Moving forward in our reform agenda

We have come to a critical juncture in our nationhood. Malaysians need to reflect. Key economic and social indicators reveal that our nation has been on the decline for years. Our leaders often invoke political rhetoric to explain this decline. Many, past and present, have employed racial and religious narratives. As a result, society sees hardships and successes through race and religion.

Most of our prime ministers have also made claims about some mythic moment of greatness just after the British colonials left. They urge their administrations to recapture that monumental era.

The truth is, since the 1970s, our nation has seen a steady rise in declinism. It is manifest in the people’s progressive dissatisfaction with economic and education policies. These sentiments are fuelled by our misunderstanding of the cause of Malay poverty. A pattern of racialising poverty has become the norm.

Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s latest quip about the Chinese being a “wealthy lot” and that it was an “unhealthy trend” trivialises poverty. Many Malaysians remember “Revolusi Mental” and “The Malay Dilemma”.

These two publications interpret Malay society and suggest the way forward towards greater progress. The first book claims that the Malays are not honest with themselves and do not see their own faults. So the cause of their backwardness is colonialism, exploitation by other communities, capitalism and religion. This is the “historical baggage” syndrome.

The second book explains the weak socio-economic status of the Malays. The focus is on the hereditary factor and the habit of inbreeding, which is prevalent among the Malays in rural areas. It argues that Malays would be better equipped to compete effectively with other communities if they reproduced better genetic strains. The book blames Malay backwardness on “weak racial characteristics” and genetic incompetence.

Both publications were meant to analyse Malay poverty. The goal was to uplift the Malays so they could cope with modernisation. However, their publication did a grave disservice to scientific discourse on poverty, economic development and social progress.

The books provided misleading interpretations of the Malay community. This resulted in misunderstandings of the fundamental provisions of the special status granted to Malays in our Federal Constitution.

The truth is, Malays are no different from any other community in Malaysia. Malaysia boasts of citizens who are dynamic persons and able to cope with modernity, including science, technology and business. History reveals this clearly. Malays had successful economic relations with India and China from as early as the 11th century.

Malays, too, have been struggling for centuries. Fishing, padi and vegetable farming, and oil palm cultivation are not easy. The Malay kampung community has had to struggle hard against crop diseases since pre-independence days. It is a constant struggle to battle weeds, insects and other pests, not to mention financial indebtedness.

Malaysia also boasts of lazy and opportunistic people, eager to accept bribes, take short cuts and compromise quality for wealth and personal aggrandisement. This group also includes the Malays.

What has been lost in the narrative over decades is a firm understanding of the mechanisms of capitalism. Take the NEP, for instance. The government’s purpose for the NEP in the 1970s was to venture into business, expand the Malay business sector and hand over businesses to a select few Malay private entrepreneurs.

These private entrepreneurial initiatives crept into the agricultural sector where the Malays had a comparative advantage. However, handing over a successful sector to a group of exploitative private Malay capitalists implied that Malay farmers were incapable of growing their agricultural businesses on their own.

Why should a handful of profit-seeking Malays reap the benefits of the transfer as opposed to the Malay rural community represented by the workers of the enterprise?

For the Malay community, then, it was better for the government to reap the profit than a handful of Malay businesses. This way, at least, whatever profit was made could be used for public welfare. What has emerged today is a small segment of wealthy Malays, which includes government-linked companies, complete with all the material wealth.

Leaders are being irresponsible when they spread falsities about the urban-rural divide and the gap between the rich and the poor. A responsible government would look at this phenomenon from a capitalist and socio-economic angle. An honest government would not perpetuate a narrative based on racial or ethnic flaws.

Society is now abuzz with the need for a third force. This idea focuses on the need for an honest leadership with the integrity to clamp down on corruption, cronyism, extremism, abuse of power and sexism.

Early this year, the third force appealed to a handful of younger generation politicians from the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) government. They wanted these chosen few to renew their calls for reform. Let us not forget, though, that much of the 22 months when Malaysia Baru was under PH was spent squandering prime opportunities for reform. The PH government had younger leaders and more female representation. It is unfortunate that this period may be recorded in Malaysia’s political history as the biggest treachery to the country.

The third force initiative suggests that Malaysians are fed up with the dishonest politics of current and previous administrations. People are frustrated that parties have merely scratched the surface of the bigger tragedy of social regression and economic failure. Leaders continue with their rhetoric of race and ethnicity to explain economic backwardness, fuelled by the glorification of wealth and capitalist ideology.

Capitalism has always depended on racism for its reproduction. For example, British colonials in Malaya created an object, i.e. “the lazy native”. Their purpose was to maintain the natives (Malays) in an intellectual and moral state that made them feel inferior to the colonial Europeans. The Malays were greater in number so the British had to find a way to subdue them, psychologically. They justified colonial rule with a narrative of “helping to bring the Malays out of their deprivation”. In reality, it was a policy of duping the indigenous population so that the British administrators could reap the benefits of colonial capitalism. The end result was that the majority of the people suffered while a few capitalists thrived.

The third force needs to be more ideologically expansive. Its narrative should include social and economic conditions that prevailed in the colonial period. Reform will not take place unless we connect current socio-economic and political trends to a longer time trajectory. Only then will we see a trend in leadership, poverty and the scheme of capitalist exploitation.

It is inadequate to start at 1957 or 1963. It is also necessary to look decades beyond GE15. The articulation of this narrative has to be supported by intellectuals trained in economics and history. They would provide a longitudinal interpretation of society’s social and psychological transformation, which begins with colonial Malaya.

Narratives should not prioritise ethnicity and religion. The third force should stress that these are merely victims of coloniality without colonialism.

We need a fresh articulation of historical baggage. Our history has to be gallantly unpacked, to construct a long-term reform agenda for our nation.

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