Bumiputra Economic Congress – focus on more ‘gimme, gimme’ or plight of the lower class?

Let's opt for a non-ethnic economic policy, which is grounded in the interests of the poor

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One wonders who is driving the Bumiputra Economic Congress nowadays.

It used to be the bumiputra chamber of commerce, which was in turn driven by Umno. They would recruit the usual academicians from the various universities and the top bureaucrats with access to data, who were essentially Umno cheerleaders.

This was the arrangement in the past in Umno-sponsored and government economic conferences

Even when ‘Team A’ contested against ‘Team B’ in the Umno party election in 1987, or when Anwar Ibrahim’s boys took on Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s cronies, the focus of the congress was always on further accumulation for the upper echelon – through takeovers by government-linked companies, privatisation and corporatisation. Ethnic quotas for the top, if you like.

Delegates in the past would also express much concern about improving opportunities to increase the percentage of bumiputra professionals and academicians in various disciplines and sectors. The preferred solution was to create more public universities and colleges to accommodate this need. (The private universities were largely to cater to the ethnic minorities.)

Technical and vocational education training was only integrated into the Ministry of Education’s system belatedly, thanks to a personal push by Nurul Izzah Anwar, who was the TVET empowerment committee chair in 2018. But since the “Sheraton move” in 2020, no one appears to be pushing such training.

In contrast, past conferences often showed a lack of concern about the lower class. Little attention was given to helping bumiputras enter and compete in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). At best, there were the Industrial Coordination Act requirements to fulfil regarding bumiputra quotas. But little help was given on how to be competitive in this sector. Often, the quotas led to Ali Baba (ethnic Malay and Chinese) tie-ups, at least in the early years. (After all, it was the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry which focused on the SME sector, which has been dominated by Chinese businesses.)

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Also, past events hardly gave any attention to the Orang Asli and bumiputras from Sarawak and Sabah. If these events had done so, they would have been required to address the plight of the poorest bumiputras, not just the Malay top and middle classes.

Everyone should reread Khoo Khay Jin’s article “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” (available on the Aliran website and in the book Scholar Activist Khoo Khay Jin: Reflections on the Penan Sarawak and Malaysia, which I edited and Aliran co-published recently).

So, what hope is there that this congress will be different from past ones in its focus and direction? Hopefully, the delegates will at least discuss how they plan to continue with “gimme, gimme” in a global economy facing a worsening recession.

It is timely that Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj and Safiyuddin Sabri have reminded the sponsors of the congress about the plight of the bottom 40% of bumiputras.

Progressives should break away from the prevailing ethnic mindset and call for a non-ethnic based economic policy that focuses on people at the bottom whose livelihoods are being threatened as the economy slows down further.

Remember, in the struggle to topple Umno-Barisan Nasional, the would-be Pakatan Harapan government had promised the replacement of the ethnic-based New Economic Policy with a pro-people policy that prioritises the poor – one that incorporates needs with meritocracy. This is something progressives should also advocate, though never exclusively. My 30-plus years in Universiti Sain Malaysia convinces me of this detail.

The “unity government” should convince its Umno and Sarawak and Sabah partners to push in this direction again.

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After over 50 years of the NEP and its abuse, let’s opt for a non-ethnic economic policy, which is grounded in the interests of the poor. A measure of meritocracy should also be worked into the economic policy so that growth can also be generated and sustained.

After all, PH, which now helms the unity government, had proposed such a new ‘National Economic Policy’ in its Buku Jingga (Orange Book) manifesto, remember?

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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