Decades-old-thesis-turned-book sheds light on Malaysia’s NEP

A review of Dr Toh Kin Woon's book

Toh Kin Woon - Photograph: Bersih

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By Victor Tan

Dr Toh Kin Woon’s book Malaysia’s New Economic Policy in its First Decade published by Gerakbudaya is no ordinary book.

First published as a PhD thesis by Toh, it was launched as a book by Dr Jomo Kwame Sundaram within the walls of Gerakbudaya recently – 42 years after the completion of the thesis.

It is a work that was once withheld on account of ‘contrarian’ views, given that Gerakan, alongside Umno, was then part of the Barisan Nasional coalition (which governed the nation for six decades).

It was only published as a book after much persuasion and a long political career on Toh’s part.

The book provides a profound examination of Malaysia’s political economy.

Its lessons are relevant for people in Malaysia even today, in a world where the state continues to play a crucial role and in which they continue to live amid the far-reaching implications of the New Economic Policy. The implementation of the NEP continues to affect us all as a nation.

Moving swiftly beyond a theoretical explanation of a state, the book delves into the Malaysian state’s role in economic development with historical facts, hard numbers and data. These provide evidence of the state’s favouritism towards capitalist interests, the development of the NEP and the ways in which state power often distorted policies to suit those interests.

In particular, the book highlights how the NEP and its intents were warped by state power repeatedly, providing a complex picture of the state. As much as the NEP had helped with the eradication of poverty, its dual objectives – poverty eradication regardless of race, and the restructuring of society to reduce the identification of race with economic function – had been distorted towards these class interests. This distortion echoes the old proverb that goes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

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The tale of the NEP is a journey that the historically inclined will favour, and one that Toh delivers bounteously. His book brings us back to a rich age of colonial exploitation and comprador capitalists, manifesting a world of colonial capitalist class interests. It tells us about taxes on opium, liquor and tobacco – each regressive to the working class – and how goods favoured by the capitalists remained untouched. It talks about the British departure from a Malaya they had never intended to leave as anything but a colonial enterprise.

The book then brings us into a post-colonial era during which Malaysia as nation had to reckon with a world divided economically by the British. The country also had to contend with the scars of May 13 in 1969. As the nation moved into a modern age with deep questions about equity, race and national identity that the state knew it had to answer, it grappled imperfectly to manage the concerns of all of its major races. It fell into the many traps that Toh cogently points out for us along the way. He concludes his thesis on the question of education, noting that education is not a sufficient condition for the reformation of our society.

What would be, then?

That is the question that the book seems to ask as the reader comes towards its closing pages, only to encounter what seems to be an exercise for the reader, reflective of what the author seems to have wanted to tell us all along: that there are no easy answers.

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Make no mistake, the divisiveness that had once served as a justification for the NEP remains a significant issue in contemporary Malaysia. The cost-of-living crisis affects people of every race, and affirmative action policies continue to spark debate and controversy. Many now debate university quotas and job allocations, screaming angry Facebook comments into social media enclaves as they articulate genuine sufferings.

And that is exactly why Toh’s book remains relevant in 2024.

Yes, the book is a work that was created a long time ago, which might lead the cursory reader to overlook it in the belief it is ‘outdated’. While this belief is understandable to a degree, it is incorrect.

Despite having been written over 40 years ago, this book remains a deeply relevant reminder to evaluate facts rather than cleave to emotional tendencies, to recognise that things can go wrong (a problem that is likely to remain unresolved for many who might not know how the NEP went wrong, let alone what it even was or what it was meant to accomplish!). It encourages us to seek knowledge rather than just push forward on the basis of our blinding emotions. Above all, it is a reminder to continue having these debates and to continue to learn even as we confront this new era.

This is a wonderful book for anyone who wishes to understand the underpinnings of affirmative action discourse in Malaysia, the political economy of post-colonial states, and the tale of the NEP. It was crucial in shaping my personal understanding of the economic history of Malaysia, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand Malaysia as a nation better.

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Pick it up here!

Victor Tan is the founder of Ascendant Academy, a past national scholar, teacher and graduate in economics from the University of Chicago.

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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