Challenging Malaysia’s Status Quo
Lim Teck Ghee
In 2009, in conjunction with fellow public intellectuals Alberto Gomes and Azly Rahman, Lim Teck Ghee edited a comprehensive volume, Multi-Ethnic Malaysia: Past, Present and Future, which sought to provide a detailed analysis of Malaysian history, politics and society. Challenging Malaysia’s Status Quo, consisting of a series of critical articles and commentaries, arranged in thematic format, is in some respects an update of the earlier volume, examining the increasingly pressing range of issues confronting contemporary Malaysia and its future as a viable and democratic multi-ethnic society.
Lim Teck Ghee is one of the most consistent and astute observers of Malaysian politics, religion and society, adopting the twin roles of public intellectual and determined social activist. A scholar of international repute, Lim has occupied senior academic positions both in Malaysia and abroad, as well as advisory positions within the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific and the World Bank. In 2005 Lim returned to Malaysia to establish the Centre for Policy Studies, a think tank within the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI). Lim’s prolonged examination of Malaysian politics and culture, now extending over several decades, is informed by formidable scholarship and an unerring eye for detail.
The book does not provide optimistic reading. It reveals the toxic cul-de-sac into which rampant ethnic chauvinism and growing religious bigotry have led Malaysia. The obsession with “race”, the continual delineation of ethnic boundaries, the constant deployment of ideologies constructed around supposedly inherent and ineradicable racial differences, have entrenched the politics of race as a central feature of Malaysian public discourse. Lim’s essays show Malaysia sundered by ethnic polarisation, an increasingly out of control religious bureaucracy, and an economy saddled with corruption and networks of patronage, plagued with inefficiencies and stymied by the politics of expedience and short-termism.
Many of the issues which Lim discusses in this book have their genesis in the Constitutional Settlement of 1957. Ethnicity, constantly re-inscribed by the communal structures of the ruling coalition, has remained the primary focus of Malayan/Malaysian politics since Merdeka. The Constitutional Settlement was negotiated by a communally based coalition known as the Alliance representing the three main “races” of Malaya (Malay, Chinese and Indian). It enshrined Malay political and cultural primacy built around Malay statecraft, language and symbols. Provisions that instituted Islam as the official religion, and which bestowed special privileges upon Malays in perpetuity, created a bifurcation between Malay/Muslim and non-Malay/non-Muslim. The settlement and the concessions made by non-Malays were viewed as the price they were required to pay to become citizens of the newly independent federation. It was perhaps inevitable that politicians, especially those from the exclusively Malay parties (United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Parti Islam (PAS)), would exploit Malaysia’s racial and religious divisions for their own ends.
It is now generally accepted that the racial riots of May 1969 were planned as a coup to depose prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and replace him with his former deputy, Tun Abdul Razak. This resulted in major policy shifts. New edicts placed Malay primacy beyond debate and enforced the constitutional “bargain” of 1957 as a basis for the future conduct of Malaysian political life. The centrepiece of the “new realism” was the New Economic Policy (NEP). Enunciated within the context of the Second Malaysia Plan (1971-75), the NEP was structured on the premise that the economics of private enterprise had disadvantaged the Malays (as well as other sections of the community), and that equitable sharing of economic expansion would be achieved only through direct government intervention. In essence the NEP sought, through a process of vigorous affirmation, to attain for Malays and other indigenous groups a 30 per cent share of corporate assets by 1990. This objective was to be subsumed within a policy structure that promoted the dual objectives of the eradication of poverty regardless of race, and the elimination of the identification of “race” with economic function. Both prime minister Razak and his deputy Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman envisaged the NEP as a temporary measure that would be rescinded once the main objectives of the plan had been achieved. However, both were to die in office, and this provision was subsequently shelved.
These political reforms were supplemented by initiatives advanced at a Congress of National Culture, convened in August 1971. The congress, dominated by Malay cultural groups, determined that Malay culture would become the normative template of Malaysian society, and that Islam would form an integral component of this culture. However, the Congress conceded that “suitable elements” from “immigrant” cultures might be accepted into the national mix. These aspects were not considered to be of more than ephemeral significance — the “immigrant races” were reduced to mere “splinters” from their home societies, and their contributions would in no respect detract from what was envisaged as a Malay-dominated national culture. The main recommendations of this congress were later adopted by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports as official government policy. As Joel S. Kahn and Francis Loh Kok Wah have shown, this policy produced widespread resentment and multiple sites of particularistic resistance.
These policies, both economic and cultural, became an exaggerated feature of the long prime ministership (1981-2003) of Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir believed that minority ethnicities should acquiesce to Malay dominance and acculturate themselves to Malay norms. Under his tutelage, UMNO increasingly played the “racial card”, leading to increased ethnic polarisation. Mahathir and many of his ministers exploited Malay insecurities and instilled the concept of ketuanan Melayu (Malay superiority). The NEP, increasingly fuelled by the privatisation of government assets, became a conduit for the establishment of UMNO-driven networks of patronage and cronyism. This was justified by the belief that the creation of a class of Malay millionaires would ultimately enrich and uplift the entire Malay community. Mahathir inaugurated a policy of Islamisation, largely in reaction to perceived pressures of PAS. These measures empowered and emboldened an increasingly interventionist Wahhabist-Salafist Islamic bureaucracy. Mahathir also vitiated Malaysia’s institutional checks and balances, most notably the judiciary, in the process moving Malaysia away from what observer Harold Crouch had termed a “modified democratic system” to one more closely resembling a “modified authoritarianism”.
