Sunday 21 October 2012

No Brave New Malaysia

  • S Thayaparan
  • 7:53AM Oct 21, 2012
Whatever we wish to achieve in the future, it must begin by knowing where we are in the present - not where we wish we were, or where we wish others to think we are, but where we are in fact." - Thomas Sowell (Economic Facts and Fallacies)

COMMENT The two most important lessons the long Umno watch has taught me. First, the federal government should not be entrusted to carry out policies based either on race or on need. The second, power should be decentralised.

Listening to the participants in the forum titled ‘Vision for Economic Development for Malaysia' organised by the Chevening Alumni of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur on Monday, what struck me was that there were no new ideas coming from either BN or Pakatan Rakyat.

NONEPSM's Sungai Siput MP Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj (who, as the DAP's Tony Pua accurately pointed out, set the bar extremely high) laid out a persuasive argument for a needs-based approach as opposed to the racial card game which is at present in play.

Jeyakumar, the only participant who has been in the grassroots trenches and been witness to Umno at the height of its power and the new reality where Pakatan has gained more influence, is a credible advocate of his socialist position. It is pity that he does not get (unlike the other two participants) mainstream (read: alternative) press coverage for his cause which he rightly deserves.

He has put in the hard work, unlike the other two politicians there who no doubt serve different roles but were, at the end of the day, regurgitating (way past its expiry date) political party talking points.

Khairy Jamaluddin, who famously used the euphemism "leakages" to describe the corruption endemic in the New Economic Policy (NEP), continued his disingenuous sermonising by conceding that a needs-based approach was acceptable, but Malaysians should consider the "grey areas" that did not involve those "bumiputera entrepreneurs who were not on the margins of society".

Khairy may justify it as "empowerment of certain ethnic groups within certain economic sectors..." but for most informed Malaysians it most definitely means a policy of crony capitalism. All this comes at a time when Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah is taking potshots at the "privatisation of power", which was never really about privatisation but rather about extending and legitimising Umno power beyond that of the state.

The Rembau MP was overflowing with political correct bromides that stand out, among them, "It is not just political parties that are made up of certain sectoral interests as far as ethnicity and religion is concerned. It is also how society looks at itself" - which is very true but which is something Umno-BN has never attempted to remedy.

The way Malaysian society looks at itself is exemplified by the precious "social contract" that is either vigorously defended or rejected by partisans with jaundiced interpretations of the constitution or the advocating of communal rights as a stand in for human rights.

Affirmation action fails

The fact that Pakatan partisans sometimes equate this "defence" with the civil rights movement in America makes a mockery of the road travelled by people who were far more committed to the ideals of a civilised and just society than the communal rights advocates and the crypto racists within their ranks.

This myopic narrative of Malaysian racial/economic politics continues in the proposed Social Inclusion Act drafted by Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM) and the National Human Rights Society (Hakam). Understand now that I am supportive of the aims of both these organisation and Pakatan, but neither of them is offering anything new beyond the idea that the "game" would be played more equitably.

Now, at first glance this may seem like an attractive proposition but the reality is that as long as we are bound by the racial shackles of our past and no new ideas ("new" does not necessarily mean "original") are injected into the political mainstream, we are doomed to commit the mistakes of our past.

Under the rather loaded title ‘Building a more just and caring nation', Azmi Sharom endorses (while also acknowledging that the proposed Act is in need of fine tuning) the proposed Act as a good first step in realising the ideal explicit in the title of his piece.

As always, there is that caveat to appease Malay communal fears when it comes to a needs-based approach, which is "I agree that the largest number of poor households is still largely Malay. This being the case, if we discard ethnic-based policy-making and focus purely on poverty alleviation, the largest group that would be receiving help will still be Malays", which at the end is merely the sleight-of-hand political speak of Pakatan (not that I am implying that Sharom is a partisan) to appease a certain ethnic voting base.

I am still unclear on the whole ‘Malay' deal. Are we talking about bumiputeras or constitutionally-created Malays, which include immigrants fast-tracked to citizenship and Malaydom, or people who self-identify themselves as Malays because of their religion of choice, Islam?

I don't see how it is ‘civilised' to endorse a supposed colour blind policy all the while reassuring a certain ethnic group that they would be taken care of solely based on their race because they (without serious unbiased holistic study) fulfil the ‘needs' criteria.

To my thinking the fact that the majority Malay community (and the rest of us Malaysians) have suffered from an affirmative action policy, perhaps the best course of action, at least as a temporary measure, is to abandon the idea of affirmative action.

Thomas Sowell in his provocative essay "Affirmative Action: A World Wide Disaster" (1989) tells of his research on countries where such policies, either race-based or needs-based, list several "patterns" that have a deleterious effect on any given society. I will list them here for convenience:

From the article:

1. Preferential programmes, even when explicitly and repeatedly defined as "temporary", have tended not only to persist but also to expand in scope, either embracing more groups or spreading to wider realms for the same groups or both. Even preferential programmes established with legally mandated cut-off dates in India and Pakistan have been continued past those dates by subsequent extensions.

2. Within these groups designated by government as recipients of preferential treatment, the benefits have disproportionately gone to those members already more fortunate.

3. Group polarisation has tended to increase in the wake of preferential treatment programmes, with non-preferred groups reacting adversely, in ways ranging from political backlash to mob violence and civil war.

4. Fraudulent claims of belonging to beneficiary groups have been widespread and taken many forms in various countries.

Superficial treatment

Readers are encouraged to slog through the 22 pages of Sowell's piece if only to remind them that there are alternatives to the current Malaysian discourse. Many Malaysian voices that advocate the same have been excluded for reasons ranging from political expediency, blind loyalty to party or Umno state-sanctioned reprisals, and of course the big one, disrupting the social contract and inflaming racial sentiment.

NONEOf course, this piece should not be considered an attack against affirmative action (although by all means consider it such, especially if you see Sowell's "patterns" in the current Malaysian social and political climate) but rather a superficial treatment of an option that we as Malaysians should consider if we are to truly move forward.

We have a bloated civil service (and we have seen how well that worked out for Greece) and a corporate sector rife with racism as a mirror to the public sector. Our education system is in shambles with big business and fly-by-night operators colluding with the federal government to engineer an eco-system where public funds would be used to subsidise corporate interests. In this climate, do we really need an affirmative action policy?

Khairy in one of his more exuberant post-2008 tsunami moments wondered out aloud if the concept of "Ketuanan Melayu" could be reimagined as "Kepimpinan Melayu". If Kepimpinan Melayu had ever advocated abandoning its affirmative action policies after realising the futility of social engineering the Umno way, then perhaps Malay leadership would be something every Malaysian would subscribe to.

As it is, ‘Malay' leadership is accepted as a necessary consequence of the racial political reality in this land. To quote Sowell, "When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear." Unfortunately, the last bit does not apply solely to Umno.

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy

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