Do Malays Need More Crutches in Business?

Do Malays need more crutches or “tongkat” to succeed in business? During the past week we have had three different explanations provided by Malay leaders that have made the news.

Tun Daim Zainuddin’s Explanation

The first is by Tun Daim Zainuddin, the former Finance Minister and close ally of Dr. Mahathir, who argued that the lack of talented Malay entrepreneurs is due to the policies of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim when the latter was the finance minister.

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According to him, “I do not want to blame Anwar, but when he took over as the finance minister in 1991, he changed the landscape. He took the easy option by giving out company shares and all of those who were close to him became rich,” he told Berita Harian.  “The mentality became support Anwar, support the finance minister, get shares. After selling the shares, they would become rich.”

The result, according to Tun Daim, was that Anwar’s policies caused the Malays to think that it was easy to become rich and that there was no need to go into business. The other factor according to the former Finance Minister was red tape. “One has to fill up numerous application forms, there are simply too many agencies involved in the economic empowerment of Bumiputeras.”

His conclusion : “I do not know what else should be done to help the Malays become rich. Various affirmative action plans have been introduced to assist the Malays,” said Daim, adding that agencies responsible for helping the Malays and Bumiputeras “are too bureaucratic”.

Daim’s argument that red tape is part of the reason is difficult to accept. After all non-Malays also face red tape and the civil service personnel that they have to deal with are almost 100 per cent Malays! So how come the Chinese can do business despite the bureaucracy but the Malays cannot!  But note too that Daim indirectly says enough “tongkat” have been provided to Malays to become rich.

Utusan/Perkasa Explanation

The second theory comes from Umno-controlled newspaper Utusan Malaysia’s news story that many Bumiputera traders failed to secure places to conduct businesses at KLIA2 which opened on May 2. The newspaper reported that its assistant group editor Datuk Zaini Hassan had expressed concern that it was difficult to find Malay food outlets at the airport. Based on this report, the secretary-general of Perkasa, Syed Hassan Syed Ali said Najib’s promises to Bumiputera businessmen remained mere rhetoric.

“The failure of Malay entrepreneurs to get business lots at klia2 is proof that all of Najib’s promises over the last five years to enhance Bumiputera participation in business and commerce were mere lip service,” he said in a statement.

Syed Hassan said Perkasa had always expressed concern that Bumiputera businessmen should be given opportunities but that the issue of Malay traders being marginalised in klia2 was too glaring.

“Bumiputera traders are sidelined not only in klia2 but also at other new business and commercial centres like in KLCC,” he said.

In response to this, MAHB, the authority running the airport, has stated that  40% of the businessmen at the airport were Bumiputera who were involved in retail trade. I should also point out that many of the franchises that operate at the airport – Kentucky Fried, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Burger King, etc. as well as the banks and other services that operate in the airport have majority or substantial Malay ownership and control. In fact, if anything, non-Malays have good reason to complain that in all the areas of the economy where the GLCs have taken control (toll highways, banks, petrol kiosks, farmers markets) they have provided very few opportunities for small Chinese businesses.  Some non-Malays also feel that, after all these years of discrimination, they are the ones that need the crutches!

Zaid Ibrahim’s Explanation

The third theory has been provided by Dato’ Zaid Ibrahim. In his blog Zaid refuted both the Perkasa and Daim theories. According to him, Anwar was doing what every Finance Minister (including Tun Daim and the present Prime Minister) was doing. “UMNO strongmen are good at ensuring that the gravy train is available to their colleagues and those in their team as a result of their loyalty and support; and with the money, they then cling to power as long as they can. To Zaid though, Anwar was supportive of economic programmes that helped small businessmen and did many things for rural development.

For me, the most important part of Zaid’s article is his revelation that there are lots of Malay business success stories – “the aristocrats, senior civil servants, ministers and oligarchs in Malaysia are wealthy and they are Malays”.

“But of course they belong to a different class compared to the ordinary Malay,” Zaid said. “As I mentioned, they (like Daim) would rather remain anonymous and keep control from the background, which is why they are not perceived to be wealthy like the Chinese. Zaid also noted that wealthy Malays know the game. In Malaysia, he said, successful businesspeople are politically savvy; and when politics and business mix freely, it’s impossible for Malays not to be “successful”.

Finally Zaid acknowledged that other Malays have also done very well – a fact that Dr. Mahathir, Perkasa and other racist organizations and individuals have refused to acknowledge. According to him, Malay small businesses might not be recognised by Umno as successful because they are not millionaires and might not support the party.

They work hard at whatever they do. Some sell keropokor kain tudung. Some operate kedai makan while others export halal food to China or trade with Middle-Eastern countries. They make good money. They save their profits and they expand when they have sufficient capital. There is no reason to belittle their efforts or to describe them as unsuccessful. Other Malays are doing well in professional services and hold executive positions in major corporations. Petronas is successful, for example, and there are many Malays there.”

I wish Umno politicians will cease stereotyping Malays to fit their own ideas of success,” is his conclusion. In other words, he is saying too that many Malays – especially the rich – do not need crutches now.  They have taken advantage of the system of ethnic preference and should no longer qualify for special privileges or benefit.

Malays Are Surging Ahead   

I have pointed out in my other writings that Malays have made tremendous strides in their economic progress. It is clear to everyone that Malays dominate in every sphere of life in the country – except in the urban housing estates and urban property. In the economic and educational sphere, they control all the major banks except for Public Bank; the GLCs; Petronas; public universities; civil service; etc.

Any Chinese or orang putih wanting to do business has to kowtow to the Malays for licenses and permits. Moreover, Malay businesses control some of the monopoly businesses such as water, electricity, toll roads, etc. where it is so easy for them to make more profits by just increasing the price abetted by a Malay-oriented civil service. They also form the majority in parliament, judiciary, army and police, the MACC and all other important political bodies.

It is important for Malaysians to recognize that the greater part of the country’s wealth is now in the hands of the Malay elite together with their non-Malay partners. The argument that Malays need more crutches or are marginalized in the economy is a hollow and false one put out to fool the Malay public. Those that have lost out in the process of UMNO’s rule and economic policies that have benefitted the Malay elite are the lower and middle class Malays and non-Malays.  As for those who have gained, there is no better way to describe them than Zaid has – these are “ the aristocrats, senior civil servants, ministers and oligarchs.” To them I would include the group of non-Malay cronies.  

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