Guest Editorial: PMX: Can He Unravel and Reinvent the Bumiputera Construct

Lim Teck Ghee

Coming shortly is an economic congress that may be a little different from those held in the past. But will it have the potential to be a gamechanger in the political economy as well as the social structure of Malaysia? Only the dreamers may think so.

This is the 2024 Bumiputera economic congress to be held from Feb 29 to March 2 and due to be attended by more than 3,000 participants, especially from the Malay, Kadazandusun, Dayak, Iban and Orang Asli communities.

What is unusual in this year’s congress is the proposed participation of the Chinese and Indian chambers of commerce.

Announcing this event at the ACCCIM Chinese New Year celebration, PM Anwar Ibrahim noted that a more inclusive approach in addressing the Bumiputera economy would lead to resolving issues affecting other communities.

“I hope ACCCIM is ready to discuss (such issues) because a more inclusive approach means that, in talking about the Bumiputera economy, issues involving small and medium-sized enterprises or the poor among the Indian community will be addressed together.”

The congress will be focusing on 10 main clusters, including educational and human capital reforms, strengthening the halal industry, Sabah and Sarawak’s Bumiputera economy, and new technology.

Most, if not all, of these subjects have already been the focus of innumerable fora. So will there be anything new apart from what some see as merely non Malay token participation – business groups primarily – in another picture snapping chest beating political forum hyped as inclusive?

Can the Congress Break New Ground for Madani Islam

It is not clear if long standing issues and concerns about the actual impact of Bumiputera policies, whether these policies have been in the best interest of the nation, who have been winners, who are the losers, and a host of related issues previously regarded as politically incorrect or taboo are part of the official programme to be discussed openly.

It is encouraging that PKR Pasir Gudang Member of Parliament Hassan Abdul Karim has started the ball rolling to ensure a more transparent, frank and unrestricted discourse by urging the upcoming congress to review if the bumiputera privileges have actually benefited the community.

“Has it truly helped the bumiputera economy or has it been seized, manipulated by a few bumiputera elites in the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak to enrich themselves, their families, close friends, and crony capitalists?” he asked.

Article 153 of the Federal Constitution has often been invoked to justify the pro Bumiputera policy. The provision states that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is responsible for safeguarding the “special position” of the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak, including through quotas for education, scholarships, public service positions, as well as licences and permits for businesses where necessary.

Article 153 also states that the king is responsible for safeguarding the “legitimate interests of other communities” in accordance with the article.

Does the constitutional article justify the continuation of bumiputera privilege is an issue which needs resolution now that the nation is more than 60 years old and the initial intent was for the special position clause to operate for a period of 20 years.

MP Hassan’s Challenge and Dream

Unprecedented and more significant, MP Hassan has proposed that the congress should not only review bumiputera privileges but also the notion of race-based policies.

“Is it time for the KEB (Kongres Ekonomi Bumiputra) which is inclusive according to Anwar, to discuss and conclude that the issue of economic development of the people should not be resolved with race-based policies or the division of bumiputera or non-bumiputera, but based on a class division of the people’s lives and needs?”

“A few upper classes called the T10 group, for instance, consist of all races, both bumiputera and non-bumiputera. Some of them are ultra-rich or from the billionaire or multi-millionaire group.”

“While the lower class B60 consists of all races. If we study the hardcore poor, then we know there are not only poor bumiputera people but also many poor Indians and Orang Asli. “

Hassan called for the focus of the congress to be on the B60 class – that is, the majority of Malaysians – if the congress is to be inclusive.

His assertion that people from all races and religions need jobs with reasonable incomes, manageable costs of living, good health services, quality education, as well as a safety net for the elderly in need is not only irrefutable. It is one which most members of the Malaysian public as well as the opposition will agree with.

In his words:

“So, a successful bumiputera economic congress will produce economically just policies for all people regardless of race, and of course, in the end, it will produce social justice for all.

“Economic and social justice across races will create the trust and confidence among people that the current administration and its Madani philosophy are on the right track to create a united Malaysia.”

Anwar’s Latest Zig Zagging

Hassan has thrown the gauntlet to Anwar and his Pakatan colleagues in the government to recalibrate and transform the bumiputera policy.

Hassan’s challenge:

“We hope it will be the last Bumiputera Economic Congress. After this, we can organise the next economic congress with a new brand – Malaysian Citizens Economic Congress. Can this dream be achieved?”

Meanwhile, in what can be seen as a predictably vapid old school political response to Hassan’s call, Anwar has said

“We will defend the provisions in the constitution, including (Article) 153. There’s no need for further discussions”.

Non Bumiputera as well as Bumiputera participants at the coming KEB will have the opportunity to counter PM Anwar on his understanding of the Constitution and the meaning of “inclusive”.

They can also be catalysts for change by sharing and making public the views of their organisations and communities on the Bumiputera construct which some analysts regard as possibly the most challenging obstacle to a unified and cohesive nation.

Lim Teck Ghee, ANU PhD graduate, is a Malaysian economic historian and policy analyst. He has a regular column, Another Take, in The Sun, a Malaysian daily and Oriental Daily; and is the author of Challenging the Status Quo in Malaysia, and Dark Forces Changing Malaysia (with Murray Hunter).