KUALA LUMPUR, 19 March 2020 – WHEN Malaysia was formed, the income gap between the Malays and non-Malays was huge, with non-Malays dominating in commerce in big towns while Malays in rural areas were marginalised.
Sixty years on, the income dichotomy between the bumiputera and non-bumiputera communities has largely narrowed to the extent that it can be said that race alone is no longer a deciding factor in wealth accumulation and distribution.
One of the reasons Malaysia was able to achieve this is positive discrimination in favour of bumiputeras in terms of scholarships and educational and business opportunities since independence in 1957.
Nevertheless, there are communities that have been left behind and are missing out on their share of the country’s wealth and development due to their backgrounds. Examples are the Orang Asal community, natives of Sarawak and Sabah, and rural and urban poor communities.
There are reports that the wealth gap is increasing, not just between races, but within each race as well. This was further exacerbated after the global financial crisis, when those with capital were able to ride the bull run in the stock and property markets.
The rising wealth and income gap is one of the main reasons for the political upheavals in many countries, including Malaysia. However, the racial wealth gap is no longer the main issue here; instead, it is the gap between urban and rural, the educated and uneducated, and the haves and have-nots.
Therefore, to foster inclusivity among Malaysians, policies to eradicate poverty must focus on empowering the poor and helping them to be competitive and not reliant on assistance, says Wan Ya Shin, a manager at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas).
In this regard, eradicating poverty through education must be the new government’s main priority, she says. Special focus has to be given to the children of marginalised communities, which could cut across all races.
“An important priority would be to remove any barriers to education for the indigenous and marginalised children in Malaysia,” says Wan. “Indigenous children face many challenges in accessing education because they are located in remote areas, teachers do not have a good understanding of their culture, because of financial challenges and bullying in schools. We should not leave them behind in the development of the country.”
Wan adds that the quality of Malaysia’s education system itself needs a relook. The quality of education goes beyond global rankings and the education system needs to be realigned to the National Education Philosophy, which seeks to develop individuals’ potential in a holistic manner.
“Learning is beyond examinations. Critical thinking and creativity cannot be nurtured in a rote-learning classroom environment and teachers need to be trained and equipped sufficiently to ensure that there is learning in schools,” says Wan.
Will the country continue to be split according to racial lines?
The Perikatan Nasional coalition came into power after three political parties with Malay-Muslim support bases — namely Umno, PAS and Bersatu — under the leadership of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, joined hands with MCA and MIC.
With Bersatu largely out of it, Pakatan Harapan (PH) — now the largest opposition block in Parliament — is dominated by non-Malay, non-Muslim members from the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
Thus, the two blocs in Dewan Rakyat are now dominated by bumiputeras on the government side and non-bumiputeras on the opposition side. With support for PH among the Malay-Muslim voters largely dwindling since the 14th general election (GE14), it would not be surprising if the new government were to introduce policies appealing to that community.
This raises the question of whether this trend will continue in the 15th general election (GE15) and if the Malay-Muslim community will continue to throw their support overwhelmingly behind the Malay-based parties of Umno, PAS and, to a certain extent, Bersatu. Prof Meredith Weiss of State University of New York at Albany says she does not know if Perikatan Nasional will remain a coalition in GE15, even if it is held fairly soon, citing the example of PAS quitting the Barisan Nasional coalition back in 1977 after joining it in 1972. “(I do not have) any clue what the coalitions will look like for GE15, how well the three Malay-based parties will fare in coalition together, what share of Malay (or other) voters will prefer communal alternatives next time, or whether East Malaysian voters will see greater benefit in throwing in their lot fully with Malay-Muslim ethno-nationalists or in remaining semi-separate, as after GE14,” says Weiss.
Meanwhile, Prof Yeah Kim Leng of Sunway University Business School says there is a silver lining in Malaysia’s political quagmire, in the sense that both coalitions will be engaged in some form of policy competition.
“Which side has better policies that deliver larger benefits for the most number of people without making any segment worse off?” he asks. Malaysians will have to wait for the clouds to clear to get an answer.
First published in The Edge, 19 March 2020