Written by Aerie RahmanWednesday, 14 August 2013 12:35
The perennial affirmative action debate is flared up once again with Lee Kuan Yew’s stinging remarks in his latest book “One Man’s View of the World”.
The gadfly claimed that race-based affirmative action policies espoused by the ethnocentric Barisan Nasional government are causing a talent haemorrhage. As expected, Umno leaders like Noh Omar defended the status quo ? using the dull template argument that Malays are incapable of surviving without a leg up.
Affirmative action in Malaysia has been excoriated in its 40-year existence. Yet it still lives, beyond its expiry date in 1990. Race-based measures, which were constructed to uplift the socio-economically marginalised Bumiputeras, have metamorphosed into an instrument of cronyism. Despite my staunch opposition, I feel that these crutches will remain as long as the morally vacuous Barisan Nasional is in power.
A short article is futile to change the mind of a government that is bereft of the faculty to listen.
Privileges from the womb to the tomb
In Malaysia, it is postulated that there are two classes of affirmative action. The first category is affirmative action that is accessible to all classes of Bumiputeras. Examples include Mara loans and scholarships, pre-university matriculation and the racially homogenous UiTM. This category of affirmative action is mainly in the form of education where poor Bumiputeras are able to benefit as well.
The second category encompasses benefits that mostly middle class and rich Bumiputeras can gratify. I call this “bourgeois crutches”. Bumiputera housing discounts, Amanah Saham Nasional accounts and a quota of shares in public companies are a few examples. These benefits have little impact on the poor.
Pak Mat, a padi farmer in Jitra who operates on a kais pagi makan pagi basis, would have little economic capital to put into an ASB account ? let alone buy a discounted house in Mont Kiara.
A poorly thought-out system
The objective of any affirmative action is to address under-representation of a social group in a certain area - in the Bumiputera’s case, the economy. Once given this opportunity, it is assumed that the beneficiary should be able to perform without further assistance.
However, in the Malaysian context affirmative action recipients have unlimited access to affirmative action measures. There is no cap. This means that if one were to get a Mara loan to study in the UK, one still qualifies for an ASB account. A middle-class Malay can qualify for the bourgeois crutch and the general affirmative action by virtue of his ethnicity.
What is worse is that intergenerational affirmative action is permitted. If a parent studied at UiTM, his kid is allowed to study at this self-proclaimed world-class university. No objections are raised. In fact, it appears to be perceived as a right.
This structural problem perpetuates affirmative action since beneficiaries would continue to depend on the system - at the expense of those who don’t qualify for affirmative action. Little wonder that the targeted 30 per cent Bumiputera stake in the economy wasn’t achieved in 1990.
An illustration would be a beneficiary who received a Mara loan to study in London. He is expected to be a white-collar professional. However, he could only afford to send his kid to the heavily subsidised UiTM.
It’s either that or he, without compunction, opted to use the money to renovate his house instead of sending his kid to a private university. I’ve heard many other stories of Bumiputeras unscrupulously using “cables” to string up benefits for their own kids.
This is a poignant reminder of the failures of the system.
What’s the point of the government sending one to study overseas or at UiTM if one still has to depend on the government? This is symptomatic of the crutch mentality that beleaguers the sons of the soil.
You are your choices
Against this backdrop, what are the moral responsibilities of an affirmative action beneficiary?
The first is the responsibility to compete with the non-Bumiputeras who are presumed to have a massive advantage in the economy. Affirmative action doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What is fundamental is not receiving the privilege but what happens after one receives the privilege.
One has a duty to do his best with the opportunities conferred. The failure to compete with non-Bumiputeras and, consequently, having to depend on the oversaturated civil service (as a last resort, not out of choice) demonstrates one’s failure.
The second responsibility is to stop depending on affirmative action policies altogether - be it bourgeois crutches or the holistic affirmative action. To be a benefit once is permissible since it might be because one might be a victim of circumstance. But to depend on society subsequent of the assistance is wrong.
In Jean-Paul Sartre’s lecture titled “Existentialism is a Humanism”, he bluntly pointed out that we are shaped by our choices. We create our being through our consciousness and actions. Moreover, our choices set a standard as to how the rest of humanity should follow. For example, if I choose to enrich myself through cronyism, I believe that this is a legitimate option that every single member of society should pursue. So what then are the choices of the affirmative action beneficiary?
I am well aware that there are brilliant Bumiputeras who choose a lifestyle that is not materially fulfilling. They might do well in business school or have a chemistry degree but opt for a job that soothes their conscience like activism, social work or in the civil service. Nevertheless, I stand firm by the claim that if one consciously accepts affirmative action, one has a duty to not perpetuate it.
Affirmative action measures are teleological - there is an endpoint. It being in perpetuity would only have a debilitating effect on society. For a fairer, more equitable and progressive Malaysia, affirmative action beneficiaries must find it within themselves to fulfil the burden of this privilege and push Malaysia forward. The more affirmative action beneficiaries do so, the faster we rid ourselves of this unbearable shackle.
~ Centre for Policy Initiatives
This article first appeared in The Malay Mail on 13 Aug 2013