Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

How About an NEP for All Malaysians?

Written by johnleemk on 1:21:09 am Oct 23, 2008.

Whenever I write about the racism non-Bumiputras suffer in Malaysia, I meet with the same reply: but what about the discrimination the Bumiputras suffer from the Chinese business community? Shouldn't the government be doing something about that? Undoubtedly. But the answer to racism can never be more racism. I understand the rejection a Bumiputra must feel when she cannot climb the corporate ladder because of her race. But does that justify in turn rejecting a non-Bumiputra trying to serve his country, just out of spite? If we want to be fair, we must prioritise economic development as a national, not racial problem.

The problem with the New Economic Policy is not its implementation; at its core, the policy itself is wrong. How can you assume that the only community deserving government help is the Bumiputra community? I challenge you, today, to go down to a New Village or an Indian estate and to tell the impoverished subsistence workers there that they do not need their NEP too. Poverty and economic backwardness are not problems unique to any one race; they are problems which the whole country must address, because they are problems which will drag all of us down if we do not tackle them.

Few things get on my nerves as much as non-Bumiputras who become so busy pouring scorn on Malay racism and bemoaning government discrimination that they wind up blind to the very real fate of many Malaysians, Bumiputra and non-Bumiputra alike. Does anyone still remember that story of the boy from Penampang, Sabah, who hung himself last year after he couldn't afford to buy a snack at school? His family of six was living on RM70 a month from the Welfare Department; after he hung himself, their dole was upped to RM150. Now, that boy was a Bumiputra, but I don't think anyone gives a damn about what race he was; the point is that as long as you have families literally starving to death — who feeds themselves on less than RM1 per person per day? — you need to do something.

Our ultimate goal must be to ensure that every Malaysian, no matter who he or she is, has the same chance as any other Malaysian to make the most of the innate talents God has granted them. It is just as wrong to deny a Bumiputra his chance to start a law firm as it is to deny a non-Bumiputra the scholarship he needs to become a doctor. It doesn't matter whether the discrimination is from the government or a private entity; in both cases, it is wrong, plain and simple.

What disgusts me is how many Bumiputra justify government discrimination against non-Bumis, rich or poor, because the well-off non-Bumiputra discriminate against them. And equally disgusting is the notion amongst some non-Bumiputra that a "pure meritocracy" can be fair to everyone, even though poor Malaysians are clearly competing at a disadvantage. Both sides claim to be fighting for justice; they refuse to confront the fact that two injustices don't cancel each other out. Fighting unfairness with unfairness only makes things less fair; it only makes more people worse off.

Now, a very real fact in this country is that many Malaysians, mainly the Bumiputras, have much less chance of ever captaining a large corporation than the typical Chinese Malaysian. They do not have access to the educational opportunities, business mentors, social networks, or capital which they need to get going in the commercial sector. But how does this justify at all denying Chinese Malaysians — some of whom come from as impoverished backgrounds as many Bumiputras — access to these same necessities, just for the sake of a Bumiputra, who for all we know is the scion of a rich "towering Malay" family who clearly does not need any help to get ahead? Even more importantly, how does this justify calling non-Bumiputras pendatang asing and squatters who can be kicked out of the country at a moment's notice?

And on the other hand, how does the clear failure of the NEP to uplift the majority of Bumiputras out of poverty invalidate any sort of policy which will level the playing field? A pure dog eat dog world isn't a just world — it's anarchy. The biggest obstacle to lifting people out of poverty is ensuring they have access to basic opportunities for them to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. When you live in fear of starvation, when you have to drop out of school to feed your younger siblings, when you can't afford to go to the doctor, how can you ever make the most of the brains and muscle God gifted you with?

It's time to stop being selfish. It's time to advance economic policies which give all Malaysians a fair shake. The poor of Malaysia need their NEP — they need their chance to get the things we in the wealthy suburbs take for granted. When Indian kids in the estate can't go to school, when Malay children in the kampong drop out because they can't see a future for themselves, when Chinese in the New Villages think "VCD seller" is an ambition, it's all of us, Malaysians, who lose. When we try to solve these problems by refusing non-Bumiputras scholarships, or refusing to even lend deserving Bumiputras a hand, we only worsen them.

The power to change this is in our hands. We can tell our politicians we want something different, something that works for all Malaysians. Why don't we do this? Why do we continue to rant about the stupid politics of Pakatan Rakyat or UMNO? Every potential doctor, every potential lawyer, every potential entrepreneur that languishes as a lorry driver somewhere because he never got the skills he needed is a real loss to us, and a far bigger problem than the petty politics we would rather whine about.

First published in The Malaysian Insider.

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