KUALA LUMPUR: He was excited and inspired by the vision being touted to the people.
After 20 years of living under race-based economic policies, says Mr Gan Chee Kuan, “it was refreshing to read such liberating words like, ‘a united Malaysian nation’, ‘common and shared destiny’ and ‘one Bangsa Malaysia’ (Malaysian race)”.
He saw it as “the Malaysian dream” if the country’s ethnic groups could unite, rise above racial politics and work towards the goal of taking Malaysia to a new phase of development.
The then civil servant in the education ministry was hopeful about the nation’s future. “I thought it was a dream worth growing old for,” recalls the Johor native.
That was in 1991, when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced Vision 2020, the quest to turn Malaysia into a fully developed nation — and a united society — by this year.
But today, not only have its economic objectives fallen behind, the nation also remains polarised on the basis of race. And until today, Mr Gan thinks Malaysia will not progress if race-based policies continue to be its main governing philosophy.
“Probably for the next 10 years, I don’t think anything will really happen,” says the 70-year-old pensioner now living in Ipoh with his wife.
Dr Mahathir, however, has not abandoned Vision 2020. Rather, in his second stint as the premier, he has introduced a new set of goals for the country known as the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030.
One of its key objectives is to reduce the income gap between the rich and the poor, and achieve balanced growth.
But will this new vision help to achieve an inclusive multiracial society in years to come? The programme Insight explores whether Malaysia today has what it takes, or whether identity politics will threaten that dream and widen the racial divide. (Watch the episode here.)
WHAT DO PEOPLE WANT?
What is evident today are the results achieved with the New Economic Policy, the race-based affirmative action introduced in 1971 to help lift the Malays’ socio-economic position to be on a par with the other races.
“In 1970, for instance, (if) you look at the percentage of Malays in … medicine, law, accountancy, architecture, engineering, professions of that sort, it was very small: On average, maybe between five and seven per cent,” notes political scientist Chandra Muzaffar.
But today … especially if you look at medicine, it’s quite remarkable that perhaps 30 to 40 per cent of our doctors are Malays … Some of the best specialists in all those areas within medicine are from the Malay community.
“That to my mind is a great achievement, given that becoming a specialist in one of the sub-disciplines in healthcare … is something that one can be proud of. So there’s been a transformation of that sort," he adds.
The privileges accorded to the bumiputera community were meant, however, to last for 20 years. That they have continued to this day in various forms has caused unease among the non-Malays.
“The implementation isn’t focused on the eradication of poverty irrespective of race,” says Mr Gan, who feels that race is an issue politicians have manipulated for personal gain instead, making it harder for Malaysia to move away from race-based politics.
“They all depend on all this race-based rhetoric … to win votes. So it becomes a necessity to have these race-based policies for certain politicians or for certain political parties to survive. I think it’s not good for the country.”
Policy consultancy BowerGroupAsia director Adib Zalkapli thinks it is not only political will that is lacking.
“For a country to move forward, for the people to move forward together, they first have to have a common goal … a common identity,” he says.
“I think people generally identify themselves as ethnic Chinese first, or ethnic Malay first, before they can call themselves Malaysian. So that’s a major obstacle.”
One woman who dreams of the day her children can declare themselves Malaysian first is Ms Hannah Yeoh, deputy minister for Women, Family and Community Development in the Pakatan Harapan government.
In 2011, she and her Indian-Malaysian husband tried to register their first child as Malaysian — “not defined by race because she’s of mixed race”. But the National Registry Department said no.
“The baggage we have in our generation and the generation before us shouldn’t be carried by the generation to come. So I felt it was very unfair for the next generation to inherit that,” says the 41-year-old.
Despite the challenges, she believes that the nation does want the battle against racialism to continue.
“They just want a fair opportunity to bid for a contract, or to be enrolled in university. I don’t think people are asking for a lot of things (or for) drastic changes,” she adds.
“If the leadership is fair, and we’re able to explain policies and resources based on needs, I think generally Malaysians would feel that we’re on the right track.
“I don’t believe that (after) the last election, people expected a 360-degree turn. But they do want to feel respected … And we’re not just talking about Malay, Chinese, Indian; we’re talking about Sabah and Sarawak being treated equally too.”
THE PRESSURE ON PAKATAN
The pressure from the Malays of late has made it harder, however, for the new government to fulfil its election promises.
According to independent pollster Merdeka Centre, 61 per cent of those in a recent survey believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. They include Malays who are critical of the perceived erosion of Malay rights.
Non-Malays have also grown impatient with the government. In the Tanjung Piai by-election in November, they swung towards the Malaysian Chinese Association candidate, who campaigned under the banner of the formerly ruling Barisan Nasional.
