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GLCs, revenge politics and a demystified Malay agenda

Lim Teck Ghee  |  Published:  |  Modified:

“Yes, they enjoyed their position admittedly through patronage, but it would have been a competitive climb for them nevertheless. Is the mood for revenge against the previous regime making us senseless to the long-term damage to Malay progress in commerce?”

- Former Umno MP Tawfik Ismail

COMMENT | As the heads and top officials in GLCs continue to be lopped off, and voices raised on how to reform these enterprises, the wisdom of the new Pakatan Harapan government in taking off the kid gloves when dealing with GLCs has been questioned.

The plain truth, however, is that the shortcomings and failings of these enterprises have been known for a long time - long before Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad described them as becoming “monsters.”

Crowding out private enterprise, given privileged access to contracts, benefiting from favourable government regulations, and capitalising on undiscernible but nonetheless effective ways familiar or accessible only to insiders, the negative impact of these ubiquitous bodies has been accentuated by their lead role in the poor governance and corrupt practices that have blighted the nation’s economy and society.

Unfortunately, the critical analyses that have emerged of GLCs in the past and continue to emerge today have either ignored or tended to avoid forthright discussion of the main reason for their continued dominance – the mission focus on the Malay agenda.

The key questions to be asked are: what is this Malay agenda, whose interests does it serve, and should it be the driver or leitmotif of GLCs which rightfully belongs to all stakeholders in the country?

These questions need to be put out and answered in the public sphere, regardless of whether the GLCs can be reformed and reconfigured in accord with truly national aspirations.

Perkasa and GLCs

I had posed and tried to answer this question in response to Ibrahim Ali of Perkasa, who said at the Malay rights group’s 2010 inaugural congress that: “We are not only looking at their (GLCs) performance, but also the role they play in helping Malay entrepreneurs.”

I had replied then that: “The Malay and Malaysian public should look forward to hearing the outcome of Perkasa monitoring the GLCs, and learning the truth about how these bodies are standing in the way of, or seriously implementing, their mission of fulfilling the Malay agenda.”

At the time, eight years before the present debate, I also noted the considerable success of GLCs in furthering the Malay agenda from the following indicators:

  • GLCs are major shareholders of corporate equity. They comprise 36 percent and 54 percent of the market capitalisation of Bursa Malaysia and the benchmark Kuala Lumpur Composite Index respectively.
  • Seven of the top 10 listed companies are under majority ownership of the government.
  • Senior GLC positions are largely determined along ethnic lines. GLC directors, management and staff are largely bumiputera.
  • Non-Malay owners of listed and unlisted companies often have no choice but to work with influential bumiputera, and GLCs to help protect their interests through obtaining subcontracts or becoming suppliers of goods and services.
  • Non-Malays may own 40 percent of corporate equity based on the government’s flawed calculations, but GLCs are the major players and have control over the economy.

Malay agenda accomplishments since NEP

I had also noted that much of the new wealth in the country is in Malay hands. These sources of wealth include:

  • The plantation sector, which is dominated by the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) and Permodalan Nasional Berhad (PNB) companies;
  • The smallholding agricultural sector, where Malays are the major group among the 112,635 Felda settlers;
  • The hi-tech aerospace industry;
  • The defence industry;
  • The petroleum and gas industry, where apart from Petronas and MMC, the Malays have substantial holdings in key MNCs such as Shell, Exxon and BP;
  • The finance and banking sector, where eight of 10 banks are bumiputera-owned and controlled;
  • The automotive sector, where Malay interests are dominant in Proton, Perodua, DRB Hicom, UMW and Naza, and where the system of approved permits (AP) ensures a steady stream of income for select bumiputera;
  • The energy and utilities sector, where TNB and Malakoff are key players; and
  • Mara’s digital malls, etc.

Perhaps most successful of all in accomplishing the Malay agenda was that the NEP objective of building a strong Malay professional and technical elite class had been reached well before the time of Perkasa’s inaugural congress.

From a very small base of professional and technical workers in 1970 – bumiputera comprised 4.9 percent of registered professionals at the time – the Malay component of the country’s professional and technical workers in 2010 was the largest among the various racial groups.

According to the government’s Third Outline Perspective Plan (2001-2010), the bumiputera community comprised 63.5 percent of the ‘professional and technical’ category of employment in 2000.

This growth of a strong Malay professional class within a short period of 30 years – with some finding employment and high positions in GLCs, as noted by Tawfik – is possibly the fastest recorded by any marginalised community anywhere in the world.

That this information is not widely known is not due to modesty. It is part of political spin aimed at playing up to Malay insecurity, under-reporting Malay achievement and emphasising the non-Malay, that is, Chinese dominance of the economy.

Tackling Malay poverty

I had also argued that in the economic sphere there is still work to be done to uplift the lot of poor Malays. I noted that the task is less formidable than what official statistics may make it out to be.

This is because Malay poverty – as distinct from bumiputera poverty – is overestimated by statistical practice. Malay figures are lumped with those of recent migrants from Indonesia who have obtained bumiputera status, as well as the other bumiputera from East Malaysia.

The great majority of the former group – Javanese, Sumatrans, etc. – who have assimilated into the country’s population especially after the 1970s came with little in assets or income. Inclusion of these poor ‘pendatang’, despite their upward mobility after migration, has had the impact of distorting the racial distribution of household income in official statistics.

Without them (and also bumiputera communities in Sabah and Sarawak), the ‘native’ or ‘indigenous’ or ‘local’ Malay achievement, as distinct from bumiputera achievement, will be higher in all the social and economic indicators – especially land ownership – used by the Statistics Department to measure inter-ethnic differences.

Harapan’s economic model and country’s future

In the weeks and months to come, the ruling Harapan government will unveil more of its economic policies and programmes to replace BN’s ineffective, unproductive or discredited ones.

It could well be that since 2010, the Malay position in various sectors of the economy has stagnated or fallen back, and therefore deserves attention and propping up through a fair allocation of the nation’s financial resources to support.

It could also be that GLCs should continue to play a key role in enabling achievement of whatever is authoritatively established as an uncompleted or lagging Malay agenda, as well as the priorities in the larger national agenda.

But the hard questions – driven not by “revenge politics,” but by sensibility and prudence – still need to be asked of the Malay agenda in this new era of accountability, transparency and good governance.

What is this new Malay agenda today? Which part of the old Malay agenda has yet to be achieved or realised? Which targets have not been attained?

And how will reconfigured or reformed GLCs help the Malays and the nation arrive at the final accomplishment of the Malay agenda?

LIM TECK GHEE is a public policy analyst and author of the book Challenging Malaysia's Status Quo.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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