I understand the sentiments of “moderates” who are rightly alarmed at the increasing racism, religious bigotry and corruption in Malaysia and are proposing the establishment of a new ‘National Consultative Council’ (NCC2) like the one that was set up after May 13, 1969. But are they harbouring naive views about how an NCC type approach can meaningfully address such concerns?
The presupposition behind those who call for unity and good sense and a rational way ahead for the nation is that “racial” discord in our society and the present slide into a banana republic can be solved through a council of eminent persons who will plot the path forward for the nation. But was that what was actually achieved by the NCC after the May 13 riots in 1969?
Who were behind the May 13 incident?
The official version of Malaysian history places the cause of May 13 on an inevitable clash between the “races” because of intractable inequalities between the ethnic communities. ‘Tanda Putera’, the official film goes even further by imputing blame on “provocation of the Malays” by the Opposition after the 1969 general election. My 2007 analysis of the evidence relating to the May 13 incident (‘Declassified documents on the Malaysian riots of 1969’) shows an orchestrated coup by the emergent state capitalists at the time who wanted the Tunku out. And in order to “restore order” and plot the route ahead for this new ascendant class, the National Consultative Council was established to give credence to a “national unity” that was sorely needed after the riots. It comprised of “eminent persons” representing the various ethnic communities in Malaysia.
What did the NCC actually achieve?
The National Consultative Council was headed by Tun Abdul Razak who became the new Prime Minister after the Tunku stepped down. It formulated the ‘Rukun Negara’ which was intended to create harmony and unity among the various races in Malaysia.
Although the Rukunegara has often been touted as the panacea for our current problems in the country, I demur on two grounds: Firstly, this so-called “national philosophy” was crafted and promulgated under a state of emergency and not passed through the democratic processes afforded by the Federal Parliament; secondly, the ‘eminent persons’ responsible for it were not inclusive enough for they left out groups such as our indigenous peoples and Buddhists among others when they insisted on “belief in God” as one of the pillars of this state ideology.
The NEP was the game changer
Thereafter, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was launched in 1971. The NEP was aimed at “creating unity among the various races in Malaysia through reducing of the economic gap between the Malays and Bumiputera on the one hand, and the Non-Malays on the other”. It was a social re-engineering action program formulated by the National Operation Council (NOC) formed in the aftermath of 13 May 1969 riots. This policy was intended to be implemented for a period of 20 years but it has since, under different guises, become a Never Ending Policy.
It is important to note that the New Economic Policy that has transformed Malaysian society and also institutionalized racial discrimination all these years was the prerogative of the National Operation Council (NOC) and not the NCC. The NOC was the preserve of the Minister of Home Affairs, the leaders of Umno, MCA & MIC, Chief of Armed Forces Staff and Inspector-General of Police. The council of eminent persons in the NCC only dealt with the formulation of the Rukun Negara. The National Cultural Policy was announced also in 1971 after a conference at which a token number of non-Malay academics were invited.
So let us be clear about what the NCC actually achieved after May 13. The NCC certainly failed to prevent the numerous amendments to the Constitution which have entrenched inequality since 1971, the most serious of which has been Amendment 8A to Article 153 in 1971, allowing more racial discrimination through the “quota system”. Nor did it prevent the amendment to Article 121 in 1988 which made provisions for the recognition of Islamic Syariah Courts/Laws – since then, the Judiciary has tended to defer its powers to the Syariah courts whenever there is dispute in conversion cases.
A fine mess you’ve got us into!
So how did we end up in the mess we find ourselves at the present and that is troubling the ‘moderates’ and corporate players?
First, we have to thank Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed for privatizing most of our state assets when he came to office in 1981 right up to 2003. These were assets that we all owned that were sold for a song to private capitalists. By 1989, the contribution of the private sector to economic growth had exceeded that of the public sector and Mahathir’s mission to transfer state capital to private Malay capitalist hands was well on target. During Mahathir’s tenure as Prime Minister, three main Umno officials focused their attention on building “Bumiputera capitalists”. This was facilitated after Umno was declared illegal in 1988 and its assets were required to be sold off. The three were Mahathir himself, Tun Daim Zainuddin who was his finance minister during two phases in Mahathir’s term and thirdly, Anwar Ibrahim who, before his downfall in September 1998, was second in power to Mahathir. All three had their respective corporate connections.
During the financial crisis of 1997, the state provided support for favored firms linked to the “Bumiputera capitalists” after the imposition of capital controls, such as reflationary measures which included cutting interest rates and making credit more readily available to these fledgling firms. Banks were also encouraged to lend more, and to bail out troubled firms – including that of Mahathir’s son – and a new expansionary budget was introduced in October 1998.
Apart from his historic creation of Malay private capital through privatization of state assets and his grandiose projects, Mahathir left a racist legacy that was the result of his populist intention to win over the Bumiputera votes.
The racial discrimination implicit in the NEP was continued without any public debate; poverty was racialized as mainly a Bumiputera phenomenon; “Bumiputeras only” institutions were expanded, and racial discrimination was extended to discounts and quotas for housing, access to investment funds, loans and scholarships. This racist legacy included a chauvinistic National Cultural Policy that tried to pander to Malay-centrism with dire consequences for ethnic relations, especially in 1987.
Mahathir’s term in office was marked by sensational financial scandals which were not unexpected of an authoritarian populist who did not pay much heed to accountability and good governance. No one knows about all these scandals better than the leader of the Opposition who must declare if Mahathir can get away with impunity.
Mahathir’s racist paradigm was translated across the board to incorporate political, economic, educational, social and cultural policies and he left a racist legacy that has today been latched upon by a far-right Malay supremacist group of which he is the patron. This Malay-centric ideology they purvey has become increasingly infused with extreme Islamic populism, leaving even “moderate” Malays worried for the future.
