Solving the Malay problem: Learning from others
Learning from others is a natural for some; those are the lucky ones. They consider the exercise mind expanding and liberating. For the rest, learning from others is a difficult endeavor, and often associated with deep embarrassment. To them, ignorance is bliss. Those are the closed-minded.
In my earlier book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I gave the positive examples of Ireland and South Korea, nations worthy of our emulation, while citing Argentina as a negative one, of what not to do. Early in the last century Argentina was a bright star; a few generations later it was wrecked with one economic crisis after another. For South Korea, in the 1950s it was receiving foreign aid from the Philippines; today, the fate of the two countries could not be more different!
A more relevant example for Malaysia is Ireland of the early 20th Century. Just substitute Malays for the Irish, and Chinese for the English; and Islam for Catholicism. Just as Malays feel inferior to the Chinese, so too were the Irish to the English. Today’s Malays are in the tight grip of the Islamic establishment, so too were the Irish to the Catholic clergy. Only when the Irish mentally freed themselves from the Church were they emancipated. Progress soon ensued.
Malaysia had its Sean Lemass (“The Architect of Modern Ireland”) with the late Tun Razak. Both were leaders for about the same duration (1959-66 for Lemass; 1970-76 for Razak), but without diminishing Razak’s monumental legacy, his impact on Malaysia, specifically Malays, was not comparable to Lemass and Ireland with the Irish.
Both Razak and Lemass correctly focused on the fundamentals–education and the economy–and both brought in bright young talents into their respective administrations. Lemass however, went much further; he altered the social landscape of the Irish by exposing them to new ideas. One was through commerce, culminating with Ireland joining the European Union in 1973, and the other through setting up a state-run television service.
Malaysia also has a state television station, and more. The ruling party UMNO also owns the mainstream media. The crucial difference is this. Lemass used his state television to bring in foreign programs and expose his people to differing viewpoints on such previously taboo matters as contraception, divorce, and religion. Exposures to diverse perspectives helped liberate the Irish from the church’s stranglehold.
In striking contrast, Tun Razak did not even attempt to change the social landscape of Malaysia, of Malays in particular. He was too timid. He used the Malaysian state media not to liberate his people or to expose them to new ideas but for propaganda, to close citizens’ minds.
The digital revolution has castrated these state propaganda machines; they are no longer as effective, reduced to just going through the motions.
Both Lemass and Tun Razak were transforming leaders. Razak took his nation towards development and aggressively addressed inter-communal inequities. Lemass was less concerned with the direction his people chose, more on liberating their minds and giving them the freedom to pursue their own paths. Lemass’s transformation survived him; Razak’s too, but for only a generation. Tak tahan lasak (not enduring). That is the signal difference between the legacies of those two great leaders.
Berdikari (Self-reliance) and Tahan Lasak (Sustainability)
In addition to being pragmatic and to learn from others, my third approach to the Malay problem is based on self-reliance (berdikari) and sustainability (tahan lasak). All too often our leaders tend to not only blame others for our problems but also to demand that they solve them! We demanded foreign and Malaysian Chinese companies to restructure their ownership and employment to include Malays. What gives us that right?
Our leaders are too ready to blame others for what ails us. I could understand their blaming the colonialists. The hantu of colonialism has just enough element of truth. Those colonialists could have done more to help Malays. Consider that when Victoria Institution was set up back in 1895 with a sizable contribution from the then Sultan of Selangor, there were fewer than 10 Malay students out of an enrollment of 200, less than 5 percent!
The colonialists could have at least pay due deference to our cultural sensitivities and named those schools after our heroes or sultans. That would have made those schools sound and appear less foreign to us and thus attract more Malays. When the British finally did just that a few decades later with Tuanku Muhammad School and Sultan Abdul Hamid College (SAHC), Malay parents readily enrolled their children there. Today SAHC rightly claims the pride of having educated two Prime Ministers (Tunku Abdul Rahman and Mahathir Mohamad).
Today we demand non-Malay companies “restructure” themselves to include Malays. Not just any Malay of course, not even the competent ones or those with money to invest, rather those who are politically (specifically UMNO) connected. If those lucky favored Malays do not have the funds then the GLC banks would generously lend them at heavily subsidized interest rates. Far from advancing the entrepreneurial spirit of our people, such schemes diminish it. Today our young are busy in party politics so they could be the lucky meneggek (anointed) millionaires.
Consider that there are many famous Malay names “heading” non-Malay companies and entities like private colleges. That is nothing more than refined bribery; those Malays are being employed not for their executive talent but for their connections with former colleagues in government or the ruling party, and for just being Malays.
Those Malays are not advancing the cause of our community. They are just too busy raking in the loot. Peruse the enrolment of private colleges “headed” by Malays; there are very few Malay students or faculty members. The dynamics are the same with private companies “led” by Malays. I would expect that with the presence of these Malays on the board they would at least exert their influence on their companies to employ more Malay workers, vendors and suppliers.
Those Malay heads are nothing but expensive window dressings. I would rather that those Chinese companies employ their own chairmen, then those Malay CEO’s would be forced to start their own enterprises where they would employ Malays, or at the very least, increase the number of Malay enterprises.
My proposals would not demand anything from the outside world or non-Malays. Those successful non-Malay companies can carry on with what they doing, employing whomever they want to best advance their enterprises; they should not be forced to “restructure.” I also could not care less what the rest of the world does; my solution does not depend on their charity. Goodwill yes, we can always use that. My focus is on Malays maximizing our hallowed cultural traits of berdikari and tahan lasak.
WRITER: M. Bakri Musa