Women walk past a portrait of Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak during the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

MALAYSIA’S affirmative action policies continue to be based on ethnicity rather than need despite the government’s pledge to move to a more merit-based selection criteria, according to a recent study from a Singapore research centre.

Lee Hwok Aun from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) said areas such as access to higher education, employment and enterprise development remain based on race, rather than merit.

“The need-based selection remains under-utilised in higher education and enterprise development.

“As for merit-based selection, although it has gradually expanded, can be further applied in all policy spheres, especially in enterprise development,” Lee said at a presentation of the centre’s study at University Malaya earlier this month.

Lee said there was a lot more room for improvement in redressing socioeconomic disadvantages, especially in the area of education.

In the study, titled “Malaysia’s Bumiputera preferential regime and transformation agenda: Modified programmes, unchanged system”, Lee said he had interviewed and studied annual reports of key informants like the Bumiputera Agenda lead agency (Teraju), Malay Chamber of Commerce Malaysia (DPMM) and the Malay Economic Action Council (MTEM).

He said that an existing pre-university system which favours Bumiputera students was one of the many policies which needed to be reviewed in order to have a more need-based selection process at the country’s institutions of higher learning.

Malaysian public universities have followed an admission quota system since the 1970s with a majority allocation going to Bumiputera applicants. Although partially lifted since the 2000s, it still exists in the form of the matriculation system, Lee said.

The vast majority of Bumiputera students now enter university through matriculation colleges or foundation studies where there is a 90% Bumiputera quota.

Lee also said there needs to be a “formalised scheme to help those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged for degree-level study”.

“Scholarships can reward and promote achievement, with funding proportionate to the financial needs,” he said.

Race-based selection

Lee noted that in other areas such as public sector employment and hiring for government-linked companies (GLCs), there is a de facto Bumiputera preference especially in top management.

In enterprise developments, Lee said there are handicap points for Bumiputeras in public procurement contracts.

In his report, Lee recommended a preference for the economically disadvantaged across all areas under a need-based selection process which was “logical and practical, regardless of ethnicity”.

However, he also said merit-based selections should be introduced based on the capability and competitiveness of the Bumiputeras.

“Whenever we think about the issue of addressing Bumiputera entitlement, it will always end up being whether the minorities say they cannot take it anymore, or the majority saying that they do not need it anymore.

“Ultimately, the Bumiputera preferential system has to be effectively empowering the Bumiputeras for them to say that they are sufficiently empowered and they do not need these preferential regimes anymore,” he said.