Yet another Bumiputera congress is being held in Malaysia. Will it succeed where others failed?

If the Bumiputeras succeed economically, it is good for the nation. But it must not be a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Two bumiputera women in a clothes store
This time, the Bumiputera Economic Congress is not just focusing entirely on the Bumiputera community but on the community in relation to the rest of the nation. (Photo: Getty Images)

When I first heard that the government would be organising a Bumiputera Economic Congress, I smiled to myself as I thought: yet another one.

I have heard of so many congresses, conventions and seminars – both at federal and state level - aimed at uplifting the Malays since the late 1970s. And, as a journalist, I have covered some of them.

I wondered how many tens of millions would have been spent on these congresses and conventions over the years.

But when I read what Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his second finance minister Amir Hamzah Azizan had to say about the congress scheduled for three days from today, my scepticism softened.

New emphasis on inclusiveness

This time the congress is not just focusing entirely on the Bumiputera community but on the Bumiputera community in relation to the rest of the nation. This time the congress aims to be inclusive.

Now that emphasis is new.

The fact is, the Bumiputeras cannot work in isolation. They are part of the larger community of Malaysians, even though they are in the majority.

If you want the Bumiputeras to succeed, it won’t hurt to work in cooperation with other Malaysians, as the organisers of the latest convention aim to do.

On 15 February, Anwar said the government wanted the participation of the Chinese and Indian chambers of commerce, particularly the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia (ACCCIM).

He hoped ACCCIM was ready to discuss boosting the socio-economic development of Bumiputeras comprehensively “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.”

New Bumiputera Empowerment Agenda

After chairing the Bumiputera Economic Council’s special meeting on 26 February, Anwar said in a Facebook post: “In line with the concept of cross-ethnic participation and policy concept, we heard the views from representatives of Malay, Chinese, Indian as well as Sabah and Sarawak Bumiputera Chambers of Commerce at today’s meeting.

“The government hopes that the congress will successfully gather good ideas and be the springboard to the planning of a New Bumiputera Empowerment Agenda for the upcoming decade.”

Amir Hamzah said on 26 February: “One message that Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has stressed upon is that it must be inclusive. So, when you solve an issue such as poverty, for example, you don’t solve it for a particular community but you solve it for the whole society.”

He added: “I have a very simple philosophy that I would like to put forward, that is, how do I make the cake bigger, rather than how do I slice the cake.”

This message was emphasised again by Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi in his keynote address at the first day of the congress this morning.

He said: “We must foster genuine economic ties between the Bumiputeras and other ethnicities. In the context of inclusivity this relationship existed since the NEP but some aspects of the collaboration may have questionable genuineness.

“Through the Bumiputera Economic Transformation (plan), we don’t want economic activities done only in the name of the Bumiputeras. We want Ali and Baba to genuinely work together to do business,” he said in alluding to the term “Ali Baba” which means rent-seeking.

I would like this congress to succeed, because I want to see more Bumiputeras come up in life. I would like to see a situation where the Malays stride confidently in any enterprise without crutches.

Teach Bumiputeras how to fish, don’t give them fish

The fact is, if the majority Bumiputeras succeed economically and socially, it is good for the nation. But this success must be of their own making and not be a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

I would also like to see the poor of all communities, not just the Bumiputeras, being given a leg up. In particular more opportunities should be available in education, scholarships and business technology to enable them to shine and help the nation rise up.

I hope the focus of the congress will be on teaching the Bumiputeras how to fish rather than giving them fish whenever they want it or when elections are near.

I’m not an economic expert, but I know that one of the biggest problems after every convention of this sort is the implementation process. Effective execution is the Achilles heel of all these conventions and seminars.

There is almost always a problem with effective implementation because of various factors such as corruption, cronyism, emplacing of incompetent officers to lead the transformation, and managing the mindset of the target groups.

Without integrity Bumiputera empowerment plans will fail

Integrity is crucial all along the chain – from the ministers to the civil servants implementing policies of the government. If corruption is systemic, as it is now, can the government effectively use its funds to create new entrepreneurs and business leaders?

Also, one reason for past Malay entrepreneur development programme failures is that party members and supporters were mostly selected to participate in them, not those who were genuinely interested but were not supporters or relatives of members or were opposition party members.

In the rush to alleviate poverty, the government should not conflate “needy” with “capability”. Not all needy people are capable of running a business, for instance.

This was one of the mistakes in previous attempts at empowering Malays.

Fund the capable, not the needy

So, funding should be given to capable and interested Bumiputeras while training should be given to the needy so that they can become capable enough to participate in such programmes.

The mindset of the recipients of the opportunities and funds given by the government is crucial to any success. Will they slog hard to make their project or business a success, for instance, or use the money to buy fancy cars or take another wife, or give up halfway?

Bumiputeras must be encouraged to compete with other Malaysians because economic empowerment can only come through healthy competition, not by continuous government aid in various forms.

Unless they learn to struggle and stand on their own feet, they will not be resilient to economic setbacks.

The role of government-linked companies – almost all of which are headed and staffed by Bumiputeras – needs to be reviewed if small-time Bumiputeras are to become big time.

Review role of GLCs

GLCs should not compete with Bumiputeras involved in small and medium scale industries. Rather GLCs should coach the budding Bumiputera entrepreneur. In the past, GLCs which got huge government contracts formed subsidiaries which competed against the Bumiputera SMEs instead of helping them.

And what about the 101 agencies at both federal and state level tasked with helping the Bumiputras? Are they doing a competent job? Are they staffed with competent people?

The government must ensure meritocracy within Bumiputera agencies and GLCs so that only the capable - not the connected or party members - lead them. There are many capable Malays who are not connected to VIPs or party members: hunt for them and make them lead projects.

This applies to all other fields too, including the civil service.

Only capable people with integrity and good work ethics can lift this nation to greater heights.

Will it succeed this time?

As I said earlier, I hope at least this congress is successful but I would urge the organisers to gauge the success not on the participation nor papers presented but on the actual implementation of the plans and ideas in the next few months and years.

The soundbites for the congress – mentioned at the beginning - are excellent, but it remains to be seen whether this is just another exercise to convince the Bumiputeras that the government is looking after them or whether the congress will come up with actionable programmes that can be effectively implemented without sidelining any community.

A.Kathirasen is a veteran Malaysian journalist/editor who has been writing columns, with breaks, in newspapers and online since 1981. All views expressed are the writer's own.

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