Beware intra-community income disparity
The present government remained recalcitrant over its intention to continue with the NEP (New Economic Policy) in its current distorted form. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said Malaysian maintained its position that the NEP was not a cost to doing business.
It is widely known that the policy is being manipulated by the politically connected few to land government contracts worth billions and licences. The manipulation of the policy has created nepotism, cronyism and corruption in the society.
Today, Malaysians are still segregated between non-bumiputeras and the bumiputeras, the privileged group who will be treated differently through the affirmative action. Such categorisation has caused a social isolation of other Malaysians who feel that they are second-class citizens in their own country.
I have argued that the original intent of the NEP was non-racial. The two main objectives of the NEP were not targeted at any specific race although it was acknowledged that the indigenous and Malay communities formed the largest segment of the poor.
Abdullah said the objective to dissociate race from occupation or social standing was crucial in ensuring long-term unity for the country given its legacy and racial structure. On the contrary, today the civil service is largely dominated by the Malay community.
What is the government doing to reverse the situation in the civil service? When asked about this dilemma, the government often gives a familiar answer - the non-Malays are not interested to join the civil sector. Likewise, most Malay graduates have refused to seek jobs in the private sector and prefer to work for the government. It is obvious that the government is being selective in the implementation of the NEP.
He said that racial-based riots raged in neighbouring countries while Malaysia was spared the experience. The expansion of an educated and multi-ethnic middle class, through the affirmative action policies, has mitigated the risk of mass unrest. This is an incorrect assumption.
Is the prime minister suggesting that a certain community will resort to crime and violence if special privileges are not accorded to them? Often the ones who are capable of rioting are the elite of the community who feel that their share of the economic pie is not enough. Most of these people who start riots are politically connected with racist parties.
Abdullah also added that great disparities in income and social mobility still exist between ethnic groups and opined that ethnic-based disparity strikes at the heart of national unity for Malaysia. This is largely fueled by racist politicking in the country.
Disparities in income between communities do exist but it is time for the government to acknowledge the intra-community income disparity which is widening. The intra-community income disparity will become the root of major social riots in the future if not immediately rectified by a need-based policy.
When the NEP was implemented, it was understood that the policy will be reviewed and discontinued once more Malaysians have moved out from the poverty line. Most BN leaders accepted the implementation of the NEP because they genuinely believed that the other communities must sacrifice, at least for 15 years, to help alleviate the living standards of the bumiputera communities.
However, many of them have expressed their disappointment that the NEP is being manipulated and perpetuated without a time limit. The NEP has become a racial political tool to ensure a certain political party becomes a hegemonic force.
Abdullah is right to observe that the most difficult question we must address is to improve equity without sacrificing competitiveness. Many have come to regard Malaysia's affirmative action policies, the NEP, as a cost to doing business.
The only way is to seriously look into upgrading the knowledge and skills of the bumiputeras so that they can compete on equal footing with the rest. A need-based policy can help to ensure that limited resources are channeled to the right group of people who should be helped.
To continue with the present form of NEP is unacceptable. Malaysians may have no choice but to vote for a regime change if this policy is continued.
Umno is part of the problem created by the NEP. It is, after all, the party which has the full control of the use of the affirmative instrument.