These policies continued largely unabated under Mahathir’s successors. Despite his stated intentions, Abdullah Badawi (2003-09) did little to combat corruption or contain the excesses of the Islamic bureaucracy. And while the 1Malaysia policy of Najib Razak (2009-18), which promised a more inclusive approach to ethnic affairs, generated some evanescent enthusiasm, it soon became obvious that, as far as UMNO was concerned, it was business as usual. The ethnicisation of state institutions continued, the politics of spite and race baiting became routine, and the putative “disloyalty” and “anti-Malayness” of the opposition became a monotonic theme of UMNO discourse; indeed, Malays were repeatedly informed that their very survival as a “race” and that of Islam as their religion were wholly dependent upon the perpetuation of UMNO rule.
The inviolate issue of the Malay level of corporate equity was ultimately to result in Lim’s decision to resign from the Centre of Public Policy. Barely a year into his appointment to the Centre of Policy Studies, the publication of his paper, “Corporate Equity Distribution: Past Trends and Future Policy”, co-authored with Edmund Terence Gomez, which questioned government statistics on ethnic ownership of corporate equity, resulted in a fierce controversy. Using different and more advanced methodologies than the “narrowly based and unrealistic” official methodology favoured by the government, Lim and Gomez concluded that the NEP target of 30 per cent corporate equity had already been achieved and that the actual figure could be as high as 45 per cent (compared to the official figure of 18.9 per cent). Following a series of intemperate denunciations by the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, ASLI president Mirzan Mahathir announced the formal retraction of the study, which was deemed not to have attained the research benchmarks required of institute publications. In his resignation, Lim affirmed his belief in the quality of the research that underpinned the study and stood by his conclusions. In the ensuing controversy, the conclusions and recommendations that accompanied the report were lost.
In general terms, the Lim and Gomez study noted that the NEP had been effective in redistributing corporate equity, and that no similar program in any other country had recorded such a rapid turnaround. However, the report concluded that the NEP no longer fulfilled the purposes for which it was designed and played no role in promoting national unity or equitable development. It noted that the Mahathir policy of creating a group of Malay entrepreneurs had been revealed as a failure during the financial crisis of 1997, when many of the newly created Malay businesses proved unviable. Additionally, the policy of “selective patronage” had concentrated Malay wealth in a very small group of well-connected business and political leaders without reaching poorer segments of the community, thus resulting in serious intra-Malay income cleavage. The report advanced a series of major recommendations focussing upon poverty alleviation, educational reforms, an end to over-regulation (which discouraged investment) and civil service reform.
Lim believes that the latter is of crucial importance in a multi-ethnic society. In the years since the introduction of the NEP, an increasingly bloated civil service has become a virtual Malay enclave, an ethnic preserve that non-Malays find difficult to penetrate and in which it is virtually impossible to gain advancement or forge a career. In addition, Malays dominate both the police and the military. While a case for civil service reform might be made in terms of social justice, the fact remains that a service funded by the taxes of all ethnic groups and charged with implementing policies on behalf of all communities should be representative of the entire population.
The New Economic Model, initiated in conjunction with the Tenth Malaysia Plan (2011-2015) was intended to usher in a new economic era that would both supplement and build on the achievements of the NEP. Official documentation spoke glowingly of aspirations and innovations; an economy guided by attention to merit and excellence; all initiatives subject to transparency, accountability and integrity; the dismantling of non-competitive processes including quotas, preferences and closed tenders. In addition, Malaysia would substantially reduce its dependence upon a large foreign workforce. The economy, optimistically predicted to grow at 6 per cent per annum, would be underpinned by sales of petroleum and gas.
The reality was somewhat different. As Lim documents, very little changed on the ground. By 2015 the foreign workforce had swelled to an estimated 7 million (of whom fewer than a third were registered), in the process displacing local unskilled workers and in particular impacting upon Malay and other bumiputera companies. The management of Government Linked Companies, the major shareholders of corporate equity, continued to be determined by ethnic and political criteria. Moreover, the NEP’s 30 per cent requirement was extended beyond corporate equity to include other properties and assets. This generated countless avenues for corruption, in particular rent seeking, self-enrichment and cronyism, especially among distributional agencies. The remorseless concentration upon ethnicity in relation to economic development created additional networks of patronage within UMNO and the upper echelons of the politicised bureaucracy. But the Malaysian economy has been additionally burdened with systemic constraints and inefficiencies, including a grossly corpulent public service, a stifling array of personal subsidies, high utility costs, low levels of efficiency, an under-skilled workforce, low technological capacity, under-investment in R&D, an unstable currency and marked increases in the cost of living. Moreover, the costs of business in Malaysia are distended by corrupt practices including rent seeking and bribery.
