The NEP in the Islamic perspective

Raja Petra Kamarudin

When the government embarked on the move to introduce a common language for all, in this case our own National Language (in the beginning called Bahasa Kebangsaan), it was done with the noble intention of uniting all Malaysians.

I remember, in the 1960s, when I was in secondary school, I had to take three languages; English Language, Bahasa Kebangsaan and Bahasa Melayu. Bahasa Kebangsaan was simpler than Bahasa Melayu but, surprisingly, I scored better in my Bahasa Melayu paper than I did the Bahasa Kebangsaan paper. Until today I still do not know how this could happen.

Along the way, I am not sure when exactly, Bahasa Kebangsaan and Bahasa Melayu ‘disappeared’ and it was replaced with Bahasa Malaysia, I suppose a merger of sorts of the two.

But the new National Language did not seem to unite Malaysians as our founding fathers thought it would. In fact, Malaysians became even more divided than ever. And it was not due to being unable to communicate as Chinese, Indians and the other minority ethnicities sometimes spoke better Bahasa Malaysia than even Malays themselves. I would be a case in point. My Bahasa Malaysia is so bad that I find it very difficult to express myself properly unless I do so in English.

The issue that divides us is not language but religion, as well as the Bumiputera issue; in particular the special rights or privileges accorded the Malays.

Okay, let us forget about language for the meantime. Let us assume this is not really that great a problem, though it may be an irritation for some. Let us just focus on the two core issues, race and religion. In most civil wars and domestic strife the world over, it has always been race and religion that divide nations whether it is Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Ireland, Bosnia, the United States, or wherever. In fact, if not because of these two issues; race and religion; the United States may not even exist today — for the United States was where those persecuted over race or religion sought refuge over the last 200 years or so.

Therefore, to be realistic, disagreements over race and religion is not a Malaysian problem. It is an international problem and, until today, this issue cannot be resolved amicably. And millions have died over the last 100 years alone because no common ground can be found in resolving these two issues. And the conflicts will continue until the end of time. And getting everyone to speak one common language is not going to resolve it. It will only end when no one race feels his/her religion or his/her race is superior to another and he/she is able to accept those of other races or subscribing to other religions as equals.

And, this, Malaysia can never see as long as one race feels his/her race or religion is superior to another.

Now, let us talk about one issue that has been the bone of contention for both Malays and non-Malays alike for more than 35 years, the New Economic Policy (NEP). The NEP, which was launched in 1970 soon after the infamous May 13, 1969, race riots, was supposed to give Malays a 30% share of the economic pie by 1990. But the Malays are not happy with the NEP because, by 1990, the Malays only managed 3% instead of 30%. The government at first tried to pass it off as 20%. But this 20% included the 17% owned by trust agencies, which belongs to the nation and not to the Malays.

The non-Malays, on the other hand, view the NEP as discriminatory and similar to South Africa’s Apartheid policy. And I do not blame the non-Malays for perceiving it such.

Okay, let us (and I mean Malays when I say ‘us’) look at the NEP from the Islamic perspective.

Islam says, in any commercial transaction, there must be a willing-buyer-willing-seller situation. Then, the transaction must be verbally declared (lafaz) in that the buyer and the seller both endorse the transaction and engage in the transaction in good faith. The NEP, however, makes it mandatory for non-Malays or foreign investors to ‘offer’ 30% of their company to Malay shareholders. In certain industries it must be 51% or more, while in others only 100% Malay-owned companies will be allowed.

Since the non-Malay or foreign investors are forced, against their will, to ‘offer’ a portion of their property to a Malay shareholder (in this case he would most likely be Muslim as well), how would this be a willing-buyer-willing-seller situation? The buyer may be willing, but the seller is certainly not. The seller is reluctantly selling a portion of his company to the Malay shareholder because he/she has no choice in the matter. And most times the seller has to sell the asset at a discount or below market price.

According to Islam, in the absence of a willing-buyer-willing-seller situation, the transaction would become tak sah (invalid). And invalid is invalid. No renaming it as NEP would make invalid become valid.

The same goes for Bumiputera quotas. The foundation of Islam is justice. Denying anyone his/her right is unjust and Islam frowns upon this. If a non-Malay (meaning non-Muslim) is eligible for something, yet he/she does not get it (like a place in a university), and instead that place goes to someone less deserving, then Islam would view this as unjust.

Let me give you some examples of my personal experiences. Once I used to own a travel and ticketing company called Trans Australia Travel Agency Sdn Bhd (TATA). I spent a lot of money setting up this company and my renovation and furnishing cost for my Bangsar and Kuala Terengganu offices alone ran into six figures.

