Bumiputra Economic Congress failed to move past top-down approach

The issues at the congress were discussed and decided by the elites and then presented to politicians for the 'benefit' of the people

Kampung Sibiew in Bintulu, Sarawak - THE VIBES

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By Safiyuddin Sabri

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Social media users had a lot to say about the Bumiputera Economic Congress and the government initiatives announced by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

The reactions to the congress varied depending on the social media platform and the language medium.

On Instagram, for instance, an English language news article about bumiputras owning only one out of 97 listed companies drew this comment: “You have to work for it, not by comparing races.”

On TikTok, a suggestion in the congress that 30% of goods in hypermarkets should be bumiputra products attracted varied reactions:

“Why 30%? Just make it 100% happy?”

“Buat macam mana pun kalau malas apa pun tak jadi.” (No matter what, if you are lazy, nothing will materialise.”

“Tapi Melayu pun kurang sokong barangan tempatan.” (But even the Malays do not fully support local products.”

The deputy PM has suggested the implementation of a Bumiputra Economic Transformation (TEB) blueprint. He said this was not to replace the New Economic Policy (NEP) but to serve as a guide for a more progressive approach to the bumiputra policy and to reduce the socioeconomic gap.

But according to Transformasi Pembangunan Bumiputera (Bumiputra Development Transformation or TPB 2030) website, “Bidang Transformasi Ekonomi Bumiputera” (Bumiputra Economic Transformation or Beta) is one of the components of TPB 2030, which was launched in 2021 to explore potential sectors for increased bumiputra participation.

Yes, a dizzying array of acronyms!

My own position on the development of the bumiputra economy is for the government to continue what it is doing but not for the long term – only until the underclass among the bumiputras (ie the ethnic Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak) do not need such targeted affirmative action policies any longer.

Meanwhile, concrete measures have to be taken to help the people, regardless of ethnicity, to escape the vicious cycle of poverty.

For this to happen, the government needs to involve the underclass in its planning.

The New Economic Policy, which has launched in 1971, has proven to be ineffective in eradicating poverty entirely. There was hope for the congress to offer new ideas for the government to come up with fresh policies for the bumiputras. Unfortunately, the congress was mainly attended by the elite.

The government believes its policies are for the benefit of the people. But its policymaking process and its approach to gathering ideas does not appear to involve all classes of the people.

If the proposed “bumiputra economic transformation” aims to reach those left behind, then the transformation process has to include their needs and opinions.

Last year, the Department of Statistics reported that in 2022 the median monthly household income of the bumiputras was the lowest compared to two other major ethnic groups. The bumiputra figure stood at RM5,793 compared to the Chinese at RM8,167 and the Indians at RM6,627.

Bank Muamalat’s lead economist, Afzanizam Rashid, pointed out that the income ratio between the Chinese and the Malays had widened from 1:0.738 in 2014 to 1:0.709 in 2022.

The inequality gap among the bumiputras remains high. For example, bumiputra-majority Sabah recorded a 19.5% poverty rate, the highest in the country – even though the territory’s median household income of the RM5,745 was not the lowest in the country (Department of Statistics).

After examining the resolutions at the congress, a question cropped up in my mind: what was the difference between this congress and the government’s policy of upholding the ‘bumiputra agenda’ in the past?

The congress still adopted a top-down approach. It is uncertain if such an approach can ever benefit the underclass. The issues at the congress were discussed and decided by the elites and then presented to politicians for the ‘benefit’ of the people.

The inclusivity that the prime minister has promoted was commendable: we saw less rhetorical discussion about bumiputra rights. Instead, the congress focused on cooperation to develop the bumiputra economy.

In his closing speech, the PM extended his inclusive approach: it is not just government-linked firms and government-linked investment companies that are responsible for development but also “selected” private companies.

What’s more, a Bumiputra Economic Council was formed, to be chaired by the PM himself. A monitoring committee will be chaired by Deputy PM Zahid Hamidi while an implementation committee will be chaired by the minister for the economy, Rafizi Ramli.

But Zahid carries baggage – the corruption charges against him that were dropped – and doubts hover over his ability to carry out any serious “monitoring”.

The role of Teraju and the committee is also unclear.

The seventh resolution – on education and human capital – talks about enhancing the quality of national schools. One strategy is to create a special excellence fund to help less fortunate students.

Another strategy from the first resolution – to reorient the bumiputra mindset to prioritise education – is to make incentives more targeted. For example, incentives can be linked to attendance at school or a decision to resume studies.

But a special fund and more targeted incentives are problematic. It is a carrot- and-stick approach: students will be forced to go to school or resume their studies to receive assistance. The presence of students who are not interested in their studies will affect other students in class who actually want to study.

What was missing from the congress was a specific resolution to strengthen the social safety net.

The absence of a stronger social welfare system not only affects education but will have a bearing on the other resolutions passed at the congress. This shows up the weaknesses of the resolutions, which are supposed to guide policymakers, already predisposed to a top-down approach.

Ultimately, this congress was not about making policies. It was more of a discussion among corporate leaders who claimed to ‘represent’ bumiputra voices on what kind of policies they want the government to formulate.

The efforts to develop the bumiputra economy should be welcomed because they are needed: the percentage of bumiputras, especially the underclass, who are left behind remains high.

But if we want tangible change, we’ll need a different approach – one that is more supportive of the underclass and more inclusive in helping low-income folk, regardless of ethnicity, escape from the clutches of poverty.

Safiyuddin Sabri is a political science student now doing an internship with Aliran.

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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Theresa
Theresa
10 Mar 2024 5.15pm

just think, if the govt could recover the trillons stolen by our corrupt politicians and each citizen given 1 million……….sigh

.Paul Lim
.Paul Lim
10 Mar 2024 4.32am

Thinking of a bottom-ups approach, could there be social enterprises or cooperatives set up involving the poor Malays and other ethnic groups. I can’t think more concretely but such as worker-cooperatives in a productive sector that involves their skills or give them skill training. It could be in agriculture.

Orang Ulu
Orang Ulu
8 Mar 2024 7.48pm

No problem. More cash handouts will be distributed by the Madani PM to the Bumis, especially the Civil Servants who are endlessly demanding more money. After depleting the state coffers Madani PM will impose more taxes.