The results have been predictable: a drying up of FDI, capital flight, overall loss of competitiveness, an accompanying brain drain and alarming levels of financial outflow, estimated in the period 2003-12 to have reached no less than US$49 billion. (Lim points out that throughout this period Global Financial Integrity, a US corruption watchdog, ranked Malaysia fifth in the world for cumulative total illicit outflows.)
A further factor deterring potential investors is the rising tide of Islamisation and the invective that has been its concomitant. Since the racial riots of 1969, Malaysia has witnessed an intensification of Islamisation, a development which has been largely driven by Malay ethnocentrism and which has often erected barriers to interaction between Malays and non-Malays/non-Muslims. Religious reforms have sought to extinguish or displace the Indic culture that informed the bulk of Malay adat (custom) in favour of a form of Islam increasingly tinctured with Wahhabist and Salafist influences.
The wave of Islamisation has been exploited by politicians, especially those of UMNO and PAS, both of which have sought to establish their Islamic credentials by “out-Islamising” the other. Both parties have set out to manipulate, often in apocalyptic terms, Malay fears and vulnerabilities. Islam is portrayed as beset by a host of enemies, both internal and external, and in urgent need of both protecting and defending from these malignant forces. Thus, for example, Najib has claimed that humanism, secularism and liberalism are “deviant” practices and represent a threat to the state. Restrictions on those entitled to use the word “Allah” (widely used by all faiths throughout the remainder of the Islamic world as a generic term for God), were justified on the grounds that non-Muslim usage threatened the very survival of Islam as a religion. (This issue ultimately led to violence in the form of the fire-bombing of several churches.) Political Islam has encroached upon the civil liberties of all Malaysians, particularly those of minority communities.
The deepening surge of Islamisation has been reinforced and extended by the growth of an ever expanding and increasingly intrusive religious bureaucracy. Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (JAKIM, or Department of Islamic Development), has in recent years made a concerted push to instil a homogeneous and uncompromising Wahhabi-inspired Islam as the central and defining feature of the (secular) Malaysian constitution. This would be enforced through the application of syriah, thus rendering it beyond contestation. JAKIM has repeatedly attempted to ensure greater adherence within the public domain to what are specified as Islamic laws, practices and norms. The department has waged a prolonged campaign against a variety of targets and has, in the process, increasingly impinged on the rights of minorities (as well as those of moderate Muslims). Actions taken by JAKIM have included the seizure of the remains of persons alleged to have converted to Islam, forced and attempted conversions of persons deemed to be Muslim, and the splitting of families in the name of religion. The bureaucracy has often acted with overwhelming arrogance, appearing to dismiss the beliefs, practices and actual institutions of non-Muslims as of limited consequence.
The emphasis upon ethnicity has also impacted both education and the teaching of history. Lim is rightly concerned by the declining standards in all sectors of Malaysian education. While in recent years there has been a massive expansion of the tertiary sector, the quality of education offered at these institutions has been uneven, and many are decidedly suspect. The same malaise has affected established universities and is reflected in their plummeting international rankings. Lim points to obvious shortcomings: appointments are determined on the basis of ethnicity rather than merit, academic freedom is curtailed in response to political pressure, and student associations are closely monitored. As a consequence, graduates are often of poor quality, and many lack language skills. Graduate unemployment remains at unacceptably high rates; indeed, potential hirers have deemed some graduates unemployable. The deterioration of educational standards is also observable within Malaysian schools, where scholarships are conferred according to racial criteria and high grades are often awarded to mediocre candidates.
Lim also details the Malaysian government’s attempts to impose an official history upon Malaysian schools and tertiary institutions, a subject that was intended to be compulsory. This project has its genesis in the 1971 National Culture Congress, which demanded that Malay culture and history be inculcated as central to the teaching of history. In 1987 this was reinforced by Anwar Ibrahim’s directive, as minister of education, that school history should demonstrate that Malay primacy was a product of Malay history. The resultant history, hijacked for narrow political purposes, had a strong ethnocentric, religious and political bias, and omitted or at best marginalised the contributions of non-Malays and non-Muslims. The history also lacked accuracy and objectivity and contained numerous errors and mistakes.
An unanticipated bonus in this work is several chapters of political and social satire, grouped under the generic “What It Is All About”. Lim manages this with an elan which hints at the alternate career he might have forged had he chosen not to enter the world of scholarship.
The book concludes with several interviews that include personal insights, with reference to childhood and adolescent financial privation and how these experiences proved formative in shaping Lim’s political and social perspectives, as well as the obstacles he overcame and the sheer determination he evinced to enter the world of scholarship.
The recent election and the program foreshadowed by the incoming government may finally free Malaysia from the shackles of post-colonial ideologies. It has most certainly rescued it from the grasp of the tired and enervated rule of an UMNO denuded of vision and direction, racked by financial scandal and reduced to the pursuit of power for its own sake. This book fulfils the dual purpose of recounting all that was wrong in the declining years of UMNO/Barisan Nasional rule and serving as a blueprint for the major economic and social reforms that Malaysia must confront.