Malaysians would actually come before weaker Malay Malaysians in receiving state support so that they can beat stronger non-Malay Malaysians in competition. Hence, ethnicity before equality. Connections count, too.
A welfare state, on the other hand, operates in a different manner. All the poor will be helped — say, through subsidised education, healthcare, housing, transportation — regardless of ethno-religious background.
Beneficiaries of different policies
|Malay Malaysian/bumiputera||NEP; welfare state||NEP|
|Non-Malay Malaysian/non-bumiputera||Welfare state||Free market and meritocracy|
The most disadvantaged group would receive the lion’s share of state assistance, naturally. Nevertheless, the stronger members in this group may be excluded if they are not weak enough to qualify for benefits.
In Malaysia’s context, if the policy works, there would be no poor Malay Malaysians just as there would be no poor non-Malay Malaysians. However, a Malay Malaysian middle- and upper-class might take a longer time to expand because the stronger Malay Malaysians would need to compete with the stronger non-Malay Malaysians on their own merit.
While a welfare state would rule out state-imposed ethnic discrimination, the state might still need pro-equality legislation to stamp out ethnic discrimination practised by individuals and businesses. Malay nationalists have often argued that Bumiputeraism is the answer to the discrimination against the Malays by the non-Malays.
The differences between the two policies are stark. Why, then, didn’t we choose the welfare state? The simple answer is that Umno and its allies would then have had to transform themselves into leftist parties. Umno elites would also have to give way to both poor Malay and non-Malay Malaysians in receiving state assistance.
Learn from Singapore
In contrast, Singapore’s People’s Action Party, which started as a centre-left party, rules the country with a certain flavour of a welfare state. For starters, most Singaporeans now stay in homes built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). More importantly, they have also a means testing scheme for hospital patients. The less you earn, the less you pay.
In Malaysia, PR state governments in Penang and Selangor are giving away the same amount of money to the elderly, newborn, university students and families of deceased senior citizens regardless of their income status.
Now politicians are talking about cutting back subsidies to prevent Malaysia from becoming another Greece. In the past, economic recessions have fuelled communal tension. Will cutting subsidies trigger more ethnic fear and antagonism? Will it not at least make the end of the NEP harder to stomach for insecure Malay Malaysians?
If PR and BN are serious about dismantling ethnic politics, shouldn’t they start introducing similar means-testing policies so that the subsidy cut will hurt the poor much less than it hurts the rich? Only then will poor Malay Malaysians be convinced that they may actually be better off even if the NEP is discontinued and replaced by a more class-sensitive policy.
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat believes in Adams Smith‘s ideological wisdom. However, he also believes Malaysia needs a welfare state to induce class consciousness and reduce ethno-religious mobilisation.
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