Opportunity knocks but once

Raja Petra Kamarudin

It is easy to be an ‘expert’ on hindsight. Speaking with foresight is more difficult.

Anyone can be an expert when talking about the 1999 general elections, or the 2004 general elections, or the Anwar Ibrahim political crisis, or any of those other developments that have happened over the last couple of years. But try forecasting the outcome of the next two general elections, or tell us, in the first place, when the elections will be held, or whether Anwar will ever become the Prime Minister of Malaysia. Not that easy is it?

Well, we did once have foresight. 20 years ago, in 1985, we forecasted what would happen today. When I say ‘we’, I am talking about the Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia (DPPMM). And when did we make this forecast? During the two-day conference at the Shangrila Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, which was graced by both the then Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.

Before I talk about the conference, earlier, soon after he became Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad hosted the Malay and Chinese businessmen from the Malay and Chinese Chambers of Commerce for dinner at the Equatorial Hotel. It was a Chinese dinner and the table of ten seated five members each from the Malay and Chinese Chambers. And we were told to sit in alternate seats so that each Chinese businessman had a Malay businessman on each side of him, and the same would go for the Malay businessmen.

After dinner, Dr Mahathir delivered his speech and I must admit it was then that I really had admiration for the man. He became my hero. He was in fact already my hero even before that. That night I became his staunch supporter.

Dr Mahathir’s address to the Malays was that the New Economic Policy (NEP) had less than ten years to go. As promised, the NEP would run for twenty years from 1970 to 1990. The Chinese, said Dr Mahathir, had been very accommodating in allowing the Malays twenty years to catch up with them. Whether the Malays caught up or not is not the fault of the Chinese. The Chinese had agreed to play with a handicap and allow the Malays a chance to grab a share of Malaysia’s economic pie. It would be up to the Malays to succeed.

Come 1990, the NEP would have to end, whether the Malays were ready yet or not. To be fair to the other races, the NEP cannot be extended and must end as scheduled, even if, by then, the Malays are still short of the 30% target. So the Malays had better buck up and catch up. If not, then the Malays would be left behind.

Then, to the Chinese businessmen, Dr Mahathir said, the Malays form the majority of Malaysia’s population. “Who owns all the businesses?” asked Dr Mahathir. The Chinese. And who are the customers? The Malays.

The Chinese are stingy, said Dr Mahathir. They make money and keep it. They want to accumulate their wealth to become richer. The Malays, however, like to spend money. The more money they have, the more they spend. Even if they did not have money they would still spend. They would borrow to spend.

Rich Chinese would not spend that much money in Chinese shops, argued Dr Mahathir. Rich Malays would. And, the more the Malays spend, the richer the Chinese would get. Therefore, said Dr Mahathir, it is to the interest of the Chinese they help the Malays become rich, because the money would all go back to the Chinese anyway and their businesses would flourish due to Malay spending.

Actually, Dr Mahathir over-simplified the argument on spending power and more money circulating in the market. Dr Mahathir could, of course, have just used the analogy of one must feed the cow and fatten it before milking it. But what he said is true. Just see how the Chinese furniture shops and supermarkets stock up just before Hari Raya. Their shops would be overflowing with goods at the beginning of Ramadhan and would be empty again by Shawal. Cars and motorcycles also reach peak demand around that same period.

Malays really love to spend. And they spend this money in Chinese shops.

If the Chinese do not find a way to help the Malays, said Dr Mahathir, and, if by 1990, the Malays are still far short of the NEP’s target, the government would be forced to step in and do something about it. This would be necessary to ensure that the Malays do not feel neglected or abandoned by the government whereby they may take their frustrations out on the Chinese who they would blame for their predicament. Therefore, it is better the Chinese work with the Malays in achieving the objectives and targets of the NEP rather than the government get involved, which may not be favourable to the Chinese.

This all happened soon after Dr Mahathir took over as Prime Minister. A couple of years down the road, the economy took a turn for the worse. That was when the Malay Chamber organised that conference at the Shangrila Hotel which I mentioned earlier.

Around that same time, the government announced that, within 15 years, the Bumiputeras had achieved 20% share of the economic pie as opposed to the NEP’s target of 30%. With five years to go, the balance 10% could easily be achieved, meaning that the NEP would have met its objective.