Najib has merely extended Mahathir’s methods of rule.
At the 13th general election (GE13) held on 5 May 2013, the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition won 133 of the 222 seats in Parliament, preserving its majority, despite the fact that it only received 47.38 percent of the popular vote against 50.87 for the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition.
Soon after GE13, Umno decided to punish the non-Malays for their support of the opposition PR by giving only 19 percent of places in the public universities to Chinese students and 4 percent to Indian students even though the two ethnic groups together make up about 30 percent of the student population. Mahathir castigated Najib for wasting election funds on Chinese voters.
The GE13 results signaled a return to Mahathir’s strident racial politics and a U-turn on Najib’s pre-election attempt to reach out to the other races through his slogan “1Malaysia”. As noted above, Umno’s erstwhile Malay chauvinist credentials have since been farmed out to Malay far-right organisations Perkasa and other groups. The latter will seek to prolong the pro-Malay discriminatory policies and Najib’s pre-election attempts to cut back on ethnic Malay privileges in the NEP now seem politically futile.
While it is the growing trend of many countries to reduce their civil service, Malaysia’s Prime Minister’s Department in particular, has done the opposite. It has more than doubled its number of civil servants from 21,000 to 43,554.
In stark contrast, the White House employs only 1,888 staff! To date, there are ten “Ministers in the Prime Minister’s Department” alone, on top of other important agencies or governmental bodies that fall within the purview of the Prime Minister’s Department.
These include, among others, the Attorney General’s Chambers, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, Election Commission of Malaysia, Department of Islamic Development, Public Service Department, Keeper of the Rulers’ Seal, the Judicial Appointments Commission, Economic Planning Unit and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.
The oversized bureaucracy and the Bumiputera-ist populism have, in turn, created massive leakages in the economy. In 2010, Cuepacs President Omar Osman revealed that a total of 418,200 or 41% of the 1.2 million civil servants in the country were suspected to be involved in corruption The 2009 Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) report revealed that Malaysians generally consider political parties and civil service to be the most corrupt groups, and the government’s anti-corruption drive to be ineffective.
Thus, instead of focusing on remedying the particular needs of the various poor classes in Malaysian society, the state has chosen to blame the plight of the Malay peasantry on “Chinese dominance of the economy”. At the same time, the state’s populist Bumiputera policy is intended to win over the allegiance of the whole Malay community while mainly benefiting the wealthier strata most of all.
The NEP and the state’s authoritarian populism
The state has subverted the democratic process through the proscription of so-called “sensitive” issues which include questioning the special position of the Malays, the national language and the rulers’ privileges.
These proscriptions have been implemented through the use of detention without trial laws as well as the Sedition Act. Thus, the demands of workers and peasants, educational, religious and cultural organisations, indigenous peoples and regional minorities have been summarily dealt with through the cynical use of such repressive laws.
The NEP has served to institutionalize racial discrimination and its continuation is crucial to the authoritarian populism of the Malaysian state. This is blatantly practiced in the armed and civil services, education and economic sectors.
Communalism, which is an intrinsic part of the state’s ideology, continues to produce tension in Malaysian society today and even more so after the challenge to the status quo at the 2008 general election.
Even while Malaysia has been experiencing healthy economic growth rate since the seventies, the Malaysian state has had to rely on continued repression and communalist policies to divide the people.
The movement for genuine reforms
To conclude, as long as pro-Bumiputera policies remain useful in winning Bumiputera votes, it is unlikely that the ruling class in Umno will want to dispense with this method of rule. Racism has been thoroughly infused in all the national institutions, including racist indoctrination of Bumiputeras in state institutions such as the BTN which recently came to light.
Since Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak introduced the slogan ‘1Malaysia’ to try to woo the disaffected non-Bumiputera voters after the 2008 fiasco, strident racism often associated with Umno Youth has now been outsourced to the far-right Malay supremacist groups. They continue to play the role of storm troopers and disrupt activities organized by civil society to promote social justice, democracy and human rights.
Umno’s competition with PAS has also heightened Islamic populism in the country, with dire consequences for ethnic relations. Above all, racial discrimination facilitates crony capitalism which is essential to Umno’s monopoly of power. This has not changed since the Mahathir era.
The ethnic Indian working class and the indigenous peoples in both East and West Malaysia are the poorest communities in Malaysia; the former and the Orang Asli cannot rely on “Bumiputera” privileges, while the indigenous peoples of East Malaysia do not enjoy the same amount of state largesse as the Malays in West Malaysia even though they are categorized as Bumiputeras.
So, if there is going to be an NCC2, will the new council of ‘eminent persons’ be prepared to face this reality and join the movement for genuine reforms in order to progress into the future?
The road toward uniting the Malaysian peoples is through a concerted effort for greater democracy not only in the political realm but also in economic, educational, social and cultural policies.
The state’s ideological view of “national unity” through one language and one culture and the dissolution of Chinese and Tamil schools are intended to fuel Malay chauvinism. The basis of unity rests fundamentally on the recognition of the equality of all nationalities. The imposition of one language and one culture on all the communities will produce only a hollow unity.
The basis for unity among the people has also to embody a commitment to democracy and policies that will improve the living standards of the workers and farmers of all communities and at the same time unite them. These components involve the lifting of restrictions on legitimate political organisation and activity, as well as the encouragement of social and political institutions that ensure genuine popular control.
Thus, the task for all Malaysians is to build a solidarity movement for democracy, fully cognizant of the need for improving the livelihood of the masses and building a society that is progressive, inclusive and truly equal.
Kua Kia Soong