Lessons on Affirmative Action Policies From Malaysia

Lessons on Affirmative Action Policies From Malaysia
A man wears a facemask, amid fears over the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, at Saloma Link Bridge in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on March 12, 2020. (Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images)
Gabriël Moens

In 1971, following the convulsions of ethnic riots, Malaysia introduced its New Economic Policy (NEP)—affirmative action for the country’s Malay Muslim majority.

Malaysia is a country with a diverse population of 32.37 million, comprising three dominant ethnic groups: 70 percent Bumiputera Malays, 22 percent Chinese, seven percent Indians, and one percent others. “Bumiputera” means “sons of the soil” the Indigenous people of Malaysia, whereas the Chinese and Indians are deemed to be “newcomers” who contributed to the economy when the British ruled Malaysia.

According to Professor James Chin, in 1971, when the NEP was adopted, the “Malay share of corporate wealth ... was estimated to be 2.4 percent, and the Chinese 34 percent, with the remainder, said to rest in foreign hands.”

The NEP was aimed at redistributing wealth and radically restructure the society. Quotas were adopted to ensure all groups were represented in positions of influence and power based on their population size.

For example, a quota of 30 percent was introduced for Malays to access to the proportionate share of job positions, grants, and opportunities such as admission to university.

The NEP is compatible with, or inspired by, Article 153 (1) of the Constitution of Malaysia, according to which the King is responsible for safeguarding “the special position of the Malays and natives.”

In addition, Section 2 specifies that this responsibility is exercised “to ensure the reservation for Malays and natives ... of positions in the public service ... and of scholarships, exhibitions, and other similar educational or training privileges.”

Helpful or Destructive?

However, according to Professor Chin, the NEP program went from a “redistributionist tool intended to correct a specific set of historical wrongs to becoming a monster with a life of its own.”

This is because beneficiaries soon became rent seekers who used the program to enrich themselves without increasing productivity in society.

While affirmative action programs usually aim to improve the socio-economic situation of minorities, the NEP has instead, been used to further the interests of the majority.

Further, the policy is implemented on the basis that the overall gains to society will exceed its losses, or in the utilitarian sense, where the “average or collective level of welfare in the community is improved even though the welfare of some individuals fall” (pdf).

The problem, however, is how these gains and losses are measured, which is inherently subjective and also highly controversial.

People cross a street in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Oct. 8, 2021. (Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images)
People cross a street in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Oct. 8, 2021. (Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images)

The NEP has another major problem and that is many Malay job applicants are coming from the top of the Bumiputera group, not the bottom—creating another form of inadvertent discrimination.

It can favour Malays who are already advantaged, but can enrich themselves further through profiting from the system. Unsurprisingly, these people continue to support the NEP because it entrenches their power.

Further, the NEP has irreparably damaged the relationship between ethnic groups in Malaysian society. It has created a culture of dependency and entitlement, which is exploited by Bumiputera rent seekers.

In this context, Chin says that “an affirmative action policy based on a single racial criterion inevitably creates tension with other ethnic groups, some of which may have millions of equally poor or otherwise disadvantaged members but cannot access government assistance.”

The Blurring of Rights and Privileges

One of the tragic side effects of the policy’s implementation is its erosion of the distinction between a “privilege” and a “right.”

While a privilege, by its very nature, is a transient and temporary benefit and can thus be revoked by governments, a right is a permanent entitlement. The NEP has obliterated this distinction by institutionalising discrimination based on a person’s race.

The allocation of benefits based on a person’s race is a wrong-headed practice. Indeed, people should only be entitled to benefits that they have earned themselves, regardless of their race.

Malaysian indigenous people stand outside of the prime minister's office during a protest in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on March 17, 2010. (Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)
Malaysian indigenous people stand outside of the prime minister's office during a protest in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on March 17, 2010. (Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

The tragedy is that this issue of institutionalised privilege and discrimination cannot sensibly be debated anymore in Malaysia because the NEP is so entrenched that it has become part of the DNA of the nation and its youth, who have come to expect it as a birth right.

In my book, “Affirmative Action: The New Discrimination,” published in 1985, I refer to the prophetic words of Professor B. R. Gross, who argues that privilege is incompatible with the “rule of law” because it substitutes the rule of law with a “rule of men which is no more than a rule of privilege and influence so rightly despised by the founders of liberal democracy.

“In such a game, the winners will not be the formerly downtrodden but the new mandarins who have reached power.”

Gross’ comment succinctly encapsulates the chequered story of the NEP in Malaysia. He is undoubtedly right to say that real help for the disadvantaged members of society comes from the principle of equality of opportunity, “the only clear and safe way of ruling favouritism out.”

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States.