ew Economic Model (NEM) announced by the Prime Minister recently sounds like a good plan for a developing nation like Malaysia. It is full of encouraging headlines that highlights positive visions and missions for the Malaysian economy. Objectives such as Quality Workforce, Energising Private and Public Sectors, Competitive Domestic Environment, Market Friendly, Knowledge Base Infrastructure, Sources and Sustainability of Growth, Quality of Life, Breaking the Middle Income Trap and Non-Compromisation of Future Generations; are all noble in intention and perhaps the only viable way to move the country forward from a "developing" to a "developed" country in 2020. All these does not necessarily mean that we should forget what the initial intentions were when all ethnic groups in Malaya agreed on the Constitution that was formulated in 1957 which is significantly in tact until today. There are a few concepts within the NEM which may need clarification from the government, especially when the government had announced the abandonment of the 30% Bumi equity quota to only replace it with corporate establishment such as Ekuiti Nasional Berhad (Ekuinas).
Under the previous regime, a blanket 30% rule across the board forces all heads of establishment, be it CEO's of public listed companies, or the entreprenuers or even the politicians; to ensure that such quotas are adhered to in the spirit of economic equitability and racial harmony. However, with Ekuinas being incorporated to somewhat assume the role of what the quota used to serve, we are pulling the burden away from the rest of the nation onto a single organisation. Whoever the CEO of Ekuinas is, I am pretty sure he feels like the Greek god Atlas carrying the heavy globe on his shoulders everywhere he goes. The quota should be viewed as a necessary tool to address what our forefathers were struggling to come to terms with, which they did, eventually, just before the independence. A tool that every sides of the nation had come to agree, back then (not sure about now though).
A glance of reading of what I have here would probably spark discontent amongst some parties particularly the non-Bumis; but I can assure you that my points are not from the perspective of racial preference, rather, it is from the perspective of addressing economic disparity and most importantly racial harmony, ironically. I urge everyone not to jump to conclusion but instead, understand what had transpired the arrangements in our Constitution regarding the Bumi privileges. Prima facie, it may be irrational but when history is being studied, you may just comprehend why things are the way they are and why our forefathers decided what they had decided. A perfect way to start this evaluation is by quoting opinions from those who were in Malaya back then at the point when the Constitution was drafted and by a person who is neither Bumi nor Malaysian non-Bumi. I chose - Anthony Burgess in his The Malayan Trilogy, who wrote:
"The Malays call themselves 'the sons of the soil' and consider that they are the only rightful inhabitants of the Malay peninsula. Political rule is totally in their hands, but they show little talent for industry and commerce. These activities, as well as the running of offices and railways, have traditionally and gladly been assumed by immigrants from China and India. The wealth of Malaya was always in the hands of the Chinese, Tamil, Bengalis and Sikhs. But Malaya has to be accepted as a Multiracial territory.... "
Anthony has described what seems to be the core issue in any multiracial establishment like Malaysia. Even back then when it was Malaya or Tanah Melayu, such issue has been at the back of everyone's head while they greet each other "Selamat Pagi" or "Vannakam" or "Chi Min Chi Yow". This is truly a very difficult matter to be addressed. It should and ought to involve generations of education, understanding of history and equitability which is, not necessarily just. Tun Mahathir in his The Malay Dilemma demonstrated that a careful consideration is required to understand the root cause of the current socio-economic statuses of the different ethic groups in this beloved country.
The Bumis (Malays and the indigenous ethic groups), being the majority of the population (i.e. 60% to 70%), argue that whatever rights they have, whether justified or not, are inherent given the weight in the majority representation that exists until today. This is not congruent with what South Africa used to be, i.e. Apartheid, where the minority ruled. So, in the context of harmonising with the foreign governments back then in the early 1900's, the next concept was introduced, i.e. the first to establish an effective government. The first thing that comes to mind is the Sultanate of Malacca, or if studied deeper, the Srivijayas, the Langkasukas and the Majapahits of this region. In South Africa, the Caucasians may have perceived to be the first in establishing an administrative governance over the land, hence becoming the ruler. Later, the world realised that the concept of majority still holds true when Mandela succeeded. Come to think of it, I have the feeling that it was the Blacks who established the first effective government in that region - ever heard of the King of Zulu? a kingdom which may have sprawled all the way to the south of Africa.
The Chinese, having travelled the world since the beginning of time has a completely different concept. They ride on "Survival of the Fittest". The huge land of China, which is largely covered by deserts that bear the difficulties of extreme climate, warrants them to travel the globe. The ancient Chinese, even back-dated to the era of Egyptian Pharoahs, Babylonian Mesopotamia or Solomonic Ethiopia, had travelled across to the Americas to become what we call the Eskimos, the Red Indians or the Andes Indians. They are travellers. It is no surprise that they exist everywhere, let alone having a strong presence in Malaysia. Using the term "Pendatang" (wanderer) to describe the Chinese may not be that wise given that the Bumis were vagrants themselves rovering from the Yunan region. In fact, calling the Negritos of Pahang as the original inhabitants of Malaya is also inaccurate - there is a possibility that the Africans travelled the Earth earlier than the Chinese and ended up being the Negritos, West Indies or even the Aboriginals of Australasia.
