How should Malaysians approach Bumiputera policies

Malaysian Students' Global Alliance
5 min
Thursday, July 23, 2020

The scent stinks up the room, sensitive and sharp for many Malaysians to even think about. Much like our public toilets, it is pungent to others but familiar to us. After all, it has been so ingrained in our society that its social and economic implications have become an accepted norm in our society.

Nobody enjoys stepping into the cubicle – especially if you have to fork out 20 sens for the torture – but it is high time we engage in this conversation maturely and bravely, with both sides approaching the topic with careful consideration of the opposing views.

My goal here is to provide a deeper understanding of the underlying issues at hand and suggest a sustainable approach moving forward. This article aims to show you the proper methods to clean this public toilet and appreciate the complexity surrounding the situation.

Firstly, a short history lesson. Back in our genesis, our constitution was drafted with a special provision – Article 153 (Fun Fact: Discussing Article 153 is technically illegal under the Sedition Act). This controversial article grants the Yang di-Pertuan Agong the responsibility to “safeguard the special positions of the Malays” by establishing racial quotas for work in the civil service, public education and scholarships.

However, the Reid Commission – an independent commission responsible for setting up the groundwork of our constitution – recommended that these revisions be revisited by Parliament after 15 years. But after the racial riots of May 1969, public opposition to the policy wither away. And a year later in 1970, the government enacted the New Economic Policy, thus more affirmative action was secured to support Malay entrepreneurs.

On the surface, many liberals and non-Malays oppose bumiputera policies, calling them racist and regressive. But yet, many also laud the 30% female quota [1] in corporate boardrooms that Najib’s administration advocated for, and might also support Australia’s efforts [2] to promote employment opportunities for its indigenous aboriginals. If this person is you, it might be the case that you do support affirmative action, and will actually support bumiputera policies if the policy is done right.


Affirmative action policies are designed to create equality by providing educational or employment opportunities to groups who are institutionally underrepresented. Think about this – By 1970, income and sectoral imbalance between Malays and non-Malays had become disproportionately high, according to this study [3]. Malays formed 74% of all poor households in Peninsular Malaysia and the population was predominantly rural. Malay monthly mean household income was $178.7, comparing to the Chinese income of $387.4.


Now imagine you are the Prime Minister in the 70s, looking at this data coming in, would you not be alarmed? Well, the government of the day certainly was, and they then rushed for the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP). But we now know that creating a policy on racial grounds is never a good idea, more so one that favours the majority of the population.


Such policies will only create deep divisions and distrust amongst racial lines [4]. It separates groups into different classes, which promotes a us-versus-them mentality. Limiting employment and education opportunities to non-Malays will result in them migrating to other countries, which leads to a serious problem of brain drain in Malaysia. More pressingly, it creates a culture of dependency amongst the Malays, many who now believes they are entitled to such benefits and will not survive without them.

But let’s understand the racial motivations behind our leaders in the 70s, rather than blindly bashing them up now. It is easy to say that Malaysia’s unhealthy racial division was created by Barisan Nasional, but that is simply not the case.


In fact, many of our current issues stems from our colonial power (shakes fist at the British) separating us into racial divisions [5] for ease of control. Colonial powers view their subjects as objects to be studied and managed, thus they gave the Chinese control over commerce, Malays dominance in politics and subjected Indians to hard labour.

When colonialism historically left out the Malays from business, it stifled their mercantile ability. In contrast to the Chinese, who have been dealing in commerce all along, honed their mercantile ability through decades of experience. Furthermore, there is a stigma that Malays underperform in the workplace, which leads to an Ali-Baba culture. Because of the racial quotas, Ali (the Malay) will lead the business on paper, but Baba (the Chinese) is the true person who run the operations.


But what went so disastrously wrong for the NEP, and what should we do moving forward? We will look broadly at two sectors, employment and education.

The fatal flaw of the NEP is that it did not differentiate between the rich Malays and the poor Malays. As a result, the entire program significantly enriches the influential Malays, leaving the others behind. These elites then become the system’s strongest defenders, pressuring the government to expand the NEP into other sectors, and benefitting from them as well.


Therefore, the very first item in the new bumiputera policy is to set three tiers of distinction. The model below was created by Wong Chen, Member of Parliament for Subang Jaya.


Different classifications for the New Bumiputera Policy


1. Tier 1: Projects below RM1 million: Bumiputera businesses are allowed to tender at least 50% of these projects, but they must compete against each other.


2. Tier 2: Projects between RM1 million to RM5 million: Bumiputera businesses must graduate from Tier 1 before they are allowed to bid for projects in Tier 2.


3. Tier 3: Projects between RM 5 million to RM10 million: Similarly, only graduates from Tier 2 can bid for projects in Tier 3. Once a company graduates from Tier 3, they no longer require government’s help and will enter the open market.


This model creates a graduating system which eliminates prosperous and rich Bumiputera companies from receiving aid. It should also be tightly regulated, and Bumiputera entrepreneurs will need to perform at a certain level or be removed from the program.


By facilitating a safe but competitive environment, this model seeks to enrich the skillsets of the Bumiputeras and open their minds to proper techniques of business. The eventual aim of the program is to create a strong Malay middle class, who will be able to pay taxes, invest in the economy and send their children to university. And once this is achieved, there will no longer be any need for Bumiputera policies.


Next, we look at education. The education quota should only apply to the poor and needy Bumiputeras from disadvantaged socioeconomic situations. This is not a new system, and in fact top schools like Oxford University already practice contextualised admissions [6]. This means that a candidate from a poor area, an underperforming school or have a care background will be given preferential treatment.


For example, a well-deserving poor Malay in an underperforming school from Kelantan should be given a spot in University Malaya, whereas a rich Malay in a private school from Kuala Lumpur should not be given an advantage over any other candidate. The eventual goal should be the removal of racial quotas in Universities, and the establishment of a strict needs-based system in our public universities.


Finally, we need to introduce a sunset clause and strictly adhere to it. This is probably the most crucial factor of all. A timeframe of another 10 years seems reasonable, with a special select committee evaluating its effectiveness every 5 years. And this time we should not rush into it, but properly gather empirical data to draft an effective bumiputera policy.


With an affirmative action policy that is well thought out and well implemented, Malaysia could actually achieve its goal of racial harmony and unity. Many Malaysians have high hopes that the Pakatan Harapan government will clean up this public toilet, maybe wash it with scented lavender and scrub away the provocative graffiti.


Who knows? Maybe one day it would be so clean you would not mind paying 20 sens to use it.


Disclaimer: This article does not represent the views of MSGA, the MSGA Directorate team or any of MSGA’s member councils.