Anwar should stop giving contradictory messages

The prime minister cannot say one thing to Westerners and another to his Malaysian audience.

P Ramasamy

Essentially, affirmative action is a public policy designed to address the socio-economic grievances among those who are disadvantaged in competing with the more dynamic social segments of society.

More often than not, affirmative action programmes are based on the needs of social segments without consideration of race or religion.

In some specific instances, affirmative action programmes can be applied to a particular ethnic group to uplift them and eventually place them on par with advantaged groups.

There is nothing wrong with assisting a specific ethnic community, particularly if the community needs to be brought to the mainstream.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, in his lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, US, a few days ago touched on the question of affirmative action.

He said affirmative action need not be designed to assist specific ethnic groups. It can be used to assist those in the lower socio-economic bracket, immaterial of race or religion.

Anwar was not wrong in extending the affirmative action policy to communities on the question of need.

However, in his talk he failed to disclose the nature of the affirmative action policy in Malaysia where ethnicity is the main criterion.

Even if there are some government programmes to assist the poor, immaterial of their ethnicity, affirmative action is focussed on the Malays as an ethnic group.

If the focus is on the poor or socio-economically disadvantaged Malays, then affirmative action is justified.

However, in the Malaysian case the principle of affirmative action is race-based.

The affirmative action principle in the country was the product of the New Economic Policy (NEP) introduced in the immediate aftermath of the May 13, 1969 ethnic riots in and around Kuala Lumpur.

The ethnic riots were used as justification for the passing of pro-Malay policies including the principle of affirmative action.

It is well and good for Anwar to philosophically engage with the students at the University of California on the applicability of the principle of affirmative action.

It is not that affirmative action should not be applied to Malays, Chinese and Indians provided that the target is the socially and economically disadvantaged segments within the ethnic communities.

However, if affirmative action is applied to assist the advantaged classes, this cannot be called affirmative action in the first place.

As has been well established, the beneficiaries of the affirmative action policy in the country are the Malay elites, those with strong political and bureaucratic connections.

I wonder how a policy to assist the rich and connected can be justified as affirmative action when the beneficiaries are not the poor Malays.

Not all of the Indians and Chinese in the country are rich – there are also poorer segments that need assistance.

Yes, Anwar can talk about the applicability of the affirmative action principle to the needy, but he is the same person who aggressively defended the imposition of the quota system in admissions to matriculation and public universities.

He defended the admissions quota on the basis of the social contract, a system that he has yet to elucidate until today.

Anwar, as the prime minister of the country and champion of the oppressed Palestinians, should be frank and truthful about the domestic situation.

He cannot say one thing to a Western audience and another to his Malaysian audience.

The bottom line is that Anwar wants to last a full term in office.

Despite the talk of reforms, Anwar is not going to rock the boat. He wants to give the impression to those in the West that he is doing the right thing in Malaysia.

However, Malaysians like me who once supported him feel disappointed that Anwar has lost sight of the reforms that he assiduously championed while in the opposition.

There are only murmurs of reforms in the country.

Anwar cannot be the proverbial eel that shows its tail to the snake and head to the fish.

In other words, by giving contradictory messages, Anwar cannot expect to be simultaneously liked by those in the West and those at home.

P Ramasamy is the former deputy chief minister of Penang.