A couple of years ago, while I was driving on the back roads around Sepang, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a swarm of Mat Rempits.
Just a few kilometres down the road, the swarm nestled neatly into a petrol kiosk. I discovered later that Najib Razak was giving away free petrol there. Like bees to honey, their radar was able to pick up on this freebie.
It was then that I realised that keeping this potential voter bank of poor Malay youths addicted to freebies was a strategy that benefited Umno leaders like Najib Razak. It was a fixed deposit of votes for lazy politicians, come election day.
And so, today, I have become anxious and fretful. This “mother of all elections”, as Zahid Hamidi referred to it, may just be decided by the votes of the poor Malays, to whom Umno leaders have been feeding a lot of ‘free lunches’ – and little else.
I have often been told that in life, there is really no such thing as a free lunch. When someone offers you something for free, they will expect something in return.
And these free lunches can be insanely expensive, especially when they include the price of one’s dignity, one’s freedom and one’s opportunities.
But, a free meal or free petrol in exchange for a vote may not seem to be too high a price to pay – or is it?
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It is if it means that one has been kept too poor, to want that tank of free petrol. Or if one is too ‘disabled’, that one needs a quota policy to outdo the competition. Or if one is a beggar, still waiting for scraps at petrol kiosks!
After five decades of affirmative action policies, there can certainly be no dignity in any of these? What are these Umno leaders thinking?
Wasn’t it Dr Mahathir Mohamad who said that the Malays are still beggars in their own country?
Yet, who has been at the helm of this country and had all the opportunities to make the changes that matter for the Malays, if not Umno?
And so, I wonder now, if this is Umno’s version of ‘maruah Melayu’ (Malay dignity).
I have lived and worked with Malays for most of my life. Almost all of them are kind-hearted and God-fearing people. As I understand, Islam teaches one to believe in rezeki (sustenance), in the power of compassion, in rahmat (blessings), and in the giving and acceptance of alms with sincerity, humility and gratitude.
Ironically, these very traits also make many Malays easy targets for unscrupulous opportunists and tricksters who have learnt to only give something to get something back in return. No good Muslim will be comfortable biting the hand that he or she believes has fed them. And this is a serious problem.
Certain government-linked companies like Felcra and Risda (Rubber Industry Smallholders Development Authority), which have been set up to help the Malays become prosperous, are now announcing payoffs and grants and even writing off debts.
Perhaps it is about time to ask these leaders a few hard questions.
Is the timing of these payments meant to serve as inducements to tip the vote counts?
Or are they appeasements to their members to look the other way, given their questionable performances?
Most of our government-linked companies have seen poor performance records, even before the pandemic hit us. Felda and Tabung Haji come to mind.
Even Pos Laju has failed miserably to compete with private courier companies that have mushroomed during the pandemic lockdowns. Malaysia Airlines has also been in the red far too many times too.
Bailing out failing companies, ignoring bad audit reports, and abusing one’s power to protect fraudulent CEOs and leaders have become a culture in this country for far too long.
The damage that these practices have done is more than crippling. It was only because of the 22 months of Pakatan Harapan rule that we see Najib in prison and a ‘court cluster’ waiting for trials and appeal hearings.
As a responsible parent and teacher, I know that ‘bailing out’ children when they are in trouble or closing an eye when they misbehave is a sure recipe for failure. So why are we bailing out failing government-linked companies again and again?
Poverty among the Malays has persisted despite affirmative action under the New Economic Policy (NEP). The policy has spawned an endless stream of commissions, inducements, perks and bonuses for over five decades. Yet, the Malays continue to be among the poorest demographic in the country despite this.
So what is missing?
Having been a parent and teacher, I can tell you a thing or two about the learning process. I can tell you that like children, entrepreneurs and business people need to learn to thrive with some kind of adversity before they can develop strength, character, perseverance and endurance.
Making mistakes is part of the process. Like children, they too need to take falls and scrape a knee or two – as long as there is someone to help them get back on their feet again.
It is said that the hardest steel comes from the hottest furnace. Too much protection and too many easy opportunities that ride on quotas have failed to provide the adversity that people need to overcome, to reach their full potential.
And so perhaps instead of fearing the ethnic minorities, it is time to fear the politicians who come bearing gifts. I believe that if we continue to strive based on racial divisions, many Malays will remain poor.
Perhaps it is time to look at ethnic Chinese business people and the ethnic Indian professionals as partners instead of as adversaries. There is much that we can all learn from one another.
We need to level the playing field – though to be fair, some affirmative action and some free passes will be required, initially. They should act as scaffolding to sustain growth and strength. They are needed as a means to an end.
This was what the NEP was initially targeted to do in 1970, for a period of 20 years until 1990 – but it failed! Then it was extended for another 30 years until 2020 – and it failed again! Today, there are no more timelines or goals; only a deep, hopeless abyss of endless freebies.
As digital technology reinvents the way we live, work and play, racial and physical boundaries will become more and more meaningless. In such a world, how successful will the Malays be?
It is time for more ordinary Malays to realise that the Umno formula of payoffs and freebies has done little for the long-term good of the community. It is time for the Malays to vote in new young leaders who are unafraid to confront change and are open- minded, fair, ethical, diligent, responsible and honest.
We need leaders who will put the poor first and eradicate poverty, regardless of race. We need to go back to living with goals and some adversity.
The world is changing too rapidly for us to live in fear of each other. It is time we faced the world together as Malaysians.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
31 October 2022