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May 9 was not it - we shall have to overcome our struggles some other day

William Leong Jee Keen  |  Published:  |  Modified:

A donkey carrying baskets was told by his shepherd master to flee when enemies approached. The donkey asked if the enemy would put another pair of baskets on him and if not, why flee.

In a change of government, the poor change nothing beyond the name of their master.

- The Shepherd and the Donkey, Aesop’s Fables

MP SPEAKS | There will be many analyses of the Cameron Highlands by-election result. It is obvious Pakatan Harapan did not win sufficient Malay support and there was a lower voter turnout compared to the 14th general election.

In the ultimate analysis, the result is a reflection of Malaysians agreeing with Aesop’s donkey. Other than a change of the prime minister and name of the coalition, the Pakatan Harapan government has not implemented the promised substantive reforms.

The danger arising from the Cameron Highlands result is that Harapan will be engaged in a race to the bottom of ethnic extremism with Umno/PAS. With it comes greater ethnic tensions and deeper ethnic cleavages.

All of us, Malaysians, like Martin Luther King Jr. have a dream. We have all been inspired by the song We Shall Overcome. It has become the anthem against injustice. It is a song about a promise: “We shall overcome some day. Deep in my heart, I do believe.”

In the light of recent events, May 9 was not the day. We shall have to overcome some other day.

Elite capture of the government

Inequality and racial politics in Malaysia are inter-related. The country’s persistent and growing inequality between the rich and the poor, economic deprivation suffered by various groups, and deepening social fragmentation are due to racial politics.

Racial politics have been perpetuated by the political and economic elite in order to maintain their wealth, influence and control of political and economic power.

The country descending into a dysfunctional state is also due to the elite's capture of the BN government. It is a result of the political-economic elite’s insatiable greed.

The political-economic elite uses the political power in their hands to control the government institutions responsible for distribution of resources, and to ensure that policies that benefit them are retained at the expense of a disempowered majority.

The political-economic elite, through political patronage, maintain a system to establish monopolies and activities to extract rent. They manipulate politicians and administrators to cater to their narrow economic interests through inequitable practices that tend to discriminate against other groups.

This political-economic elite capture has been systemic, permeating through all layers from the highest seat of executive power down to the lowest municipal councils. From the awarding of billion-ringgit infrastructure projects to RM25,000 projects to class F contractors.

The Harapan reforms are to check the predatory behaviour of the political-economic elite.

The reforms are to put in place greater accountability, governance and empowerment of the middle and poorer classes.

The reforms are to ensure equality before the law and securing both personal and property rights to give individuals the incentive and opportunity to take part in economic and political life without being beholden to the political-economic elite.

Rise of the political-economic elite

A massive rural development fund by the Rural and National Development ministry was launched in 1959 by then deputy prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein.

Since then, Umno politicians became not only interested in the business of politics, but also more interested in the politics of business – generating income, wealth and influence in the business of rural development. The development projects were won by Umno politicians and subcontracted to Chinese contractors. (source: Shamsul A.B, The Economic Dimension of Malay Nationalism)

It came to be planted in the minds of many young Malays and aspiring entrepreneurs that there was a shortcut, a “political way” to make the materialistic leap to become rich rather quickly. Upward social mobility is by climbing the rungs of the political ladder, and money politics was born.

Following the first Bumiputera Economic Congress in 1965 and the second three years later in 1968, detailed strategies and programmes were made to implement the nationalist economic agenda which culminated in the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971. The evolution of the Bumiputera Commercial and Industrial Community (BCIC) progressed in tandem with the protracted affirmative action under the NEP.

Political analysts Terrence Gomez and KS Jomo have pointed out that most Malay businessmen wanted state intervention to preserve their special privileges. They contended that such Bumiputera capitalists were rent-seekers rather than genuine entrepreneurs. They regarded the activities of these Bumiputera capitalists as unproductive and a hindrance to economic development. (source: Shamsul A.B, The Economic Dimension of Malay Nationalism)

The Najib administration, in its failed attempt to implement the New Economic Model, admitted to the scourge of political patronage and rent-seeking behaviour of these political-economic elite. (source: Shamsul A.B, The Economic Dimension of Malay Nationalism)

The National Economic Advisory Council (NEAC) in its publication The New Economic Model for Malaysia Part 1 stated as follows:

Ethnic-based economic policies worked, but implementation issues also created problems. The NEP has reduced poverty and substantially addressed inter-ethnic economic imbalances. However, its implementation has also increasingly and inadvertently raised the cost of doing business due to rent-seeking, patronage and often opaque government procurement. This has engendered pervasive corruption which needs to be addressed earnestly.”

