The rising cost of living and ethnic relations in Malaysia


Dr Chandra Muzaffar

When a nation with a multi-ethnic population is confronted with a serious economic challenge, it has to be concerned about how it will impact upon ethnic relations. This is especially true when the ethnic situation, prior to the economic challenge, is already problematic.

The rising cost of living in our country could have repercussions for ethnic relations in at least two ways. One, the tendency to put the blame for any escalation in the price of goods and services on one party or the other — rather than looking at the total picture — could result in a segment of the people criticising the mainly Malay government for their plight while another segment may choose to condemn a largely Chinese business community for their difficulties. These are perceptions which exacerbate the ethnic situation. Two, sometimes, elites, unable to arrest the decline of the economy, may deliberately manipulate ethnic fears in order to divert the people’s anger and perpetuate their own power.

We should not fall into this ethnic trap. Responsible men and women in all spheres of Malaysian society should turn around this economic challenge into an opportunity to improve ethnic relations. There are perhaps 10 steps that can be taken in that direction.

One, all communities in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak should be mobilised to combat the rising cost of living. It should be a truly multi-ethnic mobilisation which would identify the causes of the rising cost of living and act firmly and expeditiously to overcome the problem.   If say profiteering and cartels have aggravated issues of demand and supply, effective punitive measures should be implemented immediately.  This would also be the right occasion to initiate a nation-wide ‘people’s price-alert movement’ which would be a powerful pressure group against unscrupulous traders.

Two, this would also be the time to reiterate our commitment to a policy that extends support and assistance to everyone regardless of ethnicity, based upon needs. This should apply not only to poverty eradication, health-care and welfare— where it already exists — but also to education, housing, bank-loans and the like.

Three, there should also be a concerted effort to reduce the gap between the ‘have-a-lot’ and the ‘have-a-little’ which is essentially a socio-economic challenge. Its resolution will impact positively upon inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic disparities.  Implementing a minimum wage policy; providing facilities for the poor such as child-care centres and kindergartens, 1Malaysia clinics and 1Malaysia shops; and creating a comprehensive public transport system are commendable moves but much more has to be done. Building more affordable houses for the middle and lower income groups would be one such endeavour. At the same time, incomes will have to rise further for 60 to 70 percent of the working population while emoluments for the top brass which are sometimes astronomical will have to be reviewed.

Four, as part of this attempt to close the gap between the very affluent and those who are struggling to make ends meet, the level of education and skills of 75 percent of the Malaysian workforce who possess only a School Certificate (SPM) and other lower qualifications will have to be improved considerably. Here again, the effort should be multi-ethnic. Polytechnic education would be a critical component of this elevation of skills.

Five, raising skills and educational standards should go hand in hand with massive investments in scientific research. In spite of current economic difficulties, the budgetary allocation for research and development (R & D) should continue to increase. This is what will spur invention and innovation in the future. The private sector which has been lagging behind in this field should play a bigger role in this national mission that should transcend ethnic barriers.

Six, it follows from this that recognising and rewarding ability and excellence, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation, should be an integral aspect of the national psyche. This is a principle that should be observed in both the public and private sectors. The national economy as a whole will benefit from this. Needless to say, it will undoubtedly result in greater inter-ethnic harmony.

Seven, recognising ability is linked to some extent to the question of recruitment and promotion in the public sector. In the last four or five years there has been a more earnest drive to recruit more non-Malays and non-Muslim Bumiputras from Sarawak and Sabah into the public services. The mobility they enjoy, as provided for in the Federal Constitution, should enable them to hold high positions of responsibility. At the same time, Chinese captains of industry and leading entrepreneurs should demonstrate a commitment to strengthening entrepreneurship among Malays and other non-Chinese Malaysians through mentorship programmes and by facilitating accessibility to their business networks. This has not been done in an organised, systematic manner by any Chinese entity since Merdeka.  And yet this is the sort of cooperation that will reduce the distance between communities.  It underscores the principle of reciprocity which is a fundamental prerequisite for harmony in any multi-ethnic society.

Eight, indeed, the nurturing of reciprocity and other such positive values will be a tremendous boost to inter-ethnic relations. We have not done enough to harness the potential of values such as cooperation, respect and integrity — or reciprocity for that matter— in our economic policies and programmes. Leaving aside the tokenism in corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, economic activities, by and large, have been dominated by the credo of profit maximisation and crass competition. The present economic situation is a good time as any to explore alternatives. Perhaps cooperatives which can also be a conduit for promoting multi-ethnic sharing may be a way of evolving new economic structures in the future that are more orientated towards justice and compassion.

Nine, it is because values that would ennoble the economy and society have not been accorded the importance they deserve that a lack of professionalism and a lack of competence appear to be more glaring today than in the past.  This is obvious in the Auditor-General’s annual reports on the performance of government departments and public agencies. Malaysians of all shades and stripes are incensed by disclosures of wastage, leakages and extravagance in these reports. They are also united in wanting the Government to punish the culprits as harshly as the law would permit — and yet the response of the authorities has always been below public expectations.

Ten, Malaysians are also united, irrespective of ethnicity, in their desire to see the government eradicate corruption — a scourge that is again a reflection of the weakening of society’s moral fibre. While institutional arrangements and processes directed at fighting this scourge are stronger than ever before, elite corruption remains a challenge. Unless there is more transparency and accountability — honest adherence to the culture of open tenders for instance — corruption will continue to make a mockery of the nation’s professed commitment to the virtues of integrity. Worse, it will continue to erode the trust that the ruled must have in their rulers if governance is to lead to justice and peace.

Indeed, it is trust between rulers and the ruled that will enable us to overcome the challenge posed by the rising cost of living just as it is trust that will ensure harmonious inter-ethnic relations.

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia.