Can Anwar unravel and reinvent the bumiputra construct?

Ethnic minority and bumiputra participants at the coming bumiputra economic congress will get the chance to counter Anwar on his understanding of the Constitution and the meaning of 'inclusive'

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By Lim Teck Ghee

Coming shortly is an economic congress that may be a little different from those held in the past.

But will it have the potential to be a game-changer in the political economy and the social structure of Malaysia? Only the dreamers may think so.

This is the 2024 bumiputra economic congress to be held from 29 February to 2 March. It is due to be attended by over 3,000 participants, especially from the Malay, Kadazandusun, Dayak, Iban and Orang Asli communities.

What is unusual in this year’s congress is the proposed participation of the Chinese and Indian chambers of commerce.

Announcing this event at the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia’s Lunar New Year celebration, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim noted that a more inclusive approach to addressing the bumiputra economy will lead to resolving issues affecting other communities.

“I hope ACCCIM 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 congress will focus on 10 main clusters, including educational and human capital reforms, strengthening the halal industry, Sabah and Sarawak’s bumiputra economy and new technology.

Most, if not all, of these subjects have already been the focus of many forums. So will there be anything new apart from what some see as merely token ethnic minority participation – business groups primarily – in another picture-snapping, chest-beating political forum hyped as inclusive?

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Can the congress break new ground for ‘Madani’ Islam?

It is not clear if long-standing concerns about the actual impact of bumiputra policies – whether these policies have been in the best interest of the nation, who have been winners, who are the losers, and a host of related issues previously regarded as politically incorrect or taboo – will be part of the official programme to be discussed openly.

Encouragingly, the PKR MP for Pasir Gudang, Hassan Karim, has started the ball rolling to ensure a more transparent, frank and unrestricted discourse. He urged the upcoming congress to review if the bumiputra privileges have actually benefited the community.

“Has it truly helped the bumiputra economy or has it been seized, manipulated by a few bumiputra elites in the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak to enrich themselves, their families, close friends and crony capitalists?” he asked.

Article 153 of the Federal Constitution has often been invoked to justify the pro-bumiputra policy. The provision states that the Agong is responsible for safeguarding the “special position” of the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak, including through quotas for education, scholarships, public service positions, as well as licences and permits for businesses where necessary.

Article 153 also states that the king is responsible for safeguarding the “legitimate interests of other communities” in accordance with the article.

Does the constitutional article justify the continuation of bumiputra privilege is an issue which needs resolution, now that the nation is over 60 years old and the initial intent was for the special position clause to operate for a period of 20 years.

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MP Hassan’s challenge and dream

Unprecedented and more significant, MP Hassan has proposed that the congress should not only review bumiputra privileges but also the notion of race-based policies.

“Is it time for the KEB (the bumiputra economic congress) which is inclusive according to Anwar, to discuss and conclude that the issue of economic development of the people should not be resolved with race-based policies or the division of bumiputra or non-bumiputra, but based on a class division of the people’s lives and needs?”

“A few upper classes called the T10 group, for instance, consist of all races, both bumiputra and non-bumiputra. Some of them are ultra-rich or from the billionaire or multi-millionaire group.”

“While the lower class, B60, consists of all races. If we study the hardcore poor, then we know there are not only poor bumiputra people but also many poor Indians and Orang Asli.”

Hassan called for the focus of the congress to be on the B60 class – that is, the majority of Malaysians – if the congress is to be inclusive.

His assertion that people from all races and religions need jobs with reasonable incomes, manageable costs of living, good health services, quality education and a safety net for older people in need is not only irrefutable. It is one which most people in Malaysia, as well as the opposition, will agree with.

In his words: “So, a successful bumiputra economic congress will produce economically just policies for all people regardless of race, and of course, in the end, it will produce social justice for all.

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“Economic and social justice across races will create the trust and confidence among people that the current administration and its Madani [civil and compassionate] philosophy are on the right track to create a united Malaysia.”

Anwar’s latest zigzag

Hassan has thrown the gauntlet to Anwar and his Pakatan Harapan colleagues in government to recalibrate and transform the bumiputra policy.

Hassan’s challenge: “We hope it will be the last bumiputra economic congress. After this, we can organise the next economic congress with a new brand – Malaysian citizens’ economic congress. Can this dream be achieved?”

Meanwhile, in what can be seen as a predictably vapid old school political response to Hassan’s call, Anwar said, “We will defend the provisions in the constitution, including (Article) 153. There’s no need for further discussions”.

Ethnic minority and bumiputra participants at the coming bumiputra economic congress will have an opportunity to counter Anwar on his understanding of the Constitution and the meaning of “inclusive”.

They can also be catalysts for change by sharing and making public the views of their organisations and communities on the bumiputra construct, which some analysts regard as possibly the most challenging obstacle to a unified and cohesive nation.

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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