ONE of the topics deliberated by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York last Saturday was the economic security of small states in the era of globalisation.
Specifically, Dr Mahathir highlighted the unfair international trade practices of big powers where small countries are compelled to “...abandon tariff restrictions and open their countries to invasion by products of the rich and the powerful”.
Conceptually, the prime minister was expressing New Malaysia’s anxieties about small states’ economic security, which Barry Buzan (1991) (emeritus professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics) says is all about “access to resources, finance and markets necessary to sustain acceptable
levels of welfare and state power”.
The economic security of a state, however, has different narratives and priorities if it is analysed from the perspective of individual grouping in a state.
For example, the economic security of the Bumiputera is totally different from the economic security of the non-Bumiputera, particularly the Malaysian Chinese.
The Bumiputera were economically deprived by the British colonialist, through its systemic divide-and-rule policies, to the extent that they became extremely poor, backward, marginalised and alienated.
The Department of Statistics, Kuala Lumpur (1958-1960) stated that in 1957, “the Chinese were already controlling Malaya’s economy, while the Malays were still in deep poverty”.
Within the same year, “poverty rate among Malays was 70.5 per cent, compared with 27.4 per cent for Chinese and 35.7 per cent for Indians” (Hwok-Aun Lee, Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, March 2017).
A study by M. Yusof Saari(2015) (a professor in the Economics Faculty, Universiti Putra Malaysia) had this to say: “In 1970, 66 per cent of the Malays were poor, compared with only 28 per cent and 40 per cent for the Chinese and Indians, respectively.”
The above were reasons why the administration of Tun Abdul Razak Hussein implemented several affirmative programmes for the Bumiputera through the New Economic Policy formulated in 1971.
The NEP was aimed at redressing the above predicament, because as Datuk Dr Muthiah Alagappa (1987) (the Tun Hussein Onn Chair in International Studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia) observed, “economic health is an inextricable part of national security in developing countries”.
Additionally, a study by economist Mohammed Abdul Khalid (2014) discovered that “economic inequality is an important issue and has to be addressed as widening inequality can create deep resentment which can lead to major economic, social and political upheavals, regardless of the causes of these inequalities”.
In an interview with this writer, Dr Rais Saniman, one of the surviving architects of the NEP, said that “NEP was Tun Razak’s strategy to resolve Malaysia’s societal and identity security in post-May 13, 1969 ethnic conflict”.
“NEP was a pro-poor policy irrespective of race, being launched to foster national unity in the aftermath of the ethnic conflict. Hence, it was not an instrument to nationalise businesses of the non-Bumiputera and foreigners,” he added.
Despite the above, the NEP was endlessly contested by proponents of meritocracy by politicising it through stereotyped racial arguments and societal prejudice.
This is ironical because the NEP’s primary goals were to eradicate poverty and redress economic disparity, while its basic strategies were promotion of national unity and deterring ethnic conflict.
The administration of Dr Mahathir (1981-2003) had tried to resolve it by rebranding the NEP into National Economic Policy.
This NEP-based policy was formulated through combined efforts of the government’s economic agencies and non-state actors comprising elites of Malaysia’s business communities, political parties and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs).
The formulation of this policy was coordinated by the National Economic Consultative Council (NECC).
Dr Mahathir’s administration had formulated this policy through a bottom-up approach to reflect its people-centric characteristic and to garner support from multi-ethnic Malaysians.
Unfortunately, the National Economic Policy, as a new socioeconomic instrument, was also continuously labelled by advocates of meritocracy as a pro-Bumiputera policy.
Additionally, there were studies that said this policy was being “hijacked”’ by certain rent-seekers to the extent of defeating the policy’s original goals and objectives.
Hence, how much longer would Bumiputera tolerate the above misperceptions and the so-called hijacking of the NEP-based policy?
What should they do, and when?
Today, various new statistics are showing that the current socio-economic gaps between Malaysia’s Bumiputera and non-Bumiputera are widening to a point of no convergence.
Moves to remedy this disparity, however, might be difficult if the advocates of meritocracy refuse to accept that Bumiputera economic security policy is national in nature.
Hence, Bumiputera from all walks of life must move in a collective and pre-emptive manner to produce a thorough and detailed blueprint containing proposals and strategies to overcome their existing predicament.
They must also adopt a fresh narrative on the current Bumiputera economic insecurity by arguing that it is a real national security problem with implications on all Malaysians, irrespective of race.
Failure to do so, therefore, is a failure in protecting Malaysia’s national security; and opposition to resolving this problem is an obstacle to the maintenance of the country’s national survival.
Finally, the government of New Malaysia must accept the fact that Bumiputera economic security is an integral component of national security, which must be solved through approaches free from stereotyped racial jealousy and societal prejudice.
Ruhanie Ahmad is a former member of parliament for Parit Sulong, Johor (1990 to 2004).