It was the latest in a string of by-election defeats for Pakatan Harapan candidates, and was a major failure on the coalition’s part.
“(At) the 2018 general election, Pakatan may have obtained anywhere between 85 and 90 per cent of the Chinese vote in Tanjung Piai, and that’s a reason they were assured of that seat,” says Dr Chandra.
“The Malay votes that they got (in 2018) were sort of a bonus. But this time, the Malay votes didn’t increase very much. As far as the Chinese vote was concerned … it was a huge fall.”
People have “very high” expectations for Pakatan, notes Mr Adib, but “in the current political climate, it’s obviously not realistic to move away from race-based politics”.
“Having said that, the PM did that in 1991 when he was facing the most credible challenge from an all-Malay opposition front,” he adds. “His response to the more Malay-centric opposition politics at that time was Bangsa Malaysia — Vision 2020.
“Unfortunately, the current leadership, or maybe the PM, doesn’t have similar powers ... to seize the narrative and try to move away from race-based politics.”
Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid, economic adviser to the prime minister, says it is not a zero-sum game, however, as race- and needs-based policies are interchangeable and can complement each other.
“There are times you use race-based (policies), there are times you use income-based (policies), there are times you use geography, there are times you use gender-based (policies), depending on the solution that you want,” he says.
What needs fixing is clear to Associate Professor Maznah Mohamad from the National University of Singapore’s Department of Malay Studies.
“Reduction of poverty, not just absolute poverty but relative poverty; making sure that the inequality … is narrowed; making sure that youths have jobs. Those are the things that matter to people,” she cites.
It doesn’t matter what name or what policy you call it, as long as you achieve the results. And I must say on that score, the government isn’t succeeding very well because the messaging is very confusing.
“You have a bit of the old vision being retained without any alternative … to some of those old policies. So that’s the real issue," she adds.
SAME DIFFERENCE FOR 2030?
While Vision 2020 had sparked mega projects like the North-South Highway, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the Petronas Twin Towers, Putrajaya and the multimedia super corridor, the focus this time on shared prosperity is more down-to-earth.
But Federal Territories Minister Khalid Abdul Samad thinks the concept is no less an “imperative if Malaysia wants to continue … to prosper”.
“We can’t deny that wealth has been generated since the 1990s … but the wealth isn’t being felt by everyone,” he says.
“So whenever we do our development programmes … we must make sure, as far as possible, that the maximum number of people will benefit and the common man … will feel the benefits.”
The objective is still to become a developed nation, points out Dr Muhammed.
“It’s almost a continuation of Vision 2020, but with a stronger focus or equal focus not just on a developed or unified Malaysia, but an equitable Malaysia, inclusive Malaysia.”
Dr Maznah calls the 2030 blueprint “a mission rather than a vision”, aimed at solving problems like poverty and inequality and “jump-starting the economy, getting it back to the level that it was”.
“It’s a very short-term, I think, mission. Perhaps that’s better as a plan, in which you can base (it) on something that can be implemented.”
But the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030, launched in October, has failed to re-energise public discourse significantly.
With government policy focused on improving the economic status of the Malays in the past decades, attempts to soften affirmative action have always had little impact owing to fears about a possible backlash among Malay voters.
“At the psychological level, yes, every leader knows that you can’t just say we’re going to do away with it. Although quietly, in practice, you can reduce it step by step,” adds Dr Maznah.
“A lot more Malays have come up (and) received higher education, which they didn’t receive before. A lot more Malays are in the urban centres, and the middle class among the Malays has also expanded.
“To a certain extent, that’s acted as a moderating force against implementing affirmative action fully and more extensively.”
To eliminate affirmative action, says Dr Muhammed, “ironically, you have to do it very well ... so in the long run you don’t need (it)”.
“We’d be in denial if we say we don’t need a race-based (policy). It’s very important ... but it must be very selective.”
Former Cabinet minister Rais Yatim thinks Malaysia could go without communal politics, “but not in this generation”. He also thinks the vision of a shared future is easy on the ear, but “may not succeed” after Dr Mahathir steps down.
“This is a very frank statement I make ... having seen prime ministers coming and going, and having served five of them,” he says.
“If you don’t pass that in Parliament as law, I doubt it’ll be achieved. Because these are whims and ... ideas that can be watered down when the next master comes in. We don’t know who it’ll be, but we’ll be on the watch.”
As the issue of race continues to cast a shadow over the country’s political life, only time will tell whether the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 will become a rallying cry to bring the people closer together as a united nation.
But Mr Gan is not hopeful this time. “There’ve been so many false starts,” he says. “I don’t expect that, this time by doing the same thing, we’ll get a different result.”
Watch the episode here. The programme Insight is telecast on Thursdays at 9pm.