Since Malaysia’s election of a new party for the first time in more than six decades in May, the new government has delivered on a number of once unthinkably progressive reforms, including abolishing the nation’s sedition law and the death penalty.
But the country’s antiquated system of racial privileges and the politics that protect them has become an intractable obstruction to more fundamental promised reforms.
The privileges and preferences for Bhumiputras (the majority Malay population and other indigenous peoples) over other minority ethnic groups, such as Chinese and Indians, affects everything from education to attaining government positions to buying a house.
Corruption, complacency and economic stagnation are widely identified consequences of the policy both Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim have expressed a desire to reform.
Yet an eruption late last year of opposition stoked ethno-nationalistic anger at the suggestion Malaysia might ratify an anti-discrimination treaty has revealed how perilous any attempt at reform by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition government can be.
“I think what the government needs to do is rethink about all its reform, not necessarily abandoning them but they must be able to find ways to articulate them from a pro-Malay perspective,” said Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Penang Institute.
“For the moment I think the government would avoid doing anything that rocks the boat for they fear that this would only strengthen the hand of the opposition,” he said.
The opposition — the shattered remains of disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) — has latched onto the race issue after its shocking defeat exposed an absence of defining values outside incumbency.
UMNO’s political frailty has been on stark display recently by a string of defections that has whittled away at the party’s slim haul of 54 seats won in May’s electoral trouncing.
But, by teaming up with PAS, the country’s largest Islamic party, they were able to exert some influence in December, mobilizing an estimated 50,000 supporters to a nationalist rally.
The demonstration went ahead even though Mahathir had already reversed an earlier decision to sign the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the focus of their outrage.
UMNO was able to exploit the perception that ICERD could invalidate the privileges enshrined to Malays in the 1957 constitution and expanded into a National Economic Policy that was implemented in reaction to 1969 Malay race riots against the Chinese.
As an affirmative action policy, many observers have argued since that the policy did not conflict with ICERD, provided it was indeed correcting economic imbalances on racial lines or otherwise.
“To have the constitutional provision and the NEP strictly as affirmative action, the Malay underclass would stand to gain because the policy would have to be specifically targeted to benefit them,” Chin Huat said.
“But the upper class cronies, those well connected Malays, would stand to lose because they may not be qualified to enjoy the privileges,” he said.
Senior PH figures such as Anwar Ibrahim and Rafizi Ramli have called for the policies to be reformed so that they focus on solving inequality rather than just ineffectively targeting race.
Policy holds back reforms
Ironically, even longtime champions of Malay nationalism such as Mahathir have argued that the policy can actually hurt the very people it’s supposed to help.
“We can pray, we can perform prayers, but if there’s no effort, our skills can deteriorate. If we don’t walk, our muscles will get weaker with time. It’s the same as our brain, if we don’t use it, it’ll get weak too,” Mahathir said during a speech in September, according to the Straits Times.
Australian National University economics scholar Stewart Nixon argued the policies were also one of the key factors holding back Malaysia’s national economy in a November op-ed for the Australian Financial Review responding to Mahathir’s midterm review reforms.
“There was much hope that Mahathir’s more representative government would bring an end to the country’s long-running and ill-targeted affirmative action program. Yet the review simply reaffirms the government’s commitment to continuing it,” Nixon wrote.
“Outdated and divisive policies serve to perpetuate negative perceptions of the majority Malays, deter investment and encourage the brain drain (exodus of highly educated and skilled people) of discriminated-against minorities.”
UMNO MPs contacted by VOA declined to comment for this article.
James Chin, director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania, told VOA that with the Herculean task of tackling endemic corruption in Malaysia’s private and public sectors, he didn’t expect the affirmative action policy to become a focus anytime soon.
“The reasons why they do not want to touch it is because they worry if they try to reform the racial preference system they’ll lose the next general election, which is a much bigger danger,” he said. “You have to remember their first priority is to get re-elected because they know to reform Malaysia it will take many years so they need to be in there for the long haul.”
In that case, Mahathir’s government is left in a tight spot trying to reform endemic corruption while tiptoeing around one of the key drivers of the problem in the first place.