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S.E.A.View

Malaysia's resurgent ethnic policies must stick to principles

In the space of five days last month, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced development programmes for two ethnic groups.

On April 19, the Bumiputera Economic Transformation Roadmap (BETR2.0), an update of an enterprise development agenda started in November 2011, took the stage - with a twist. Datuk Seri Najib euphorically declared that the programme would be broadened beyond economic matters to "bumiputera well-being". This would encompass health, education, culture and living environments.

Then, on April 23, Mr Najib launched the Malaysian Indian Blueprint (MIB), a 10-year plan for advancement of Indian Malaysians in education, high-level employment and business, and to settle the perennial issue of undocumented citizenship, or statelessness, of a segment of the population.

This resurgence of ethnic policies is polarising. Advocates celebrate the government's responsiveness to ethnic concerns, while detractors dismiss these overtures as pre-election ploys ahead of polls that must held by mid-2018 but which are expected earlier.

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The BETR2.0 and MIB plans are no mere voter-friendly enticements, though. They constitute real programmes that will be funded, executed, and concluded or extended.

Ethnicity-centric policies such as these are justified provided they redress group disadvantage or discrimination, promote capability and diversity, and strive to be fair and temporary.

In the case of the MIB, sections of the Indian Malaysian population are socio-economically disadvantaged. Upward mobility is hampered by the adverse legacy of plantation labour, dislocation from those estates to economically depressed urban enclaves, deficiencies in educational achievement and lack of breakthrough successes.

And unlike bumiputeras, they are not constitutionally designated beneficiaries of preferential policies. These realities are widely acknowledged, which probably explains the generally welcoming attitude towards the MIB.

Societies should alleviate poverty, provide schooling and health services, and safeguard culture and living environments, on the basis of human rights and basic needs. Ethnicity does not enter the equation, except if a group has been excluded from benefits or discriminated against.

In terms of execution, education and capability development feature prominently. The blueprint deploys recently established entities such as an entrepreneurship agency, but also promotes participation in existing programmes such as social assistance for the poor. It also promotessupport for Tamil primary schools, rather than creating new ethnically exclusive programmes.

The MIB also sets a 10-year window for the policy's milestones to be achieved. It needs to be critically scrutinised, but on principle it has started well.

LACK OF JUSTIFICATION

The BETR2.0, with its original focus on bumiputera enterprise development, is also significantly aligned with the principles outlined earlier. It places more emphasis on competency, capability and competitiveness in selecting beneficiaries, whether through loans, grants or venture capital. This is in contrast to past policies, especially the massive privatisation of the 1990s that blatantly transferred wealth to the politically well-connected.

However, this updated road map's abrupt and ambiguous lurch into "well-being", with no justification based on group disadvantage, is disconcerting.

The trumpeted new emphasis on "well-being" comes across as haphazardly tagged on to it. Even the naming is in a state of confusion. The programme is branded Transformasi Kesejahteraan Bumiputera (TKB) in Malay, but remains labelled BETR2.0 in English.

Concerns must go beyond semantics. "Kesejahteraan", which carries deeper meaning than well-being (still the best English translation), holds a special message for the Malay population.

This encroachment of emotive rhetoric and nebulous ideas on to what was a focused agenda sets an unwholesome, regressive precedent.

Societies should alleviate poverty, provide schooling and health services, and safeguard culture and living environments, on the basis of human rights and basic needs.

Ethnicity does not enter the equation, except if a group has been excluded from benefits or discriminated against. Development and assistance in these spheres should be principally targeted based on socio-economic need, not ethnicity.

Indeed, low-income bumiputera households cannot be deemed systemically excluded or discriminated against. In fact, on average they benefit disproportionately from social assistance in Malaysia - mostly from their higher participation in (non-ethnic) social assistance programmes and development of rural areas, where the community's share of the population is high. The upcoming generation enjoy preferential access to university and scholarships.

Additionally, BETR2.0 makes a rather non-committal note about a 10-year horizon, with declared intense efforts over the next five years. One might have hoped for more clarity and conviction on this front.

MUCH FANFARE, NO SPECIFICS

This "bumiputera well-being" agenda has been proclaimed with fanfare - and no policy specifics. It raises the concern that such rhetoric maypave the way to more exclusive bumiputera programmes, even in areas such as health, culture and living environments, which have largely stayed clear of ethnic preferential selection. This could drive a wedge into an already fractured society.

BETR2.0 can serve a purpose by maintaining a focus on enterprise development, doing this effectively and temporarily. It must not be conflated with well-being policies, which are paramount for society but, logically and morally, should target only beneficiaries based on need.

Malaysia's resurgent ethnic policies must hold fast to their underpinning principles, or risk becoming ineffective, unwarranted and unending.

•The writer is senior fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

•S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2017, with the headline 'Malaysia's resurgent ethnic policies must stick to principles'. Print Edition | Subscribe