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Reform: Are we ready? Race vs needs

*this is the debut article of our newest junior editor Siti Anastasia. We are so happy to have her join our team and share her wisdom with our viewers

Cover photo of Anwar arriving at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur © AP

Coming into the new year, Malaysians are keeping close tabs on the new government (Pakatan Harapan, which translates to Coalition of Hope, abbreviated as PH) alongside the new prime minister: Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim (DSAI). With his anti-romantic long walk to power, DSAI has fervently advocated for the opposition, both against his former prime minister — Tun Dr Mahathir — and during the reign of Perikatan Nasional (which translates to National Alliance Party, abbreviated as PN).

DSAI’s story is one for the books as he went from youth activist to politician to activist again, where he led public protests against the Barisan Nasional (which translates to National Front, abbreviated as BN) for change, where he first coined the name ‘Reformasi’ (which translates to reformation).

That said, DSAI has consistently been vocal in his regard for much-needed reform in Malaysia’s political atmosphere. But what does reform mean for Malaysia?

What is reform?

Photo of Anwar and Wan Azizah leading the ‘reformasi’ movement in Malaysia from Malaysiakini

The textbook definition of reform is to make changes in something (especially in an institution or practice) to improve it. But its tangible outcomes are much more complex than that. In particular, Malaysia has seen decades of political dynasties and corruption — so reform is both much-needed and challenging to achieve from the inside out. Moreover, beyond the institutional issues that exist in any practising democracy, reform can look like a shift in policies too.

Anwar’s need-based policies - a replacement for race-based politics?

There is no debate surrounding the idea that to survive Malaysia’s political landscape, one must consider the majority group that sways voting results — the Malays. Although Malay himself, DSAI’s policies under PH usually commit to uplifting low-income households. DSAI has also explicitly that scrapping race-based policies is imperative in maturing Malaysia as a country — further supplementing the idea that his need-based affirmative action policies are almost a replacement for the pre-existing racial policies.

One need-based policy under the manifesto introduced for GE-15 was to solve period poverty by providing free sanitary pads and tampons at all primary and secondary schools throughout Malaysia and also free sanitary pads and tampons for women in the B40 category at strategic locations. DSAI’s need-based policies focus on supporting low-Another under the education category is the introduction of Biasiswa B40 to help reduce dependency on loans such as PTPTN for low-income families, where students who require financial aid need not rely on loans that they eventually need to pay back but instead obtain fully-funded scholarships on their education.

On paper, these policies appear impressive. There is no denying that these policies are a step in the right direction for reform — but PH is notable for garnering a relatively small group of the Malay electorate compared to their competitors, BN and PN.

The past election preliminaries estimate suggests that only 11% of Malay voters backed PH. It was only UMNO’s support to form a coalition government that allowed PH to garner support from the Malay majority by association. Even then, UMNO surprisingly only won 26 seats, half of what they won in GE-14. It is important to note that the Malay electorate makes up 60% of the total voter turnout, making it an essential demographic in any election.

That is why DSAIs disavowment of race-based policies may land him in shakier waters with the Malay majority. Despite PH’s routine repudiation of such policies, there currently do not appear to be any significant attempts at replacing race-based policies that remain prevalent in Malaysia’s political landscape. But DSAI’s promises to scrap race-based policies for need-based affirmative action sets high expectations for the current PH government on what they are expected to deliver to the racial minorities of Malaysia.

For the minorities, this is more than the topple of decades-long political dynasties, but an extreme shift in the narrative for their needs from former parties — Mahathir’s Malay custodianship stance and Ismail Sabri’s Chinese boycott.

DSAI not only represents a symbol of hope for these minorities but also the first anti-establishment figure to occupy government ce in Malaysia. Despite his hopeful promises and vows, DSAI’s biggest fight is not necessarily replacing these policies but maintaining power long enough to see this change through. The only way he can do that is with balance and the support of the same group that he intends to scrap policies for.

