Malaysia’s system of racial preferences should be scrapped

20-May-2017 Intellasia | The Economist | 6:00 AM Print This Post

WHAT government would not like to reduce racial disparities and promote ethnic harmony? The tricky part is knowing how. One country that claims to have found a way is Malaysia. Since 1971 it has given preferential treatment in everything from education to investing to bumiputeras people of indigenous descent, who are two-thirds of the population but poorer than their ethnic-Chinese and -Indian compatriots.

On the face of things, this system of affirmative action has been a success (see article). The gap in income between Malays (the biggest bumiputera group) and Chinese- and Indian-Malaysians has narrowed dramatically. Just as important, there has been no repeat of the bloody race riots of 1969, when Malay mobs burned Chinese shops in Kuala Lumpur, prompting the adoption of the policy. And the economy typically an instant victim of heavy-handed government attempts at redistribution has grown healthily.

Small wonder that some see Malaysia as a model. South African politicians cited it when adopting their plan for “Black Economic Empowerment” in the early 2000s. More recently Indonesian activists have been talking about instituting something similar there. Malaysia, meanwhile, keeps renewing the policy, which was originally supposed to end in 1991. Just last month Najib Razak, the prime minister (pictured), launched the latest iteration: the catchily named Bumiputera Economic Transformation Roadmap (BETR) 2.0, which, among other things, will steer a greater share of government contracts to bumiputera businesses.

Money for old rope

Yet the results of Malaysia’s affirmative-action schemes are not quite what they seem. Malays in neighbouring Singapore, which abjures racial preferences, have seen their incomes grow just as fast as those of Malays in Malaysia. That is largely because the Singaporean economy has grown faster than Malaysia’s, which may in turn be a product of its more efficient and less meddling bureaucracy. Singapore, too, has been free from race riots since 1969.

If the benefits of cosseting bumiputeras are not as clear as they first appear, the costs, alas, are all too obvious. As schools, universities and the bureaucracy have become less meritocratic, Chinese and Indians have abandoned them, studying in private institutions and working in the private sector instead. Many have left the country altogether, in a brain drain that saps economic growth.

Steering so many benefits to Malays developers are even obliged to give them discounts on new houses has created a culture of entitlement and dependency. Malays have stopped thinking of affirmative action as a temporary device to diminish inequality. As descendants of Malaysia’s first settlers, they now consider it a right.

The result is that a system intended to quell ethnic tensions has entrenched them. Many poorer Malays vote reflexively for UMNO, the Malay party that introduced affirmative action in the 1970s and has dominated government since then, for fear that another party might take away their privileges. With these votes in the bag, UMNO’s leaders can get away with jaw-dropping abuses, such as the continuing scandal at 1MDB, a development agency that mislaid several billion dollars, much of which ended up in officials’ pockets, according to American investigators. Minorities, in turn, overwhelmingly support parties that advocate less discrimination against them.

The ambition to improve the lot of Malaysia’s neediest citizens is a worthy one. But defining them by race is a mistake. It allows a disproportionate amount of the benefits of affirmative action to accrue to well-off Malays, who can afford to buy the shares set aside for them at IPOs, for example, or to bid for the government contracts Najib is reserving for them. It would be much more efficient, and less poisonous to race relations, to provide benefits based on income. Most recipients would still be Malays. And defusing the issue should pave the way for more nuanced and constructive politics. Perhaps that is why UMNO has resisted the idea for so long.

http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21722177-income-based-benefits-would-work-much-better-malaysias-system-racial-preferences-should-be

 


Category: Malaysia

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