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Plugging the national brain drain

Kua Kia Soong  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s call for Malaysians abroad to come home to build the country reminds us of Talent Corp’s attempts to do the same several years ago.

Talent Corp once put together a team to try and convince Malaysians in the Silicon Valley to come home, with special perks thrown in to entice them.

At a symposium, the agency tried to give the impression that Malaysia now has a level playing field, and Malaysians regardless of ethnicity would be free to flex their talents in the service of the nation.

Unfortunately, all it took was one query from an observant Malaysian in the audience to deflate the myth of a level playing field: “If as you say, ‘race’ is now a thing of the past, why is it that the composition of Talent Corp’s team in Silicon Valley is entirely Malay?”

Likewise, my question to Mahathir is this: “If, as you say, Malaysia is now a level playing field, why are you leading a party that is only for the pribumi (indigenous) and have you discarded the so-called ‘bumiputeraism’?

The evidence points to no. Mahathir cannot possibly have discarded bumiputeraism, since he has just announced that he intends to steer Khazanah Nasional Bhd back to its original objective of helping the bumiputera.

Based his record during his first tenure as prime minister, this sort of privatisation only benefits a select group of Malay crony capitalists, and crony capitalism is nothing but endemic corruption.

Economic Affairs Minister Mohamed Azmin Ali had also just announced that the functions of Mara would be enhanced in terms of bumiputera economic structure, equity ownership and entrepreneurship, which will be discussed at the 2018 Congress on the Future of Bumiputeras & the Nation on Sept 1.

Azmin gave an assurance that his ministry would ensure that the objectives of Mara establishment would continue to be pursued and strengthened to protect bumiputera interests. No doubt this involves keeping Universiti Teknologi Mara a bumiputera-only preserve.

This is the reality for those who have been dreaming of a ‘new’ Malaysian dream of equality, justice and democracy.

For a start, the prime minister’s verbalised commitment to the rule of law is not borne out in this never-ending policy based on so-called bumiputeraism, simply because the term does not exist in the Federal Constitution.

Justifying discrimination

The bumiputera/immigrant differentiation to justify racial discrimination continues to be peddled by the ruling Malay elite right up to the present day.

Let us be clear about the difference between rights and privileges. All Malaysians have rights – Malays, Chinese, Indians, indigenous peoples and all other ethnic communities are entitled to the same basic human rights, as enshrined in Part II of the Federal Constitution under “Fundamental Liberties.”

They are inalienable, independent of the government of the day. Apart from being guaranteed in our constitution, they are also part and parcel of the UN human rights instruments.

The “special position of the Malays” as stated in Article 153 took on a different form in 1971 with amendment 8A, which allowed the quota system and all the other excesses of ethnic discrimination.

"Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, where in any University, College and other educational institution providing education after Malaysian Certificate of Education or its equivalent, the number of places offered by the authority responsible for the management of the University, College or such educational institution to candidates for any course of study is less than the number of candidates qualified for such places, it shall be lawful for the Yang di-Pertuan Agong by virtue of this Article to give such directions to the authority as may be required to ensure the reservation of such proportion of such places for Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong may deem reasonable; and the authority shall duly comply with the directions."

The New Economic Policy which was launched in 1971 also had an expiry date for 1990. How long can the elite keep changing the rules as they go along? The older generation knows that between 1957 and 1971, we did not have the gross excesses of the quota system in the forms we have experienced since.

Privileges are not rights. A right is defined as an entitlement, very different from a privilege or a licence granted by the constitution. Privileges, on the other hand, can be revoked because they are conditional.

The Reid Commission actually suggested a 15-year sunset clause for the aforementioned special position clause in the 1957 constitution. Meaning that once the intended results were met, privileges could be taken away, but not rights.

It is astounding that the bugbear thrown into the independence struggle to put the anti-colonial forces on the defensive – i.e., who are the pribumi and who are the pendatang – continues to be thrown at Malaysians in order to divide our nation in the present day.

The keepers of the pribumi estate overlooked an elementary point of logic – namely, how could a non-pribumi become a pribumi simply by assimilation when the latter is strictly a historical category?

This obsession with race has little currency in the disciplines of anthropology or sociology, not to speak of human rights in the international community.

Stopping the brain drain

It still amazes me that intellectuals in the government cannot conceive of ways to help the poor and marginalised without raising the issue of ethnicity, which is really a populist agenda to secure votes in the elections – not because there is no other choice.

Sixty years of racially based policies have divided us, while enriching the well-connected crony capitalists linked to the political elite.

It is time to replace race-based policies with needs-based measures that target the lower-income and marginalised sectors. It is common sense that poor rural Malaysians should be assisted based on their needs according to the particular economic sectors in which they live and work.

Today, with more than 95 percent Malay personnel in the civil and armed forces, isn’t it high time that recruitment and promotion in these services were based on merit?

With the ‘bumiputera agenda’ and the continual flip-flopping policies, Malaysia’s economic progress continues to be plagued by a lack of innovation and skills, a low level of investment in technology, declining standards in education, and sluggish growth in productivity.

The cost and consequence of racially discriminatory policies in Malaysia have been immense, especially since the introduction of the NEP. It has caused a crippling polarisation of Malaysian society and a costly brain drain.

According to the World Bank: “The diaspora has likely reached about one million people in 2010; compared to about 750,000 in 2000… the brain drain is estimated at a third of the total diaspora. This translates into a number of 335,000 in 2010, which is up from 217,000 in 2000.”

Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto promised to “create a Malaysia that is inclusive, moderate and respected globally… just and equitable life, free from any forms of discrimination. The diversity of races and religions should be seen as a source of power, not as an obstacle.”

That is a vision all right-thinking Malaysians share. But it can only be realised if unjust and dysfunctional institutions are reformed.

Such a reform starts with the prime minister calling for an end to race-based political parties which make up the ruling coalition; the end to racism and racial discrimination in all Malaysian institutions, and affirmative action based on social and sectoral need, not on race.

Malaysians who have gone abroad will definitely know when it is time to return – when there is truly a level playing field.


KUA KIA SOONG is the adviser of Suaram.

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

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