Chua Soi Lek
ALL anyone might remember now from news reports on MCA’s 100-page proposal to the government for the 10th Malaysia Plan was its request for RM1 billion to support Chinese vernacular education. This is triple the RM320 million allocation for the same purpose under the Ninth Malaysia Plan.
It is a sensational angle, and few would be surprised if it drew protests from right-wing groups that claim to speak for Malay Malaysians. There will also be disagreement from some Chinese Malaysians, because as the Hulu Selangor and Sibu by-elections have shown, money for Chinese vernacular schools is no longer the way to get votes.
It isn’t, and that’s why other points in the memorandum submitted by MCA to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak are worth highlighting. Party president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek‘s move in articulating bold suggestions to the government is no doubt aimed at reclaiming Chinese Malaysian support for Barisan Nasional (BN). Will it work? Are the suggestions meant to address a “Chinese Malaysian dilemma” or an “urban voter dilemma”? Are they inclusive and relevant to all Malaysians?
Civil service and liberties
Chua identified the civil service as one obstacle to implementing policies on liberalisation. He said the 30% bumiputera quota was so entrenched that despite government instructions on open tenders, “there is nothing to stop the government servants” from applying the quota in granting permits or licences.
Ministry of Finance building in Putrajaya
(© Hellmy | Flickr)Chua has put in words what many Malaysians feel, while other BN leaders have only so far politely blamed bureaucracy. “Sometimes, [government] officers have too much power vested in them, too much discretionary power,” he said.
MCA has called for a single body to coordinate all licensing matters so that civil servants “have no choice but to follow” government policies. The service sub-sectors which have been freed of the 30% bumiputera quota should be clearly listed to prevent civil servants from imposing the quota quietly.
Other calls for change include opening 30% of Class F contracts to all Malaysians; an open tender system for all government procurements involving local small-and-medium enterprises; subjecting government-linked companies to fair-market competition; introducing a minimum wage for certain sectors; limiting foreign workers in selected industries; and rationalising subsidies by giving the poor direct grants.
On civil liberties, MCA wants an end to disputes over child conversions and custody through laws requiring civil marriages to be annulled only under civil law. It also proposes that it’s okay for students to participate in politics but not hold party posts, by amending the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971.
Of the above, which are the ones likely to be attacked as violations of Malay Malaysian privileges? Likely, the restrictions on civil servants who defy liberalisation policies, the opening of 30% of Class F contracts to other races, and laws against unilateral conversions of minors.
There will likely be those who view these proposals as a zero-sum game between bumiputera and other races. They will probably accuse MCA of questioning the social contract and violating Article 153 on the special position and privileges of Malay Malaysians.
Malaysia needs to prevent brain drain (© The People Speak | Flickr)
Those who see these ideas through race-tinted glasses are choosing to ignore other facts and danger signs about where Malaysia is headed. We have lost, and continue to lose, investments to more competitive and dynamic regional economies like Indonesia and Vietnam, and human capital to developed countries.
These proposals, though made by a Chinese Malaysian-based party, deserve to be studied for their relevance to improving the way business and government is conducted here. The points on improving civil liberties are also steps towards making Malaysia a liberal and creative environment to prevent brain drain.
Not every request made in the MCA’s proposal is Chinese Malaysian-centric nor are they aimed at taking away what’s “due” to bumiputera. If these proposals can help weed out non-performers, increase business activity, generate growth, and make the economic pie bigger, shouldn’t Malaysians of all races be willing to consider them? These ideas are aimed at giving all Malaysians who can compete a fair chance to access opportunities. And for poor Malaysians, they aim to provide targeted aid instead of blanket subsidies which wrongly benefit the rich.
If the government were to reject these ideas because of pressure from right-wing groups, it will only discredit its own 1Malaysia motto. Why be a multiracial ruling coalition when you disregard solutions by component members?
Sekolah Menengah Hin Hua, an independent secondary school in Selangor
(public domain | Wiki Commons)
Chinese-language education, however, forms the bulk of the proposals and includes potentially sensitive points. One is an appeal to recognise the Unified Examination Certificate from independent secondary schools for public university entry. Doing so could worsen the already tight race for limited seats. Not doing so worsens the brain drain of talented Chinese-educated students.
Another point is a proposed new development policy to reserve land for one Chinese vernacular school for every high-density Chinese Malaysian area of at least 3,000 households.
Vernacular schools are a contentious and highly-politicised subject. Even among Chinese Malaysians, there is endless debate regarding their advantages and pitfalls. Some feel these schools drive a wedge between the races and are too rigid for young children. Others argue that vernacular education is protected by the Federal Constitution.
This should indicate to MCA that fighting for Chinese-language education alone is insufficient to win back its voter base. In fact, it may no longer be the main issue for Chinese Malaysians.
Chua’s new groove
Is publicly announcing bold proposals enough to win back Chinese Malaysian support? Damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t, MCA under Chua is departing from the style of his predecessors to relegate sensitive issues to closed-door cabinet discussions.
Chua is asking voters to hold Najib’s administration accountable
Instead, Chua is speaking out, and by doing so, asking voters to hold Najib’s administration accountable. If MCA’s proposals aren’t adopted, he will at least be seen as having tried and failed, rather than not trying at all.
MCA would then do well to also press for reforms in public institutions, and in ethnic, religious, and political rights. It should strive to prove the relevance of its ideas to all Malaysians, and not be threatened by Umno counterparts to prove itself to Chinese Malaysians only. It should dispel the myth that Chinese Malaysians are “demanding”
more than their share.
MCA should show that what Chinese Malaysians want are things that can benefit all Malaysians. It should challenge the thinking in Umno that it is better to give up on winning back Chinese Malaysians and to focus instead on increasing the share of Malay Malaysian support. The consequence of taking this path is further communalism and polarisation. MCA can potentially check that by having an inclusive agenda for all Malaysians. Regardless of how well it wins in the next elections, it would have at least tried to dispel the current perception that race politics in Malaysia is a zero-sum game. And that counts for some progress.
Deborah Loh isn’t interested in parties that champion a narrow interest but is curious about those which can manage broad interests. It’s a better test of their principles, she believes.
Read previous Sideways columns
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