International Herald Tribune
A comfortable Malay elite
HONG KONG Malaysia's image as an exemplary pluralist Muslim nation is looking increasingly suspect. For Muslims, especially, there should be growing unease at the identification of religion with a Malay racial-enhancement program.

Recently, Malaysia's business think tank, the Asian Strategy and Research Institute, or ASLI, released research that found Malay corporate ownership could now be vastly greater than the official 19 percent figure - and more than enough to justify ending 30 years of policy aimed at raising the ownership share of the indigenous population, mostly Malays, to 30 percent.

But rather than lead to a public- policy debate, the paper led to an immediate clampdown by a Malay elite reluctant to see a public discussion of the privileges it enjoys. ASLI's president, Mirzan Mahathir, condemned the document and it was immediately withdrawn from circulation. Mirzan is a son of former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. The current prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, warned against making "trouble" by questioning affirmative action.

The stifled debate is not a quibble over numbers but over the future of affirmative action for Malays, who constitute the majority of the population but traditionally owned a minority of the wealth. It goes to the heart of politics in a country where politics is based on race.

The incident has reverberations beyond Malaysia. ASLI is one of the sponsors of the second World Islamic Economic Forum, to be held in Pakistan next month, whose invited keynote speakers include five heads of government of Muslim countries - and Bill Clinton.

In Malaysia, affirmative action on socioeconomic grounds cannot be kept out of the religious context because all Malays are considered to be Muslims, whether they like it or not.

ASLI's self-repudiation came despite the fact that the new calculations were contained in detailed reports that had been presented to the government in February of this year.

The ASLI study certainly came to some controversial conclusions. "Selective patronage has resulted in serious intra-Malay cleavages while also undermining interethnic social cohesion and equitable socioeconomic development."

The report said that official methodology for calculating ownership was narrowly based and unrealistic. But its own suggestion that the figure is closer to 45 percent than the official 19 percent is also debatable.

Beyond the issue of actual numbers is concern, expressed by some Malays, that they have become too dependent on making easy money acquiring assets at discounted prices from private and public sources. The ASLI report notes that at the small- and medium-enterprise level, much interethnic business cooperation has been taking place independent of official policies, which tend to favor the richest Malays.

Also worrying for many Malaysians is the stifling of debate among academics. University social-science departments are kept on tight political leashes, as are the students themselves.

While non-Malays have long accepted the need for affirmative action, they reasonably believe that its duration and implementation should be discussed.

By any measure, it should be the Malays who need to justify affirmative policies and processes. Indeed, for some in the upper echelons of the Malay community who have built businesses through political connections and easy finance from government banks, the ASLI report may be an especially unsettling reminder of how they became rich. These instances overshadow the fact that many Malay businesses compete on equal terms or in partnership with Chinese ones.

No one thinks it will be easy to change the system. The Malay majority will not readily vote away its privileges, particularly as the governing party, UMNO, must compete for votes with the religious as well as racial identity of its rival, Parti Islam. But unless affirmative action can be debated and its focus shifted from enriching the Malay elite to the poor, who include all races but are predominantly Malay, the social divides will grow. And Malaysia's self-image as a Muslim nation where religions and races live in equality, as well as harmony, will be further eroded.