Saturday, December 01, 2007

Malaysia: Simply Asia?

The country’s affirmative action has become cronyism by another name. It needs reform.

Malaysia's programme of affirmative action came under wider scrutiny this week, with the ethnic Indian minority sustaining protests in a country mostly unused to disruptive agitation. Ethnic Indians, mostly of Tamil origin, say that current policies withhold from them economic opportunities available to Malays. In a curious overlap, they have also agitated outside the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur seeking reparation from London for taking their forefathers to Southeast Asia as indentured labourers a century ago. For Malaysia, which has always been keenly alert to the destablising possibilities of its ethnic and regional diversity, these protests would certainly ring alarm bells. About four decades after Malaysia embarked on a unique affirmative action programme to bring the majority Malays into the economic mainstream, these protests should underline the need to refine that plan. After all, with social unrest already wracking their neighbourhood in Thailand and Indonesia, Malaysia’s leaders must be keen to avoid similar political and economic destabilisation.

In zeroing in on the British mission, the protesters are, perhaps inadvertently, showing that for all their problems they cannot hold the majority Malay responsible. In different ways and degrees, colonialism took a toll on all settled and migrant subjects. Soon after Malaysia gained independence, an ambitious programme was launched to pull native Malays out of widespread poverty. This was done, for instance, by hugely subsiding their education in the best universities around the world and by financially assisting their entrepreneurial plans. By one estimate, in 1970, Malaysia’s natives owned only 2.4 per cent of its wealth. In the past decade, however, this affirmative action has been increasingly attacked by wide sections of the population for becoming cronyism by another name. One of the allegations has been that instead of helping certain sections of society in entering the entrepreneurial mainstream, it is now just a way of bailing out favourites and thereby denying others a level playing field.

The current protests would be most constructively seen in this context instead as a sign of outright ethnic discord. Malaysia is in urgent need to reform its affirmative action programme, for the good of all its people. (Editorial - The Indian Express)
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