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Affirmative action in M'sia - the road to nowhere

“But as time goes by, despite the original good intention, the affirmative action policy turned into an ugly beast. What was supposed to be a temporary assistance programme evolved into a sense of entitlement, and then morphed into a monster called Malay rights that cannot be debated, let alone be removed.”

- Wan Saiful Wan Jan (‘Affirmative action is morally wrong’)

(Writer's note - Discussions about affirmative action always seem to be peppered with this rather dumb oppositional meme that we are living in an "apartheid" state. This is the same vein of dumb rhetoric as “ethnic cleansing” in public service that resulted in my very public clashes with Hindraf. I would argue that making such nonsensical claims is morally wrong and the reason why it sometimes sucks to be a rational supporter of the opposition or a rational opposition-leaning supporter.)

Wan Saiful Wan Jan or as I like to refer to him as ‘The Ideas Man’ wrote two thoughtful pieces, ‘Affirmative action is morally wrong’ and ‘Bring back morality into economics’ that deserve attention for obvious reasons but more importantly, they come at a time when the Malay polity and Malay powerbrokers are in a state of agitation.

In the ‘morally wrong’ piece (c’mon, it would be a sin not to take that shot), Wan Saiful makes an important but problematic point - “To add to the complication, looking at the situation in our country today, I also feel that only a Malay can talk about abolishing affirmative action in Malaysia. Things will only become worse if a non-Malay were to champion this issue.”

This is a problematic statement because not only is it true but it is also the main reason why the political and economic discourse in this country is poisoned. There are two important points here - (1) Sanctions by the state for discourse deemed “seditious” which usually involves anything to do with “Malay” rights, and (2) the self-imposed censorship by the opposition on subjects deemed as “obstructionists” in the goal of achieving federal power.

I regret to inform Wan Saiful but he is a little late with his rejoinder. Unfortunately, this old sailor ignored that sacred cow - non-Malay transgressing on Malay sacred provinces - five years ago in an article ‘No brave new Malaysia’, where I argued that perhaps it was time to rethink the whole affirmative action deal.

I wrote - “To my thinking the fact that the majority Malay community (and the rest of us Malaysians) have suffered from an affirmative action policy, perhaps the best course of action, at least as a temporary measure, is to abandon the idea of affirmative action.”

In that same article, I encouraged readers to plough through Thomas Sowell’s - in my opinion, masterpiece - ‘Affirmative Action: A World Wide Disaster’ (1989), and because I am that kind of political pundit, gave a cliff notes version of the article highlighting salient points (in bullet form no less) from the lengthy article.

I ended the piece with a Sowell quote - as I began the piece with one - “When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear."

What I really like about Wan Saiful’s piece beyond his candour is that he stakes no middle ground. He argues against affirmative action as something morally wrong and does not attempt to soften the stance by pandering to the politically-correct narrative of a “needs-based” approach.

The so-called “needs-based” approach is something of a strawman advocated by the opposition in an effort to pander to the Malay vote. Opposition politicians always say on the one hand that a “needs-based” approach is needed for an “equal society” which satisfies the non-Malay polity, but then go about reassuring the Malay polity that as the majority they will always be the “majority in need”...

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