Harping on ethnic rights to be economically successful only reinforces the chasm among ethnic groups, besides widening the income gap between the rich and the poor, writes Ronald Benjamin.
Four years ago, during a trip to a technical college in Parit Buntar with a prominent MIC leader from Perak and a friend, out of curiosity I asked the MIC leader why the Barisan Nasional seldom spoke out about issues concerning the very lowly paid working class in the private sector.
I also queried him about the BN’s failure to address addressing unfair industrial practices that appeared rooted in ethnic prejudice.
The response was, it was an uphill task because the Chinese Malaysians who controlled the private sector would only help their community, and this is the reason it is not worthwhile to bring up this issue.
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It was during this trip that I wondered if the Malays only help other Malays, the Chinese help other Chinese and the Indians help other Indian, what would it actually mean to be economically empowered in Malaysia?
The latest Bumiputra Economic Empowerment agenda announced by Najib clearly reveals the fractured nature of national economic empowerment in Malaysia as described. Under this framework, the different communities have to constantly claim their economic rights through ethnic lenses and this makes a mockery of so-called 1Malaysia.
What makes things worse is the poor resolve in addressing the socio-economic class structure that that has widened between the rich and the poor.. While it is true that the government has made some effort to address the concerns of the multiethnic 40 per cent of the population who who earn below RM3000 per month through its Economic Transformation Programme, the parallel economic empowerment agenda contradicts this position in terms of charting a new course and priority. It is the productive capacity of the 40 per cent of the population that would make the economy more vibrant and equitable in the long run.
The drawback is the so-called Bumiputra Economic Empowerment agenda does not address the important principles of citizens’ economic empowerment, which should start from the diffusion of power to local communities. These local communities should be making decisions on their environment and economic destiny.
Empowering of multi-ethnic grassroots leaders would build a viable cultural foundation of hard work, capacity building, dedication and work ethic. This in turn would help build small business and collective enterprises that would cater to the real needs of the nation rather than merely catering to consumerist corporate entities that enrich the few.
This framework of grassroots empowerment is basically opposed to the current neoliberal, ethno-religious centric model that values outdated cheap labour, a middleman culture and monopoly practices. This outdated model permeates the socio-economic thinking of the current political leadership and institutions – and goes against the common good.
Ethno-centric economic thinking also undermines the bargaining power of minority groups in what is seen as a tussle for the economic pie between the Malay and Chinese elite.
Successful entrepreneurs empower themselves not by depending on State protection but rather through a spirit of hard work, innovation, creativity and a mindset that is free from an obsessive ethnic siege mentality.
Malaysians have to work towards reforming our political institutions and economic system to ensure that they are rooted in the principle of citizenship that empowers all Malaysians. Wealth distribution needs to be based on grassroots economic empowerment that rewards hard work, talent and productivity.
In the current uncertain global economic context, building self-reliant individuals and communities that do not depend on the corporate sector for employment is vital. Harping on ethnic rights to be economically successful reinforces the chasm between ethnic groups, besides widening the income gap between the rich and the poor. It would also result in Malaysia continuing to be trapped as a middle-income nation.