Not true, we said. We have not reached 20%. We have only reached 3%. The balance 17% belongs to trust agencies like PETRONAS, MAS, MISC, MARA, PERNAS, FELDA, FELCRA, the State Economic Development Corporations (SEDCs), Bank Bumiputera, and so on. These are not Bumiputera-owned but government-owned, as the trust agencies do not belong to Bumiputera individuals but to the nation. And this nation does not belong to only the Malays but to the non-Malays as well.

Ghaffar Baba sheepishly admitted this was so after initially denying it.

Another thing, we argued, the 20% we have reached now, or 3% if we exclude that owned by the trust agencies, will remain 20% right up to 1990. It will not increase any further because of the recession, and the recession will take us right through to 1990.

The NEP had failed and will continue to fail. Come 1990, the government would have to prepare itself for a new policy to replace the NEP. If not, the Bumiputeras will continue to be left behind.

No doubt, we explained, the NEP is not just about a share of the economic pie, or a share of the corporate wealth, but also about education. But what is the point of educating the Malays if there are no jobs for them after they graduate? Malaysia will then end up just like India where everyone goes to university to the extent that even the hotel doorman and train porter are university graduates. Malaysia’s industries are not expanding fast enough to be able to absorb all the Malay graduates and a time will come when there will be a large pool of unemployed graduates. Therefore, unless the economy expands and there are more jobs and business opportunities, Malays will still remain poor in spite of their education.

When the NEP ended in 1990, the Malay Chamber tried to organise the Third Bumiputera Economic Convention to explore what should be done thereafter. On hearing about it, the government ‘hijacked’ the event and instructed that it be organised at the Putra World Trade Centre with government involvement. However, unlike the first two conventions, this one was going to be attended by the non-Malays as well.

We did not mind the convention getting hijacked, but we protested the idea of non-Malays attending it. There would be things we would say which the non-Malays may find uncomfortable hearing. It would not be fair to ask the non-Malays to sit through a convention where they would partly be the brunt of Malay anger.

We had a meeting with Ahmad Sarji, the then Chief Secretary to the government, and I was asked to be the spokesman. I told Sarji this is supposed to be a Bumiputera convention and it is going to be a very hard hitting affair. We were going to speak our mind and let fly, no holds barred. The non-Malays would certainly find it very unpleasant.

Sarji told us that the Prime Minister had decided that the non-Malays would attend. Dr Mahathir wanted the non-Malays to hear what the Malays had to say and for them to sit down with the Malays and jointly find a solution to a new policy to replace the NEP. There was certainly no arguing against what the Prime Minister wanted. We were told, in very clear terms, the Malay Chamber can work with the government on this, or it can choose to stay out. Either way the conference was going to be held, with or without the Malay Chamber’s participation.

Dr Mahathir gave the Malays and Chinese a chance to come to some sort of mutual understanding on what should replace the NEP. Unfortunately, all the Malays wanted was for the NEP to be extended indefinitely while the Chinese did not offer any alternative ideas. They just attended as silent observers rather than participants.

Dr Mahathir wanted the Malays and Chinese to sort this matter out amongst themselves, without government intervention. The government would just organise and host the event. It would be left to the Malays and Chinese to come to some agreement and come out with the solution.

When nothing concrete developed, Dr Mahathir said he gave us the opportunity to propose to the government what we wanted. Since we failed to do so, then the government would instead have to do what it feels is best.

If we are not happy with the situation in Malaysia today it is our fault. The government left it to us to come out with something that all races could agree to. But the Malays just fought for an extension of the NEP while the Chinese remained silent and did not contribute. No consensus was reached, so the government stepped in and decided on its own what to do.

Dr Mahathir does have some of his good streaks. Of course, he also has his bad side as well and maybe his bad far exceed his good. Nevertheless, from the time he took over as Prime Minister, right up to 1990, he did try his best to get the Chinese and Malays to work together. He pleaded with the Chinese to help the Malays. He warned both the Chinese and Malays if we did not find a way to work together the government would have to decide what to do. And, as a last ditch attempt, he instructed that the Third Bumiputera Economic Convention be held with the attendance of the non-Malays so that the people, and not the government, can decide on what should replace the NEP.

The Malay Chamber predicted, in 1985, what was going to happen after 1990. Dr Mahathir knew we were right and he tried his best to take pre-emptive measures. That was 20 years ago. That was acting on foresight. Today, I speak on hindsight and, as they say, there is no future in the past.

Sad, very sad indeed! We had our chance and we blew it. Opportunity knocks but once. It never knocks a second time. Today, the present generation has to live under the folly of their fathers. But where do we go from here?