Measuring Malay Success

Zaid Ibrahim

I admire Tun Daim Zainuddin. He was not known as a lawyer or even as an economist, and yet became a Malaysian economic czar and Finance Minister of our country.

He is also one of the richest men around, although he’s not listed on the billionaires’ list like Tan Sri Vincent Tan or Tan Sri T. Ananda Krishnan. This could be because Malay billionaires are rather “shy” of publicity and would rather remain anonymous (unless, like Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Albukhary, they’ve got too much to remain invisible). Many conduct their business through proxies and nominees.

In a lengthy interview in Berita Harian, Tun Daim lamented that Malays were no longer able to do business successfully. I don’t think his assessment is fair to Malays as a whole, and the reasons he gave for this peculiar “problem” can’t really be taken very seriously.

First, he blamed the British for colonising the country. However, the fact is that the British also colonised Hong Kong but that didn’t stop the Chinese in Hong Kong from being good at business. Likewise, the British ruled India for 200 years but that hasn’t stopped Indians from becoming successful merchants, industrialists and technology innovators.

So, it’s unlikely that Malays have suffered more than others at the hands of the British. It’s unlikely that the British left a legacy that has crippled our ability to do business for generations—even 60 years after Independence.

Next, Tun Daim blamed Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim. This is most unfair. It’s true that Anwar gave out a lot of shares and contracts to his friends when he was Finance Minister, but Anwar was just doing what other powerful Finance Ministers did and are still doing in Malaysia.

This is why, today, the Malaysian Prime Minister is also the Finance Minister. We must be the only country with this peculiar habit of vesting both portfolios in one man. UMNO strongmen are good at ensuring the gravy train is available to their colleagues and those in their team as a reward for their loyalty and support; and with the money, they then cling to power as long as they can.

Anwar, however, was supportive of economic programmes that helped small businessmen. He did many things for rural development too. It’s grossly unfair to blame him for everything “wrong” with the Malays today.

Unlike Tun Daim, I see a lot of Malay business success stories. The aristocrats, senior civil servants, Ministers and oligarchs in Malaysia are all wealthy and they are Malays—but of course they belong to a different class compared to the ordinary Malay.

As I mentioned, they’d rather remain anonymous and keep control from the background, which is why they are not perceived to be wealthy like the Chinese. They became wealthy because they held power in the land—and when they didn’t have actual power, they nevertheless had access to it.

Wealthy Malays know the game. In Malaysia, successful businessmen and women are politically savvy; and when politics and business mix freely, it’s impossible for Malays not to be “successful”.

Of course, when there is a changing of the guard—for example, when we have a new Prime Minister (which also means a new Finance Minister)—then members of the incoming group will get priority. They have more of the gravy than their predecessors.

Sometimes, political dissatisfaction becomes widespread when businesses are diverted to the new regime. This is inevitable in the UMNO system where money—and not politics—is primary.

I am neither interested in, nor do I care about, these “elite” Malays. I’d rather talk about ordinary folk in the villages and the towns. They might not be recognised by UMNO as successful because they aren’t millionaires and might not support the party—but they are successful all the same.