PUTRAJAYA: Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said there will continue to be policies in place to help the country's ethnic majority Malays, in part to avoid conflict between them and "richer" ethnic groups like the Chinese.
In an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia, in which he touched on topics ranging from the water supply deal with Singapore to talk of rifts within the Pakatan Harapan coalition, Dr Mahathir said there were still areas where affirmative action was needed.
"We have reduced the disparity with the Malays and mainly the Chinese, but there are certain areas where we need to give Malays some kind of push," he told Channel NewsAsia.
Said Dr Mahathir: "For example, when I was in the United Kingdom, I met a number of Chinese students. They were there because their fathers, their parents were able to pay for their studies there.
"But I find that Malay parents, by and large, cannot afford to have university education for their children."
More scholarships need to be given to Malays, said Dr Mahathir, adding that the Chinese in the country "are largely in business".
"And in business, you can make tons of money," he said.
Malays, by contrast, were largely civil servants and wage earners who "cannot afford to send children to universities, because it's now very costly", he added.
Malaysia's ethnic Malays and indigenous communities - collectively known as Bumiputera or "sons of the soil" - make up close to 70 per cent of the country's population, with Chinese making up about 23 per cent of the country, followed by Indians (7 per cent) and "others" (1 per cent).
Affirmative action for the Malays has existed since British colonial rule but was formalised through the National Economic Policy in 1971, launched by then-prime minister Abdul Razak, former premier Najib Razak's father.
Dr Mahathir himself was a strong advocate for policies helping ethnic Malays during his first 22 years in office, with Malay privilege a cornerstone of his former party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
He left UMNO in 2016, however, after falling out with its then-president Najib, eventually joining the Pakatan coalition.
While Dr Mahathir's new party also champions Bumiputera interests, as its name (Malaysian United Indigenous Party) suggests, Pakatan's other parties are not race-based.
However, Dr Mahathir has been credited for helping to secure the Malay vote the coalition needed to win, with Pakatan pledging in the lead-up to polls to protect ethnic Malays' special rights as enshrined in the constitution.
Still, Dr Mahathir told Channel NewsAsia that continuing policies that help Malays does not mean it "thinks only of the Malays".
"Disparity in any society is bad, even if it's a single ethnic (group)," he said. "You have the rich, very rich, and the poor, very poor ... you are inviting conflicts.
"But when the rich belong to one race, and the poor, another race, the potential for conflict is much greater. "
This therefore needs to be corrected, he said.
"We cannot change Malays into Chinese, Chinese into Malays, but we can change their economic situation," Dr Mahathir said.
"We can help improve the economic well-being of the Malays with certain affirmative action."
To watch the full interview, tune in to Conversation With on Thursday (Jun 28) at 9.30pm (SIN/HK).