Meritocracy, Tolerance & Paternalism

The practice of ‘affirmative action’ for ethnic Malays remains a sensitive issue in Malaysia. The practice was established in order to raise the living standards of bumiputra Malay (vis-a-vis the Chinese and the Indian minorities) by giving them preferential treatment in a wide range of areas such as economic ownership and education. This New Economic Policy was implemented in order to avoid repetition of the 1969 riots between the prosperous Chinese minority and the ethnic Malays.

I witnessed the sensitivity of the issue when I was in Kuala Lumpur last October. A KL based think tank published a report (pdf) in which it claimed that – for the case of equity ownership – the targets set by the Malaysian government were already achieved in the 1990s and that therefore the policy was no longer needed. Within no time, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi claimed that their methodology was flawed and that the authors had acted irresponsibly by publishing the report.

I won’t go into the technical discussion about equity ownership here, or on whether the think tank or Badawi was right. However, what did strike me was the lack of real debate on the issue (in the ‘PM-friendly’ official media), or better, the way that such debates were suppressed by the Prime Minister and other high officials. After some time, the author of the report resigned and the whole thing blew over.

It does bring up the question of how Malaysia balances this paternalism with it’s strong emphasis on knowledge and creativity as the new driver of the Malaysian economy. Meritocracy is very much the new word in government, but can there be real meritocracy in a paternalistic state and in a state where a majority receives preferential treatment over minorities? Well, it has done a very good job so far. Mahathir and Badawi have succeeded in building a peaceful society and one that is far more prosperous than most other countries in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, I believe that ‘social engineering’ is not the way forward for Malaysia and that they should take meritocracy seriously. Because of the paternalistic and ethnic policies of the government, Malaysia is running the risk of losing more and more of its bright and talented.

The issue is also raised by Sadanand Dhume, a Bernard Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society in Washington. He writes a provocative article on YaleGlobal Online (in which he also discusses it in the context of Islamic orthodoxy). Here are some interesting paragraphs, but read the whole article here.

After riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1969 between the prosperous Chinese minority and ethnic Malays, Malaysia instituted a program to raise the Malay share of national income. The government aggressively favored Malay businessmen with government contracts, and Malays gained a virtual monopoly on generous government scholarships for overseas study. At the same time – in order to grow the pie rather than to merely carve out a larger slice for Malays – Malaysia followed outward-looking economic policies that encouraged foreign investment and export-led growth.

The rise of China, India and Vietnam, and the demands of a shift from low-cost manufacturing to more knowledge-intensive work, raise serious doubts about the viability of the Malaysian model. The country needs freedom of inquiry to unleash the creativity of its people. It needs to foster an atmosphere of tolerance to staunch the outflow of the country’s brightest non-Malays and to attract overseas talent and investment. Neither is likely without rethinking the twinned and contentious issues of ethnic preferences and religious supremacism.

These troubles could not come at a worse time. Malaysia’s traditional strength in low-cost electronics manufacturing is being challenged by the rise of China and Vietnam. The government has invested heavily in technology infrastructure in the form of the Multimedia Supercorridor, ambitiously hailed as the Silicon Valley of the East. But amid white-hot competition for scientific talent and despite relaxing some of the usual race laws, Malaysia finds it hard to attract and retain Indian and Chinese engineers. Meanwhile, many of the country’s brightest students – especially non-Malays – migrate to Australia, the US and Singapore, where everyone enjoys freedom of conscience and equality before the law.

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