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
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The reason the NEP needs to go is because it’s a racist solution to a racist problem. Pre-NEP, there was terrible inequality strongly correlated with race. Rather than implement legislation to tackle the insidious problem of racist corruption and racist market manipulation, Malaysia went for the “easy option” of awarding one race the “right” to racist corruption and racist manipulation.
Every other country that has faced this problem has enacted strict anti-racist and strict anti-market-manipulation laws. Perhaps they’re not quite as easy to enforce, and not quite as easy to sell to your traditional political support, but they have been effective in other countries in eradicating the more apparent forms of racism.
You can’t stop individuals being racist, but you can prevent them employing racism in their organisations. This is where Malaysia’s efforts should be focused. By attacking the more blatant and institutional forms of racism, individuals lose their justification for their personal racist behaviour. Gradually there’s a change in personal attitudes as schools, organisations and workplaces are obliged to enforce the institutional rules internally in order to meet their external obligations.
I disagree with the article’s “bogeyman” scoffing: I think it’s an obvious risk that everybody appears to be sweeping under the carpet for political expediency. Let’s not be too dismissive. The NEP was preceded by an appalling problem that has scarred the national psyche. There is currently no better solution than the NEP being offered. Are Malaysians to take it on trust that the pre-NEP problem has gone away of its own volition? I think the proposition is crazy.
Andrew I says
Wow. Wouldn’t it be nice if The Star could carry this interview?
I agree with you, Nik Nazmi. It’s true a lot of Malays are not working in SMIs. Sometimes it’s because of discriminatory hiring policies, sometimes it’s language barrier, sometimes the Malay [Malaysians] simply prefer government jobs more.
Without diminishing your point, I also wish to point out a similar trend in bumiputera SMIs. These companies are often 100% bumiputera-owned, and when advertising their jobs, they specifically state only bumiputera need apply.
In education, it is the same thing. While I advocate the strengthening of national schools, we also need to look at how some government institutions such as UiTM deny entry to non-bumiputera. From a non-Malay point of view, this is a clear-cut discrimination because in vernacular schools, there is no rule stating that a Malay [Malaysian] cannot enter.
NEP is no longer tenable in Malaysian society. Instead of competing for a bigger cake worldwide, we compete with a small cake among ourselves. No wonder our economy had been stagnant for years in the middle income bracket and if not careful, one day we shall compete with third world countries. What the government of the day should implement is help those in needs irrespective of race instead of the elite as this will ruin our economy in the long run.
The whole NEP is hijacked by Umnoputra to enrich themselves, so the poor Malay [Malaysians] remain poor. Blame it on Mahathir, no one else. He created a generation of uncompetitive Malay [Malaysians] by keep telling them they were stupid, cannot do this or that but needed Umno to save them. Who did he actually save? His cronies, children and Umnoputra – no one else.
Employment is one of the issues for Malay [Malaysians]. Non-Malay [Malaysians] have no issues to employ a suitable Malay [Malaysian] to work in their organisation as long as they are capable. I do not believe non-Malay [Malaysians] discriminate against Malay [Malaysians] because non-Malays are very result oriented, especially Chinese [Malaysians]. So, for those who could not meet the requirement of these businesses, they would be let go be they Chinese, Indian or Malay [Malaysian], it is [a truth] in the real business world.
I think Malay [Malaysians] should face the real world that English is important and you cannot blame SMIs for not empolying enough Malay [Malaysians] because they need their staff to communicate in English more than other languages. It so happens that Malay [Malaysian] graduates could not handle the language well, hence they have no choice but to employ the much more capable ones. The truth is the world will not wait for Malay [Malaysians] but expects Malay [Malaysians] to catch up as soon as possible.
Just think about China. It took 30 years to be a superpower country in terms of economy, technology and science and it also has the most reserves in the world, hence is considered a very rich country. If they could do it, why can’t we Malaysians do it? I still remember there was a minister who said Indonesia’s FDI was more than Malaysia’s. He said it is okay for them to [beat] us but he did not offered any suggestions or solutions to bring in more FDI – that’s the kind of [calibre of] ministers we have even until today.
I hope we Malaysians can work hand-in-hand to make this country a prosperous one by not wasting our energy fighting for this is mine and not yours kind of problem. Move on my fellow citizens.
Nothing new here. Every BN Prime Minister has spoken about it. But unfortunately, every time they tried, the resistance was overwhelming.
Look at the subsidy mentality which is against your mantra of meritocracy. When Pak Lah hurriedly cut subsidies, his party almost lost the government! Why? Because certain leaders are irresponsible. Nik Nazmi should carefully listen to who are normally among the first to criticise any attempt by the government to cut subsidy. Invariably, it is his coalition party leaders! Anwar, Lim and Hadi will be the first to undermine the effort and cry foul. For what? None other than for political scores. So you see, dear Nik, I wish you start with your own leaders and tell them we can build your better Malaysia if they quickly behave as leaders instead of a bunch of hypocrites.
According to The Second Outline Perspective Plan (1991) published by the Malaysian government, in 1970, 63.3 percent of corporate equity reside in the hands of foreign (mainly British) players, while non-Malay [Malalysian] equity (mainly Chinese) stood at 32.3 percent and Malay [Malaysian] equity was 2.4 percent.
Describing the pre-NEP period as being blighted by ‘terrible inequality strongly correlated by race’, by which I am guessing you mean the Malay-Chinese economic divide, assumes that Chinese [Malaysian] equity was both disproportionate to their demographic weight and that all members of the Chinese [Malaysian] community had equal share in this equity, both of which were not the case.
It was an issue of class – the Malay [Malaysian] community did not feature prominently in equity calculations due to the lack of a discernable Malay [Malaysian] middle class at this time – and if the problem has its roots in class then the solution ought to be means-based. The ‘easy option’, which you rightly described as being no more than monopolised, institutional racism, not only misses the point but has led to a situation whereby members of ethnic minorities feel disenfranchised in the country of their birth.
This, too, is a scar on the national psyche, and to think we will not reap the fruits of this discontent is what I deem crazy. It may not be as immediately traumatic as the ‘appalling problem’ you mentioned, but it will mark the fortunes of this country in worse ways and for far longer.
You are too smart for your own good.
So long as the Malays remain helpless and on government life-support, the non-Malays can beat the Malays any day of the week, with one arm tied behind their back and blind folded. WE have been doing this for the past 4 decades.
But I guess as a fellow countryman I should congratulate you. Welcome. You’re out of the matrix, and standing tall with the rest of us.
However, you now have to watch the land you call your own, walk arrogantly down a path that leads to poverty and ruin. A nation that will not listen and has never listen to dire warning as Umnoputra parasites lead it to one ruinous disaster after another.