Affirmative action: Service or disservice

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It is time to stop the current way of carrying out affirmative action, says Rani Rasiah. Affirmative action must be carried out on condition the human development element is emphasised: recipients must be participants of the process, involved in decision making at all levels.

PPMS Sungai Siput strikes you as a village that has not been touched by the NEP when you first hear of it. Its hundred families live in poverty caused by uncertain employment and low incomes. Providing adequate meals for the family is a daily struggle, and during jobless periods, children are forced to stay away from school due to unpaid bus fees.

In truth, PPMS – Projek Perumahan Masyarakat Setempat – is a product of affirmative action. It is one of the many government schemes set up to tackle poverty, unemployment and underemployment among rural Malays. This particular scheme aimed to lift a hundred young Malay families out of poverty and dependence by providing them a house and 10 acres of land each for cash-crop cultivation. A hundred young families from all over Sungai Siput were selected and placed in this scheme four years ago in a planned village 20km from Sungai Siput town.

PPMS, four years on is a village with a hundred neatly arranged small tin-roofed houses built on a shadeless patch of bare soil in the midst of dense forest. It has all the facilities a kampung needs to get by – hall, surau, shop and kindergarten. But while the housing aspect of the scheme is up, the complementing and crucial economic component never got started. A government agency was to develop and hand over ten acres of planted land to each family. The whole project was centred on the principle that the provision of economic infrastructure was essential to the poverty eradication ideal behind the scheme.

Thus upon resettlement, the hundred poor families found themselves owners of a house and ten acres of thick jungle, 20 to 30km from their former kampung and far away from any kind of employment! They had to fork out money for petrol to travel distances of 20km every day to find work.

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It would not be off the mark to say that PPMS is more the norm rather than the exception in the administration of affirmative action in Malaysia. Cases abound of aberrant outcomes resulting from affirmative action projects – communities remaining poor or even getting poorer despite repeated material input, communities getting cheated by middle men with the capital and expertise to develop the former’s lands, and even by agencies such as Risda.

Still, continued impoverishment and landed poverty are only one aspect of failed affirmative action.

We are made to understand that affirmative action is carried out to raise the socio-economic standard of backward communities in a country to achieve a more equal and harmonious society. In 1971 upon the ashes of the 1969 race riots, then premier Tun Razak launched the New Economic Policy which embodied the government’s affirmative action plan. Its stated objectives were irreproachable –the eradication of poverty irrespective of race and the elimination of the identification of race with economic function.

Unstated but implicit in affirmative action is surely the empowerment and preservation or restoration of the dignity of the community being aided. An affirmative action plan must be implemented as a package comprising both the economic and the human development elements. The community being aided is to be put back on its feet and assisted along with a view to weaning it towards self reliance.

What percentage of the Malay marhein availing themselves of affirmative action programs have emerged empowered and independent of the need to rely on the government for continued help? Forty years after the NEP, to what extent are the said communities able to ‘fish’ for a lifetime?

From the occasional tears of despair shed by successive premiers, we are made aware that generally the affirmative action policy has failed on this score. According to them, the recipient communities have to be ‘spoon fed’, they still need to rely on ‘crutches’, they lack initiative… These moments of despair are brief and quickly overtaken by the vested interests of the class, but they show that the top leadership is fully conscious of the failure of their social engineering model.

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The NEP is criticised on many fronts such as the ethnocentric bias of its implementation and the worsening intra-ethnic income gap between the rich and poor Malays. The raging debate, often reaching boiling proportions, is about whether the NEP target of 30 per cent share of the national wealth has been achieved by the Malays, and the rationale for the continuation of the affirmative action policy even after 1990.

These are certainly valid issues but the dimension that does not receive the attention it should is the damage inflicted upon the psyche of a class of people in the name of affirmative action. Instead of building capacity and self-reliance among the recipient community, the implementation of affirmative action projects undermines whatever initiative, independence and self-worth the community had before. In reality, shortcomings in the conception and implementation of affirmative action have resulted in a pervasive sub-culture (not limited to the Malay poor) whose features include – rent seeking behaviour, an endless expectation of goodies and the feeling that subsidies are a birthright.

Will this sub-culture lead to an empowered and dignified people who can shake off the indignity of dependence in the near or distant future? It doesn’t take an expert to predict how many decades back these negative values will take the recipients of this kind of defective aid.

But the NEP or similar programmes look set to continue, for somewhere en route to a more equitable society, it appears that the NEP was hijacked from the government by Umno, which began to use it as its political tool. It’s a powerful political tool. For the Umno ruling elite and their cronies, it means an ongoing chance to further enrich themselves and live on the lap of luxury.

For that, Umno has to stay in power. It needs a secure vote bank, folks who will give their votes to the party they see as alms-giver. The affirmative action programmes have created such a vote bank – a captive people beholden to Umno. If the affirmative action programmes are tweaked to strengthen the empowerment aspect, the vote bank will turn shaky. Indeed, there are cases of hardcore poor housing areas where the house grants are withheld as a clear warning that should they switch allegiances, they will lose their homes.

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The Umno elite also go to lengths to distance the Malay masses from their non-Malay counterparts. In Umno general assemblies and elsewhere, well-fed millionaire Umno politicians, speak in blood-curdling tones about the need for the preservation of the race and its birthrights. They rave about Malay supremacy, the unfinished work of the NEP and the need to unite against ‘enemies’. All this takes away attention from the superfluous wealth and status acquired by the ruling Malays through the NEP whilst creating and perpetuating hostility towards the ‘enemies’.

Empowerment of the marhein is thus not an objective of the affirmative action of Umno. The over-riding function of affirmative action is to fulfil Umno’s paternalistic role of giving – anything, it doesn’t matter significant or not, viable or not.

Thus the recipients of affirmative action are subjected to unflattering epithets often used by those who are guilty of weakening the Malay community to preserve themselves.

It is time to stop the current way of carrying out affirmative action. Affirmative action must be carried out on condition the human development element is emphasised. Recipients must be participants of the process, involved in decision making at all levels. We need affirmative action that will build a people who take pride in their work and independence. It has got to stop being somebody’s political tool, and it has to be faithful to the original prong of the NEP – ‘eradication of poverty irrespective of race’, and exclude the middle- and upper-classes.

Aliran member Rani Rasiah is also the founder of Alaigal – a grassroots group in Perak

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