The Indians of Malaysia contributed significantly to the economy since the early years of the Malaccan Entreport era, the British rule and remained to be a force not to be ignored in this country. Whilst relatively small in size compared to their counterparts, they have been instrumental in the development of various sectors such as plantation, railway, post, press, medical and of course, law. Any group of population that contributes to the development of a country would certainly have cards of significant strength when aiming for the pool of bets at the middle of the table. Every component of the society believes in the idea of sharing what the land has to offer not just for their own sake but their descendants' as well. The generation that was born in this country would, by right, feel a sense of belonging to their place of birth, hence, worthy of calling themselves 'the sons of the soil' as well?
All these give rise to many questions for which there are many ways to answer. These 'answers' are logical in their own way even when they contradict each other. How do you proceed from here? It is indeed tricky. Do you go by majority? or do you claim on the basis of being the first to establish an effective government? You can argue that you are born a citizen which by right shouldn't be regarded as 2nd class. Or, you can also argue that you have established presence in the country long enough to assume what you perceive to be your rights. If all fails, then you might just pack up and go to say, Australia, to start a new life - a perfect cause of brain drain in the country.
Recently I had lunch with a colleague of mine and the conversation we had was quite a worrying one. It was on the subject of NEM. The conversation evolved into 1Malaysia discussion and back tracked into history when Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak agreed to allow citizenship to the non-Bumis who were already calling The Malay Peninsula their home - a compromise they had with their counterparts Tun Tan Cheng Lock and Tun Sambanthan , who represented the so called significant ethnic groups, as a return to them ageeing to abandon the Malayan Union. Under the Malayan Union, non-Bumis were allowed to hold dual nationalities, which meant there was a possibility that the Chinese and Indians would be loyal to their home country, rather than Malaya. Agreement to abandon the Malayan Union means that non-Bumis only call Malaya their home and cut ties with the Peoples' Republic of China or India. What it also means is that there are special privileges to the Bumis as a civil liberty to ensure that the significant economic gap is addressed - as what Mr Burgess mentioned, "The wealth of Malaya was always in the hands of the Chinese, Tamil, Bengalis and Sikhs.. but Malaya has to be accepted as a multiracial territory".
"The wealth of Malaya was always in the hands of the Chinese, Tamil, Bengalis and Sikhs... but Malaya has to be accepted as a multiracial territory...."
What does that really mean? The first part of the quotation is not in harmony with the second part. There can never be an "acceptance" of a multiracial territory when there exist a significant disparity in the economic well being of the different ethnic groups. What Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Tan Cheng Lock and Tun Sambanthan formulated back then is exactly in the spirit of what Burgess call "acceptance" - one side of the fence having the assurance of a mechanism in place to address the economic disparity; and the other side of the fence being acknowledged citizenship. The former is an acceptance of the need for equitability and the latter is the acceptance as countrymen of Malaysia that they so love to be part of. This formula is relevant back then and remains relevant today. One should study the history behind what we have today and not have a myopic conclusion.
Economic disparity still exists despite numerous attempts to rectify, such as scholarships, 30% equity quotas and a series of other initiatives including special organisations like MARA, PNB, Tabung Haji, FELDA and Khazanah. I may have read somewhere that the most the Bumis ever reached in their equity holdings is 18% - a pathetic result for a 60% - 70% majority of the population. The truth is, bulk of the Bumis are still in the "low income trap", not "middle income trap" as told by our Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak. "Middle income trap" consists of those struggling to live a hectic city life which spreads out across all races. "Low income trap", unfortunately are the Bumis. Have you been to Gua Musang lately? Have you been to Kuala Berang lately? Have you been to the Felda settlements? Take a trip around Malaysia starting from Padang Besar via the old road through all the towns all the way to Karak then de tour to the East Coast before exploring Johor. Who are the poorest of the poor? And what % of the population do you think they represent? And finally, when in the kampungs, have a look at who owns the groceries shops, the petrol stations, the hardware shops, the bakeries or even the contractors who build the mosques? High chance, they are the descendants of those who got citizenship in return for abandoning the Malayan Union.
Anyway, that lunch conversation I had with my mate ended up with a temporary conclusion for the time being; that is: It is a "Stale Mate" scenario. Every group is stuck in an arrangement that appears best to co-exist in despite the irrationality when each group is assessed in isolation. When stepping in the shoes of non-Bumis, it makes perfect sense to argue why there shouldn't be any Bumi privileges. When stepping into the Bumis' shoes, you will probably find the conclusion to be the opposite. However, the mighty power of synergy, when viewed from a total perspective, having regard to what each party is lacking (i.e. Citizenship vs Economic Disparity), it makes perfect sense to remain in a "Stale Mate" position for attempts to convert the game into a "check" position will only end with an ugly "Check Mate" like what happened in 1969.
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