Terence Gomez in his book Minister of Finance Incorporated: Ownership and Control of Corporate Malaysia has drawn attention to the disturbing development that control of corporate Malaysia has been taken over by the Government-Linked Investment Companies (GLICs) which included Khazanah Nasional Berhad, Permodalan Nasional Berhad, with the Ministry of Finance at the apex of the structure.

Gomez, in The Economic Dimension of Malay Nationalism, has pointed out that the nexus involving politics and business has fundamentally shifted from Umno politicians to the finance minister’s office which was concurrently held by the prime minister during the time of Najib Abdul Razak.

In a recent article “Patronage is king in new Malaysia”, Gomez voiced his concern that under the Mahathir Mohamad administration, control of the GLICs have been removed from the Finance Ministry and transferred to the newly created Economic Affairs Ministry, while Khazanah Nasional was placed under the Prime Minister’s Department. 

At the Congress on the Future of Bumiputeras and the Nation, Mahathir stressed the need to reinstitute the practice of selective patronage targeting Bumiputeras.

Gomez posed the question whether Harapan will carry out divestment of the GLICs businesses to create a new breed of powerful well-connected business groups, even oligarchs.

Fallacious racial arguments

Racial politics is premised on the elite of the dominant racial group possessing political power to gain privileged access to scarce resources and benefits: property rights, jobs, scholarships, educational admissions, language rights, government contracts and development allocations.

It is based on the argument that with the elite’s predominance, the elite is able to provide for those “included” in the dominant racial group, while excluding those in the “other” racial groups.

It is only in this manner, so the argument goes, that members of the “in” group can be assured of improvement in their economic well-being and survival at the expense of the “other.”

Scholars have explained that ethnic tensions are created by ethnic activists and political entrepreneurs making blatant ethnic appeals to outbid moderate politicians, thereby mobilising members of their ethnic group, polarising society and magnifying inter-ethnic dilemmas.

Non-rational factors such as emotions, historical memories and myths create a vicious cycle that threaten to pull multi-ethnic societies apart. (source: Shamsul A.B, The Economic Dimension of Malay Nationalism)

The political-economic elite has perpetuated these myths and fallacies to maintain their dominance and influence. They hijacked and abused the NEP and racial preferential policies for their personal gain, while the objective of creating an independent Bumiputera entrepreneur class remains unrealised.

Racial myths debunked

The corruption, plundering and kleptomania exhibited by the previous BN regime have shattered the fallacies of racial politics. The political elite not only stole from the national coffers, but also robbed the till of sacred institutions established to promote Bumiputera well-being such as Felda, Mara, Tabung Haji and others.

By their misconduct, the myth that only ministers and government officials from Umno or endorsed by Umno can be trusted to take care of the Malays has been debunked.

The deception, sustained through the years, that the personality, integrity and capability of the elected representative are not factors for consideration as long as he is a Malay from Umno, has been fully exposed.

The fiction that non-Malays cannot be trusted to take care of the Malays is being dispelled with the appointment of non-Malays as the Finance Minister, Attorney-General, Chief Justice and others.

In the process, it is revealed that those who benefited the most from the distrust, suspicion, hatred and fear amongst the various ethnic groups are the political-economic elite themselves, while the largest group of the impoverished after five decades of the NEP continue to be the Malays and Bumiputeras.

Centripetalism put into practice

The changeover from BN to Harapan has allowed Harapan’s elected representatives, government agencies and institutions to depoliticise ethnicity by resolving the people’s problems on a cross-ethnic basis.

Malay constituents can take their problems directly to their non-Malay Harapan elected representatives without having to go through the local Umno division chiefs.

The non-Malay constituents similarly can approach their Malay Harapan elected representatives without having MCA or MIC local leaders as intermediaries.

The constituents enjoy the confidence that the matters are resolved on an objective basis and not subject to ethnic interests or considerations.

In this way, politicians can take moderate positions that accommodate all ethnic groups and avoid extreme or divisive positions. In the process, the politicians gain support from across the ethnic divide.

