Bumiputeras lagging in market mobility despite affirmative action, says economist

The ‘rapid gains’ in tertiary education and steady rise into high-level positions achieved by Bumiputeras have slowed in the past decades, according to a new study. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: A new study on affirmative action policies has suggested that beyond acquiring qualifications, Bumiputeras are still lagging behind in labour market mobility and educational achievements.

Malaysian economist Lee Hwok-Aun, who works at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, in his latest analysis comparing South Africa’s and Malaysia’s affirmative action policies, said “the rapid gains” in tertiary education and steady rise into high-level positions achieved by Bumiputeras as a result of preferential treatment had slowed in the past decades.

He said public institutions had played key roles in both areas, with Bumiputeras predominantly studying in public universities and colleges and then moving up corporate ladders in the public sector and government-linked companies (GLCs).

“However, beyond acquiring qualifications, in which Bumiputeras, especially Malays, have steadily advanced, the community persistently lags in terms of educational achievement and labour market mobility,” he observed.

He said the continuation of programmes offering alternative or easier entry routes into universities did not effectively prepare students for higher learning.

Such programmes, he said, had failed to close achievement gaps and might even be counter-productive.

Lee also said Malaysia had made a lot less progress in creating dynamic, competitive private enterprises as a result of affirmative action.

“GLCs remain flagbearers of affirmative action in business. Bumiputera SMEs continue to be concentrated at micro and small scales and are largely dependent on public procurement and state support,” he said.

Lee said Malaysia’s discourse on affirmative action often overlapped poverty alleviation together with affirmative action policies, adding that it must respond to evidence that the system had not fully reached its end-goal of capability development.

He said Malaysia must also consider the long-term impact of continued preferential policies on a multiracial society.

Lee, however, observed a shift in the education sector, such as an increase in the prioritisation of poor students.

He said this shift would make way for better distribution of opportunity and might move towards more non-race-based targeting in tertiary education programmes.

However, he said this posed operational challenges in Malaysia’s highly centralised education system.

On private enterprises, Lee said recent initiatives had emphasised developing capability and weeding out rent-seeking and corruption.

“The intent is timely and vital, although moving forward, requires methodical policy formulation, room for experimentation and modification and assiduous implementation,” he added.