I REFER to the latest posting in (Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad‘s blog, in which he criticised non-Malay [Malaysians] for asking for more concessions from state policies. In response to these demands, the current prime minister (Datuk Seri Najib Razak) has liberalised rules pertaining to equity ownership in some service sub-sectors and promised to set up a scholarship based purely on merit, beginning from next year.
Dr Mahathir has found all these to be unacceptable, as they are tantamount to the government helping the relatively better off non-Malay [Malaysians], taking even more from the relatively poorer Malay [Malaysians]. To substantiate his point, he went on to assert that non-Malay [Malaysians] now own around 50% of the share capital while Malay [Malaysians] own only 20%, far from the target set in the New Economic Policy of 30%.
I find Dr Mahathir’s arguments to be objectionable on three grounds. Firstly, quite apart from the accuracy of his statistics on share ownership according to ethnic group, his focus on this particular issue is a case of wrong priority. We all know, and I am sure Dr Mahathir does too, that shares and even high-value urban properties are owned only by a small proportion of the total population. This is true of all communities, not just in Malaysia, but in countries all over the world, including the US and Japan.
For the bulk of the population, share ownership is far removed and irrelevant to their lives. Their concern is with obtaining a just return to their efforts and labour, i.e. with egalitarianism. Instead of focusing his concern on how wealth and income can be redistributed from the upper strata of all communities to the lower strata of all ethnic groups, Dr Mahathir chose instead to concentrate on redistributing wealth from one socioeconomic elite group to another.
Precisely because of this misplaced priority, the pattern of wealth and income distribution for the country as a whole, and for Malay [Malaysians] in particular, has gotten worse over the years. The wholesale adoption of neo-liberal policies, such as the privatisation of massive infrastructural projects to cronies has led in part to this rising inequality. Other factors include the increasing reliance on indirect taxes, which are regressive, as a source of governmental revenue, and shrinking the state’s role as a provider of public goods.
What is worse, and this is my second objection, Dr Mahathir’s resort to using very strong ethnic underpinnings in his argument may well lead to further ethnic division and contradictions. I would have thought that as a former prime minister of 22 years, he would have made it his utmost priority to promote the core values of socio-economic egalitarianism, inter-ethnic cooperation and communitarian togetherness. It would seem that this is not the case, which is indeed most disappointing.
Finally, Dr Mahathir, like many others who take the racial approach, has taken the simplistic and unscientific assumption that all communities are monolithic and homogenous in socio-economic terms, when in fact they are far from so. All the ethnic communities in Malaysia are class stratified. The Malay, as much as the Chinese and the Indian [Malaysian], are all stratified into different income groups, with the rich making up only a small percentage of the total.
The bulk of the Chinese, like the bulk of the Malay and the Indian [Malaysian], are relatively poor. Over the years, these labouring Malaysians have found monetary returns to their labour unable to catch up with the rising cost of living. In real terms, all of them have suffered.
Dr Mahathir’s thoughts and efforts should be on how governmental policies can be better designed to alleviate their economic sufferings and not resort to pursuing racist arguments in support of one group of the rich elite. Reorienting his priorities will go a long way towards helping the nation attain equality, social justice and inter-ethnic harmony.
Dr Toh Kin Woon
Research Fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies,
University of Kyoto
Former Penang state executive councilor