Understandably, as in most new businesses, for the first few years I ran at a loss. Then I ‘stole’ a marketing manager from one of Kuala Lumpur’s leading five-star hotels and this Chinese lady managed to turn my company around and save it from bankruptcy. By then more than RM500,000 had gone down the drain but we were beginning to break even with this very aggressive lady managing the business.

One day, some Ministry of Finance officials paid my Bangsar office a surprise visit, saw this Chinese lady, and immediately confiscated all my licences and deregistered my company. After that it was downhill all the way until I had to wind up the operation because I could no longer, legally, do any ticketing business.

I had committed a cardinal sin. I had employed a Chinese lady as a manager. And for that I deserve to be closed down. Is this Islamic justice?

Okay, you may say this Chinese lady is not a Muslim, so you do not feel any harm has been done. Fine, my wife is also Chinese, but she is Muslim, and she was a director in some of my other companies. The Ministry of Trade, however, was not happy that her name was listed as a director in my company.

They called my wife for an ‘interview’ and they were surprised that she was more ‘Malay’ than even the interviewers. She spoke superb Malay and dressed in Baju Kurong, the dressing she wore every day even at home. But they were still not satisfied and I was asked to remove her name and use the name of some other Malay nominees instead.

“Who?” I asked.

Anyone, as long as it is not my wife’s name. A private limited company needs two directors so my name alone is not enough. I removed my wife’s name and replaced it with that of my Malay secretary.

But my wife still co-signed the cheques and since only two of us signed then it would be considered 50:50 — still cannot. So I added a third signatory and now any two of the three could sign the cheques. No, not good enough. Not any two of three. It must be ALL three. Then it would be 66.6% Malay against 33.3% Chinese. I had no choice but to comply. And my wife thereafter decided it was no use trying to be Malay any longer. She might as well revert to being Chinese again, and she might as well discard her Baju Kurong for jeans and T-shirt.

Can I blame her? In fact, I support her wholeheartedly. Is this what the NEP is all about? And is this what Islam asks from Muslims; to discriminate others just because he or she is not Malay, even though he/she may be Muslim?

Further to that, do you know my wife will not be able to get my house when I die if it is built on Malay Reservation land? I thought, according to Islamic teachings, when the husband dies the widow is entitled to a share of the property. Does the Koran say this law only applies if the house is not built on Malay Reservation land? I think the word ‘Malay’ is not even mentioned in the Koran.

I challenge all those learned Muslims out there to offer just ONE hadith or verse from the Koran that says this is how Islam is supposed to conduct itself.

Malays should unemotionally re-look at the issue of the NEP and Bumiputera quotas, not from the race perspective but from the Islamic perspective. Malays must be Muslims first and Malays second. Malays will one day have to stand before God not on the basis of whether they have been good Malays or bad Malays but on the basis of whether they have been good Muslims or bad Muslims. Better we be ‘bad’ Malays but good Muslims, because this is what counts later.

Maybe what I am saying would mean Malays may be left behind, at least initially. But if we are prepared to suffer for the sake of upholding the tenets of Islam, then that is indeed an extremely small price to pay. That is real jihad, the struggle against temptation, the temptation of getting rich the easy and shortcut way. Of course, as what Deng Xiao Peng said, “Being rich is glorious.” But if becoming rich is all that matters, then there are many other unIslamic ways of getting rich. Getting rich is not what matters. It is how we get rich that is the issue. If going against Islamic teachings to get rich can be considered alright, then I can suggest many other more lucrative and easier ways of getting even richer.

Anyway, the issue of whether Malays are going to be left behind is another matter altogether. Again, let us look at this issue not as Malays but as Muslims. Islam says that nothing will happen to us that we do not do to ourselves. Islam also says that nine-tenths of pintu rezeki (the door to good fortune) lies in business. The majority of Chinese do business while the majority of Malays seek employment, mainly in government service. Any wonder that the Chinese would be far ahead of the Malays, economically speaking? Islam has already told the Malays that businessmen will be ten times richer than wage-earners. So there is no shortcut to getting rich and as long as the 80,000 unemployed graduates go crying to the government for jobs instead of setting up a small business the Malays will continue to be left behind.

It is not easy being a good Muslim is it? Not only must we steer clear of discos, sausages, gambling, adultery, liquor, plus we have to pray five times a day, fast during the month of Ramadhan, perform our Haj, and pay zakat/fitrah (tithe), now we also have to get rich the Islamic way and not rob non-Muslims of their rights.

Sigh! Why did Parameswara get us into all this? I am sure we Malays were much happier before we became Muslims.