The Path To Unity Through Capitalism
[Note: Usually on Wednesday, I carry the serialization of my book. Today on the eve of Merdeka, I substitute this essay. The serialization of my book is delayed this week to this Sunday, September 3, 2006.]
Britain granted Malaysia its independence on the premise and promise that Malaysians would not senselessly slaughter each other once freed from her civilizing presence. Having gone through the hell-on-earth that was the Indian independence, Britain did not want her hands soiled again. There were intimations of such racial viciousness in Malaysia, as during the brief period of lawlessness following the Japanese surrender.
The British believed that the threat to Malaysia’s viability would come not from the then still very active communist insurgency but from Malaysians tearing each other apart. A seasoned gambler would wisely not bet against the British.
It was a tribute to our early leaders that they effectively demonstrated that Malaysians could indeed get along without the adult supervision of the British. Unfortunately, caught in the euphoria of merdeka, that precious shared sense of goodwill, sacrifice, and accommodation was taken for granted and not nurtured. Half a century later, the nation risks being torn apart by the increasingly shrill pronouncements of our leaders. What an ironic turn of events!
Unity Through Capitalism
Many naively believe that if only Malaysians could speak the same language, share a common culture, or subscribe to the same faith, national unity would be that much more attainable. Others fantasize that if only the political parties were not race based, racial integration would be greatly enhanced. Malays still hang on to the forlorn hope that if only we follow the one “pure” and “true” Islam, we would be united and all our problems would magically disappear.
Such delusions are based on flawed thinking, or to quote the late Lord Bauer, “a widespread disregard of evident reality.” The Koreans share the same heritage, culture, and language yet that did not stop them from killing each other, given half the chance. The more promising and enduring path to unity is not through culture, language, politics, or religion but economics, more specifically the embrace of free enterprise.
Capitalism is the most efficient economic system for producing goods and services; it is also the most effective tool to effect substantive social and cultural changes. Once Malaysians view each other and the world not in terms of race or nationality but as potential customers, business partners, and sources of capital, understanding and with it peace would follow suit.
Free enterprise is the best instrument to break down racial and other barriers. Capitalism does not differentiate between race, national origin, political persuasions, or religious beliefs. Profits are profits, whether the come from your own kind or foreigners.
I would expect socialism with its egalitarian ideals would bring people together. It failed, in Malaysia and elsewhere. Socialism failed with Malays because of its association with atheistic communism. The communists’ resorting to terrorism during the Emergency certainly did not help.
The New Economic Policy ushered Malays towards capitalism. With a visible business and trading class, Malays began looking at others less as immigrants or non-Malays and more as potential clients and customers. That put a very different perspective on reality.
To be sure, the Malays’ (specifically UMNO’s) embrace of capitalism is very recent. The term kaum kapitalis (capitalists hordes) was once unmistakably pejorative, conjuring images of heartless businessmen of Dickens’ era intent on exploiting the masses in the greedy pursuit of profits. Besides, those capitalists then were also colonialists so it was easy to hate them. With Malays now being capitalists, aided substantially by the state, capitalism has a decidedly new aroma, even if it were only the crony or ersatz variety.
Economic crises in Malaysia today no longer have racial undertones. The 1997 economic crisis had minimal racial repercussions despite the fact that many of the high-flying casualties were Malays. Likewise, the recent reduction in petroleum subsidy affected all. The pain cut across race; economic imperatives successfully breaching racial boundaries.
The government is encouraging greater integration in the business sector. This is commendable; unfortunately, it is pursuing it in its usual highhanded ways. Take the requirement that publicly-listed companies must have 30 percent Bumiputra participation. That is fine if we let the market pick who those lucky Bumiputras would be. With the Ministry of Trade officials picking the winners, that worthy scheme has degenerated into another corrupt political patronage system.