This process is now endangered if ethnic extremists are allowed to take central stage again and the space for moderates diminishes.

Patching up the tattered myths

On May 9, the Harapan government was given a golden opportunity to restructure the policies, putting an end to divisive racial politics. It was a chance of a lifetime to put right the growing inequality of income, wealth and well-being of Malaysians irrespective of race and religion, to enhance social cohesion, provide for all their right to flourish and live their lives with dignity, and restore the nation to its rightful global economic order.

It was bought and paid for by the blood, sweat and tears of those who sacrificed their careers, reputation and freedom over 20 years, for some stretching back 40 years or more.

It is, therefore, tragic that Mahathir and the Harapan government did not fully grasp the opportunity offered.

Instead, Mahathir and his administration have stopped at only changing the personalities. They have not gone further to carry out the much-needed reforms.

Recent events show, Mahathir does not fully embrace the Harapan reform agenda. He has now embarked on a contest to win Malay support from Umno and PAS by showing that Bersatu is a better champion of Malay rights.

In doing so, Mahathir is building a roof of Malay dominance to cover the Harapan foundation of multi-racial and multi-cultural beliefs. Mahathir is stitching and patching the tattered myths of racial politics. He is resuscitating the old political-economic elite and attracting new ones to come under the Bersatu umbrella.

Mahathir is now working to replace UMNO hegemony with a Bersatu hegemony:

  • On Nov 1, 2018, Mahathir defended the NEP and its racial preferential programme in opening the Congress on the Future of the Bumiputera and the Nation 2018. He defended the practice of awarding contracts by “direct negotiations,” and continue doing away with meritocracy;
  • On Nov 1, 2018, Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali, in his parliament winding-up speech during the debate on the 11th Malaysia Mid-Term Review, said that the Harapan government will continue with the spirit of the NEP and realise its objectives;
  • On Nov 23, 2018, in the wake of Umno and PAS objections, the cabinet reversed its decision to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (Icerd). The decision left Gun Kut, a member of the United Nations committee member monitoring the implementation of Icerd, dumbfounded. He says the cabinet decision makes Malaysia seen as accepting racial discrimination;
  • By Dec 15, 2018, a total of 16 MPs quit Umno, and Bersatu proposes accepting them into its fold. These defectors have not shown they have changed their political philosophy or shed their Umno culture;
  • On Dec 29, 2018, Mahathir, at Bersatu’s 2nd General Assembly, hammered home the final nail in the coffin of multi-racial politics and inclusive policies.

Mahathir, in his speech at his party’s general assembly, said that the time has not yet come for multi-racial political parties. The Bersatu chairperson reprised Malay fears of the other ethnic groups.

He reminded the Malays that they would be left behind economically by the other races in their own motherland. He said the Malays needed to hold on to political power to save their race. To retain their freedom.

To do so, they have to unite behind Bersatu. They have to ensure the government is led by a Malay-dominant party. The Malays need to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of their race and for their children’s future such as he is prepared to do, even to the extent of being called a racist.

Although Mahathir is asking the Malays to march to the beat of a different drummer, he is, nevertheless, using the same ethno-nationalist drums beating out the same sounds of “blood and soil” that Umno uses. In fact, Mahathir pointed out in his speech, Bersatu is the Umno of 2003.

Back on the road to serfdom and mediocrity

It is undoubted that Mahathir is sincere and earnest in his belief that social cohesion and addressing inequality amongst the different ethnic groups are to be achieved through the racial preferential policies of the NEP and Malay political dominance.

There is, however, a viable alternative in the form of needs-based affirmative action and inclusive policies, but these are not being taken up.

Sadly, we are being taken back down the road to serfdom again. New Malaysia instead of being a society in search of excellence, will continue to perfect mediocrity.

Instead of good governance and accountability, political patronage and rent-seeking will continue to thrive. Instead of social cohesion, there will be further social fragmentation, greater mistrust and deeper ethnic division among the citizens than before.

Dreams of equality and social justice have become another case of blowing in the wind. We nevertheless must soldier on in the struggle for justice and freedom. We only lose when we give-up.

The original verse in We Shall Overcome becomes more relevant to Malaysians now. It is:

“If in my heart I do not yield,

I do believe,

I shall overcome some day”


WILLIAM LEONG JEE KEEN is the Selayang MP.

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

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