Anwar’s new empowerment agenda: A new page in ‘Madani’ economics?

Hopefully, it will lead to a more inclusive economy with equal opportunity


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Many in Malaysia have been asking: can Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim reinvent the bumiputra construct?

The answer following the latest Bumiputra Economic Congress is not clear; neither is optimism that a new direction of economic development in Madani (civil and compassionate) economics holds promise for bumiputras and all others in Malaysia.

In announcing the event, Anwar noted that a more inclusive approach in addressing the bumiputra economy would lead to resolving issues affecting other communities.

“I hope Acccim [the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia] is ready to discuss [such issues] because a more inclusive approach means that, in talking about the bumiputra economy, issues involving small and medium-sized enterprises or the poor among the Indian community will be addressed together.”

The leading congress speakers have taken up his challenge in different ways.

Equitable opportunity

Bursa Malaysia Bhd chairman Abdul Wahid Omar, a former minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of economic planning, not only called for more assistance to help bumiputra businesses. He proposed the introduction of an equitable opportunity act to ensure that all citizens are given a fair shot at jobs and business opportunities.

According to him, if the policy is implemented in the private sector, it can foster competition in the business and corporate sectors, where its ownership is imbalanced among the various communities.

This act can be useful but only if it is applied transparently and without discrimination across the entire economy and society.

Such legislation is obviously necessary in the civil service, which is the biggest employer in the country. Here there has been long-standing concern with not only an ethnic imbalance but also allegations of unfairness in employment.

As new legislation will take time to implement, a quick start can be made by applying the equal opportunity principle to the businesses and companies that the government controls directly through Khazanah, the Ministry of Finance Inc, the KWAP (the civil servants’ retirement fund), and Bank Negara; or where government-linked investment companies and other federal and state government-linked agencies collectively have a controlling stake, or even a minor stake.

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Government-linked firms and government-linked investment companies are the main and strategic service providers for electricity, telecoms, postal, airlines, airports, public transport, water, sewerage, banking and financial services. As of 2022, they made up for about RM445bn in the capital market and 25% of market share in the Malaysian stock exchange.

They can and should be the role model for employment in the private sector. This they can do by providing equal opportunity by cutting across ethnicity and gender and by bringing the neglected small minorities of Orang Asli and Orang Asal into the mainstream economy.

The immediate implementation of equal opportunity can not only enhance these government-linked firms’ mandate in nation-building and improve corporate social responsibility. It will also make them become more competitive, enabling them to have a more positive – rather than negative – impact on the country’s socioeconomy.

Bumiputra economic transformation

Deputy PM Zahid Hamidi called for a new bumiputra economic transformation initiative, which would benefit all Malaysians.

Among the Umno president’s three pledges in this initiative:

  • Setting up a national endowment to help lower-income bumiputras access education and health services
  • Raising bumiputra participation in industrialisation of the agricultural sector
  • Establishing a bumiputra land corporation to boost land ownership among the community

According to him, these three main goals are to “ensure that policies and implementation of the country’s economic agenda not only ensure the involvement and rights of the bumiputra, but at the same time, ensure that there is synergy with the non-bumiputra”.

“Like it or not, willing or not, synergy between the races is extremely important in stimulating economic activity,” he said.

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While the new agenda is pro-bumiputra, Zahid gave an assurance that the rights of non-bumiputras would be protected.

Many outside the congress meeting welcome this assurance, but equally many are sceptical of such promises being fulfilled.

Anwar’s new empowerment agenda

In his closing speech, Anwar outlined three resolutions to drive the aspirations of all segments of society.

The aim is to strengthen the country’s economic pillars, improve governance and the country’s institutions, and ensure social justice.

“The resolution to strengthen the country’s economic pillars must focus on several key drivers, including enhancing competitiveness, increasing scaling, improving and maintaining equity ownership, creating wealth, developing talent, increasing income and eradicating hardcore poverty.”

He added that all decisions and discussions from the congress will be looked into and translated into a new empowerment agenda for bumiputras to cover the next 10 years. It will be launched in June.

Meanwhile, he approved RM1bn to fund projects aimed at creating a bumiputra entrepreneurial class.

According to him, “The biggest weakness of the bumiputra is the new generation of entrepreneurs. … Thus, I shall delegate through GLCs and GLICs the setting up of a big fund specifically for the realisation and development of a bumiputra entrepreneur generation. RM1bn is approved.”

He also approved a billion ringgit in micro credit to help bumiputra micro and small businesses, which he said would prioritise women, youths and armed forces veterans venturing into business. No money appears to have been allocated for similar non-bumiputra groups despite his earlier assertion of inclusion.

Will the new empowerment agenda be more of the same old agenda? Or will it be able to open a new page in Madani economics?

Towards a Malaysian economic congress

 The most inclusive and forward-looking feedback to the congress has come from former federal minister, Zaid Ibrahim. He called for a Malaysian economic congress to resolve issues related to the economy, governance and corruption.

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Picking up on a proposal by parliamentarian Hassan Abdul Karim, Zaid noted in a Facebook post:

It’s a relief that the Bumiputra Economic Congress is over. Let’s pray we will not have another one ever again.

What we need is a Malaysian Economic Congress. An honest congress representing all Malaysians who are serious about finding answers to the country’s problems.

The former law minister cited the example of the plight of fishermen. He said since 1970, close to RM80bn had been spent on the fisheries industry. Yet over 100,000 fishermen were among the poorest in the country.

Zaid said some economists estimate that Malaysia lost RM2.6tn due to corruption over the past 40 years.

Is it enough that we commenced an investigation into one or two super-rich families for alleged corruption and deluded ourselves that everything from now is okay and our system is squeaky clean?

The people want to know where the sources of the leakages are and how to plug them and put the country back on an even keel.

He added countless problems remain hidden due to a lack of access to government reports and data protected by the Official Secrets Act.

We need a congress where the answers to our woes are not predetermined by dishing out RM2bn or more, even before the resolutions are read.

We need a congress where thoughtful solutions are found through careful deliberations so that large-scale pilferage can be stopped.

Zaid said the people and leaders must take the country’s problems more seriously and “start asking questions”.

Our leaders must be willing to change their flamboyant ways and discard failed solutions. Please take the problems of the Rakyat more seriously.

 Dr Lim Teck Ghee is a well-known political commentator

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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