A more sensible approach would be for the government to explicitly use ownership and employee diversity as a criterion when awarding contracts. American companies are realizing that workplace diversity has its own rewards, quite apart from being the right thing to do. American corporations are outbidding their European and Japanese competitors in Africa because the American executives there are mostly Blacks. The same in China, with American companies actively recruiting ethnic Chinese Americans.
The “mom and pop” retail sector in Malaysia is essentially in Chinese hands. They usually recruit their own kind. An effective way to discourage them and at the same time enjoy the benefits of having an efficient retail sector would be to open it to foreign competitors like Carrefour and Walmart. Carrefour has exemplary recruiting policies; it actively recruits capable Malays for its frontline as well as for management jobs. Unfortunately, instead of encouraging such multinational retailers with their enlightened personnel policies and exemplary work culture, the government is restricting them, no doubt through the influence of “money politics” of UMNO politicians by these Chinese retailers.
Similarly with the small retail lending business, banks and finance companies ignore these customers with less-than-stellar credit. They have no alternative but to go to pawnshops, Al Longs, and chettiars with their usurious interest rates. They are also all exclusively non-Malay operations, right down to the goons they employ to collect their overdue payments. If Malaysia were to open the market to foreign lenders like AIG that specializes in “sub-prime” loans, we would wipe out these chettiars and Ah Longs. Malaysia would definitely be better without them. AIG, like other American companies, also have enlightened personnel policies. You could be assured that they would employ many Malays, certainly more than what the present ethnic moneylenders would.
If all else fails, Malaysians could unite and boycott ethnic establishments whose workers do not reflect Malaysian society. A few such high profile boycotts would change the employment and ownership patterns of Malaysian businesses far more effectively than any government mandate. Never underestimate the power of the market.
Race-Based Parties: The Solution, Not the Problem
As for politics, I too wish that politicians would not blatantly pander to the baser racial instincts of their followers. However, I would argue the contrary; race-based political parties contribute to racial harmony. They help ensure that minorities are represented in government. An Indian could never hope to win a parliamentary seat let alone be a minister as there is no predominantly Indian constituency. There are Indian ministers only because the Indian parties are in the ruling coalition.
Race-based parties or not, politicians now realize that to secure power they must reach beyond their racial group. At its last Muktamar, PAS adopted a resolution allowing for non-Muslim candidates, a stunning admission of this reality.
American legislatures go through grotesque gerrymandering exercises to ensure minority representations. At least the Malaysian formula is more transparent, and therefore more democratic. More importantly, it works! By coming together in a coalition, the race-based parties ensure that political power is equitably shared.
The appointed Malaysian senate is far more representative of local society than the elected American senate is of America. Chalk one up for Malaysia!
There are proportionally more Malays in Singapore than Indians in Malaysia. Thanks to the Malaysian model, Indians are more visible in the upper political reaches in Malaysia then Malays are in Singapore. This bleak picture is repeated elsewhere in the region. Malays are a significant minority in Thailand (in the south they are the majority), but one would not know that from looking at its political establishment; likewise with the Muslims in the Philippines. Ever wonder why they have strong secessionist movements?
The solution to Malaysia’s race issues lies not with doing away with the present workable formula of race-based parties but to build on it. There should be increased collaboration among the leaders; they must be seen working together. They should lead their members towards thinking for the good of the nation and not, as at present, pandering to the most extremist of their followers. Far too often, the surest way for an UMNO candidate to win party votes is to champion the Malay cause. The most ugly demonstration was shown by UMNO Youth leader and Education Minister Hishamuddin when he infamously drew that ketchup-dripping keris (dagger) to demonstrate his resolve to be a latter day Hang Tuah.
Race remains a major factor in the political calculus, and will remain so for a long while. Better to acknowledge this reality and work on improving it instead of dreaming of some unworkable utopian arrangement. Even in mature democracies like America, race is never far from political considerations.
The better solution would be to focus on economics, not politics. We are all consumers, and we are all for lower prices and better services. That economic imperative transcends race, nationality, and class. That is a goal worth pursuing as Malaysia anticipates its Golden Merdeka Anniversary next year.