Malaysia, Epitome of Social Immobility
What social mobility is there in Malaysia? Our Deputy Prime Minister, Najib Razak, defended the government's record recently by asserting that, unlike the colonial administration, the Barisan Nasional government has successfully created social mobility.
He said this, of course, while giving out handouts of luxurious bungalows and land to FELDA settlers. I wonder if any irony was lost on him. You don't exactly create social mobility by giving handouts.
Let's go back to what social mobility is. The concept fundamentally is that people should have the opportunity to better themselves in accordance with their own ability and diligence. In other words, people should be able to help themselves, and the only determining factors in how successful they are should be how able they are and how hard they are willing to work.
These FELDA settlers, however, did little more than luck out by settling on land that the government now wants. While you might attribute this to some acumen on their part, it is difficult to make the case for social mobility on the basis of people happening to settle land that suddenly becomes desirable in the future. Land speculation does not create value.
Still, if we take government handouts as an indicator of social mobility, Najib might be right. A not insignificant number of people have come out from nowhere to make off with spectacular gains thanks to government aid. A lot of BN politicians with nothing to their name have become quite well off.
But if this is what social mobility means, why should we consider it desirable? Is Najib saying "Vote for us, because we will give you plump political posts and make you rich through corruption, bribery, and embezzlement"?
Real social mobility creates value because it encourages people to do great things. It encourages a kampong boy with a talent for medicine to save lives, instead of telling him he cannot go to medical school because he is of the wrong class, the wrong race, or the wrong parentage.
But on that basis, what social mobility do we have, Najib? All your regime has done is take British racism — the antithesis of social mobility — and perfect it. What chance does a Malay boy have of making it in the corporate world without government help? What chance does a Chinese or Indian girl have of heading a government agency or major Cabinet portfolio?
What about wealth? How does it encourage social mobility to let rich Malays take advantage of certain racial privileges, while leaving the poorer ones (who have no idea how to utilise stock options) out in the cold?
Face facts, Najib. We do not have social mobility — we have the precise opposite. And it is you we have to blame for solidifying social immobility in this country, for ensuring that access to opportunity depends not on talent or willingness to work, but on who you know, how much you earn, and what the colour of your skin is.