Wipe out race discrimination with right policies

All development policies of Malaysia state directly or indierctly that “national unity” is the overall goal. Whether it involves Bumiputera policies or policies to assist states on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak, the central idea is to have a shared prosperity for all peoples of Malaysia.

Hence, the continued misuse of “race and religion” by irresponsible quarters is very sad, to say the least.

In the midst of efforts to get the Malaysian economy back on track, the recent study done by the Centre for Governance and Political Studies (CENT-GPS) on the “race discrimination” situation in the private sector, just adds fuel to the already sensitive area of ethnic divisions and polarisation in Malaysia.

The general public perception in Peninsular Malaysia is a public sector dominated by Malays, including in GLCs and GLICs vs a private sector dominated by Malaysian Chinese.

More detailed research is needed to verify this perception, but the fact that these issues continue to get so much credence just shows how sensitive race (and religion) still are. It also means that all efforts to achieve national unity and a united Malaysian community must be re-doubled.

The New Economic Policy of 1970 wanted to promote national unity via eradicating poverty, irrespective of ethnicity, and to restructure society so that there would be no identification of “race” with economic functions. The approach taken in 1970 was primarily an ethnic one.

While we may have made progress in eradicating poverty as well as in restructuring society, there is still a long way to go, especially in helping achieve national unity.

New forms of inequalities have arisen and much more serious work is needed to highlight these areas. For example, intra-ethnic inequalities, regional inequalities as well as pockets of absolute poverty are good reminders that there is still a lot of work to do and that inequalities based on “race” are not the only criteria for government policy.

Malay and other Bumiputera constitutional provisions to safeguard the interests of the Malays and other Bumiputeras will surely be part of a post GE14 administration. However, Pakatan Harapan won the election by convincing Malaysians that they want to go beyond “race” politics and business.

There is a need to effectively tell all Malaysians what this means for the future. In this context, why not promote genuine Malaysian business partnerships?

Genuine Malaysia partnerships

As early as 1989, calls for genuine Malaysian business partnerships have been discussed. For example, documents presented in early National Economic Consultative Council (NECC) meetings clearly mentioned the need to help nurture joint ventures/businesses between ethnic groups.

Malaysian Chinese companies should pair up with Malays (and other Malaysians) to form business entities. Unfortunately, this sometimes ended up in Ali Baba ventures. However, the idea of trying to develop genuine Malaysian businesses is worth pursuing. In 2019 Malaysia, a lot of changes have occurred in Malaysia and Malaysian society.

There are now many capable Malays and Bumiputeras who can hold their own in the business world. Genuine Malaysian businesses have a better chance of success now than it did 40-50 years ago. But political will is needed; the right people are needed; and the right policies are needed.

A good start is the recent announcement made by our defence minister welcoming non-Malays to apply to join the armed forces. Similarly, the call for more non-Malays to apply to the civil service is welcome although the scope to increase the number of civil servants is very limited seeing the already bloated numbers. However, it is a good start.

What about the private sector? We have better qualified people from all ethnic groups in the private sector now. We need the political will to push for a policy to incentivise the system to help promote, nurture and acknowledge companies that can show they are “genuine Malaysian companies”.

We need the political will to encourage multi-ethnic business ventures.

The following suggestions can become central guidelines for this policy:

  • A “Genuine Malaysian Business” Act can be discussed and passed in Parliament within one or two sittings. Multi-ethnic business can be at the level of ownership, workers and customers;
  • Tax incentives to promote these entities can be developed; something like the tax incentives for foreign direct investments or as an incentive for “pioneer” industries;
  • Awards for companies that are multi-ethnic and that meet the criteria of ethnic diversity and national unity can be promoted;
  • Since SMEs make up almost 99% of all businesses in Malaysia, there can be special schemes and incentives given to SMEs that are multi-ethnic;
  • The media should also help highlight these companies; and,
  • Local, regional and national-level competitions that develop ideas and even start-ups that showcase multi-ethnic businesses can be organised.

At the research and development level, research funds can be made available to help research in this area and to help resolve challenges that may crop up. There have been studies to show that multi-ethnic companies are actually more “creative”.

If we want to build a united nation — a Bangsa Malaysia that is truly representative of who we are — developing, nurturing and acknowledging genuine Malaysian businesses must be a central feature of our commercial and industrial policy.

The recent Economic Action Council formed by the government has many issues on its plate. Huge debts, sagging FDI, falling commodity prices and many more.

However, pushing and developing this “genuine Malaysian partnership scheme” agenda is no less important, especially in efforts to promote national unity. While we were apparently not ready to do this in 1990, are we ready to do this as we near 2020?

Mohamed Aslam Haneef is professor of Economics at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.