PARTI Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad has been very busy for a 27-year-old. At 26, he was the youngest candidate in the 2008 general election, defeating the Umno incumbent in the Seri Setia state seat in Selangor by almost 3,000 votes.
Nik Nazmi is now Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim’s political secretary after being Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s political secretary from 2006 to 2008. Nik Nazmi’s book Moving Forward: Malays for the 21st Century was recently published and released.
In this first of a two-part interview with The Nut Graph on 22 Dec 2009 in Petaling Jaya, Nik Nazmi shares his views on whether Malay Malaysians are ready to dismantle quotas under the New Economic Policy (NEP), and on how Malaysians can build trust.
TNG: Your book speaks of a gradual dismantling of the principles of the NEP. What would your response be to those who say that quotas for Malay Malaysians in education and business are part of Malay rights and Ketuanan Melayu?
Nik Nazmi: There is a difference between Malay privileges, as stated in Article 153 of the Federal Constitution, and the NEP. Article 153 allows the Yang-di-Pertuan Agong to reserve spaces in education, employment and licences for bumiputera. This was part of the independence negotiations, and I personally don’t have problems with that.
The NEP came about after the 13 May riots; it is unrelated to the constitution. It was necessary at the time and has contributed to the development of a Malay [Malaysian] middle class. But if we read history closely, it’s clear it was meant to be a temporary compromise — from 1970 to 1990.
Quotas don’t help in the long run. It’s easy to achieve 30% equity — just put in a law, which they did — but it’s not organic or sustainable. Some people get shares at a discounted rate, then just sell it off for a quick buck. How does that help? We need to focus on capacity building … then there’ll be no Ali Baba businesses and all that, because people actually have the capacity to hold on to these things.
What about the argument that people are not ready?
Readiness is always an issue, but we have to look at the challenges. It’s a different world today than in 1970. Malaysia is different, there’s a Malay [Malaysian] middle-class now. Malaysians can and should compete.
When there is affirmative action based on race as opposed to need, any Malay [Malaysian] can get that benefit. People whom the NEP architects wanted [the policy] to benefit, like farmers and fisher[folk], are not benefiting. Instead, urban Malay [Malaysians] who have the resources benefit. Those who speak English at home, who can afford tuition — they would generally get better grades than the rural Malay [Malaysians].
We need to move away from race-based to needs-based affirmative action, as well as meritocracy. Malay [Malaysians] still make up the bulk of the poor. They would still be the majority of the people who will receive benefits. So Malay [Malaysians] wouldn’t lose out. If scholarships should be given to the best, regardless of economic standing, then it should be universal, it must be for all, not for Malay [Malaysians] only.
Do you think there is a fear among Malay Malaysians that they will lose out if the NEP is dismantled?
Yes, there is. If you read Utusan Malaysia and some blogs, they tell a familiar story — that we will become like the Malay Singaporeans. It’s like a bogey used to scare small children.
I met with [several Malay and Muslim organisations] and Malay Singaporeans such as The Straits Times journalist Nur Dianah Suhaimi in Singapore [in 2008]. Yes, there are challenges and discrimination. If a Malay [Singaporean] is admitted into the National University of Singapore, people might say, “Oh, the government needs a Malay poster-[person], they’re actually not good enough.” They may have to work twice as hard to prove themselves but they wear it like a badge of honour. They look at the Malays in Malaysia and wonder, “Why are they still stuck in this discourse? Why are they not moving on?”
I think our world view has been largely shaped by [Tun Dr] Mahathir [Mohamad]‘s Malay Dilemma ... [which suggests that] Malay [Malaysians'] genes are somehow inferior compared to non-Malay [Malaysians] who were poor and had to struggle.
There’s no truth to that. I don’t think Malay [Malaysians] are genetically inferior. There are so many Malays competing internationally, in Dubai, with expatriates from the West, from China. It’s a question of opportunities and exposure, it’s nothing genetic.
Looking at the statistics, it appears the majority of Malay [Malaysian] voters support the Barisan Nasional (BN), compared with the Pakatan Rakyat. Do you think Malay Malaysian voters would accept these ideas?
When [Datuk Seri] Anwar Ibrahim said in 2006 that we need to shift away from the NEP, even his Chinese [Malaysian] friends said it’s a good idea, but bad politics.
Before this, people in Umno, especially, didn’t have the courage or conviction to promote this. There are Umno people who say the idea is good, but Malay [Malaysians] won’t buy it. I think they won’t buy it because the leaders don’t have the courage to tell them the truth. Never underestimate the wisdom of the people.
We should be debating [on] how to build better schools, hospitals and public transportation, and better ways to protect the environment, rather than which race benefits or loses out. [All] communities need to play their role. We need to build trust.
How would we go about building trust between different communities?
Take for example, vernacular schools. Yes, it’s constitutionally legitimate, but you can’t deny there are issues and challenges.
I have advocated for a unity stream school where schoolchildren can learn their own culture, mother tongue and about each other. If these schools can produce better students and provide a space for all Malaysians to intermingle, then these [optional] schools would be attractive [and provide competition for national and vernacular schools].
We could have an anti-discrimination law. But it has to be mutual. Malay [Malaysians] shouldn’t be discriminated against in small- and medium-sized industries. Similarly, there should be no discrimination against non-Malay [Malaysians] in government-linked companies and the public sector.
If you could summarise a message from your book for Malay and non-Malay Malaysians, what would it be?
We must know our history, how the NEP provided room to develop, which Malay and non-Malay [Malaysians] benefited from. As the NEP architects implemented a policy for their time, we must also have courage to [implement a new useful, equitable framework within the context of our constitution]. The NEP is not a sacred cow, it’s not a divine revelation; it was meant for 20 years [only].
Meritocracy is not bad for Malay [Malaysians]. I’m asking Malay [Malaysians] to be fair … we have to be consistent.
Non-Malay [Malaysians] need to build goodwill to allow the Malay [Malaysian] community to move on. Issues like vernacular schools, discrimination in the private sector, speaking the national language — these have to be dealt with.
Do you think race is still as big an issue as before?
Our racial identity is still very important to a lot of us. However, I think race is less of a priority now compared to other issues like having a job, staying safe, growing the economy.
People still think racially, but what politicians need to do is to have the courage of conviction and tell the truth. Let’s be honest with people, let’s not delude them to talk about splitting the pie when it’s a shrinking pie. We should instead grow the pie.
On Monday: Nik Nazmi on Islam, moral policing and the Pakatan Rakyat
Read previous Realpolitiker interviews