This then begs the question: can Anwar achieve reform without tackling one of Malaysia’s deepest-rooted issues — racial tension?

To unpack this, we need to understand the nature of need-based and race-based policies.

Origin of race-based policies in Malaysia

During the British colonization, Malaysia was subjected to a system of “divide and conquer”. Ethnicities were segregated in specific economic roles, for example, the Chinese population were allocated financial roles in what later became city centers, while Malays and Indians were often allocated jobs in agriculture. This admittedly gave rise to wealth inequality between races, with the Chinese and colonial population in Malaysia owning a vast majority of businesses in Malaysia at the time of independence.

The Chinese and Indian population, who at the time were not citizens in Malaysia, were given a choice in Article 153 of the Malaysian constitution. This Article enshrined many of the modern bumiputera rights and in exchange granted equal citizenship, political participation and office holding, and tolerance for their language, religion, and cultural institutions. At the time, 1957, this was remarked as being more than what other immigrant populations in Southeast Asia were given.

For the uninitiated, race based policies have existed in Malaysia since the New Economic Policy in 1971. These have entailed a laundry list of benefits for the Malay population, such as preferential treatment when it comes to the number of student places in Government universities (90% of state funded schools are Malay with many institutions being Malay only despite being publicly funded). Government benefits for Malays include discounts for new houses and preferential treatment in public housing, cheaper burial plots, that all key government positions to be held by Malays including most sporting associations, a minimum of a 30% Malay Bumiputera equity to be held in listed companies, full funding for mosques and Islamic places of worship, special high earning interest trust funds for Bumiputera Malays, special share allocation for new share applications for Bumiputera Malays, and making the Malay language a compulsory examination paper.

This policy has meant a significant tension between the races of Malaysia. In many ways, it has led to the absence of what many call a “Malaysian identity” that many other multi-racial countries such as Singapore have achieved. This is the result of the observation that poverty is not solely in Malay communities and in the modern day context, average household incomes of Malay and Indians in Malaysia are nearly equal.

Its tenacious position has created a political deadlock for progressives such as Anwar. On one hand, his beliefs as a well-educated centrist would indicate that he should accost these policies and do what many Western institutions have recommended- a needs based affirmative action policy. However on the other hand, the fear of these rights being stripped from the rural Malay population have been mongered for so long that any threat to their existence is to risk a voting issue for the most powerful electorate in Malaysia.

Need-based and race-based policies: Are they a replacement for the other?

A potential answer is to introduce needs based policies and gradually reduce the power of race based allocation. This would likely still benefit the rural Malay population whose most vulnerable would still benefit from a needs based policy and cut out well-off individuals who do not derive their benefit.

Need-based policies cater to an entirely different demographic from race-based policies, although the intersection of both is vast. One cannot replace the other simply because they are distinct policy domains. The real challenge for the PH government is not to entirely eliminate race-based policies but to implement more equitable policies for minority groups. Even then, PH needs the Malay majority's support to achieve its reform goal.

Reform: Are we ready?

Photo of Anwar greeting supporters in Tambun, Perak from REUTERS/Hasnoor Hussain

There is no clear answer to whether Malaysia is ripe for reform. Although the sentiments shared amongst Malaysians is that reform is desired, the outcome is a much different conversation to be had.

With DSAI's need-based policies beginning to surface during his early stages of rulership, we are also starting to witness the further unravelling of our deep-rooted political issues of racial tension. However, there is a need to find a balance between advocating for need-based policies and fulfilling the wants of the majority in order to truly achieve reform, as PH is only able to do something meaningful if they are in power long enough to witness long-lasting change.

We must also consider opposition parties such as PN, who will jump at any opportunity to poke holes into PHs and DSAI’s rule to regain power in government. A PN Ustaz claimed that a vote against PN is a vote to deny the rights of Malays, which ultimately plays further into racial tensions that exist in Malaysia.

So while DSAI has finally made it to the top, staying there is another long walk he must take in order to fulfil his ambitions of reformasi.

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