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Malaysia’s dispute over equity ownership issues continues

Updated On: Oct 13, 2006

A dispute over how much of the “country’s wealth” bumiputras really own has been raging on for some time. 

This question has been a sensitive one because of the target set by the New Economic Policy (NEP) in which the goal is to raise Malay’s equity ownership to at least 30%.   Those who argue for the NEP to be abolished claim that this goal has already been achieved. 

A week ago, the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (Asli) issued a report by its Centre of Public Policy Studies, which concluded that Malays already own 45% of corporate equity, well ahead of the government’s 2020 target of 30%. 

Carried out by a multiracial group of researchers as input for the Ninth Malaysia Plan (9MP), the report sparked political outrage as it was seen as challenging the affirmative action policy.  Affirmative action is regarded as non-negotiable in Malaysian politics, and was continued in the 9MP.  The survey results have also drawn attention to the long-standing question of whether the affirmative action policy has in fact not helped the majority of bumiputeras, but merely concentrated wealth in the hands of a few.  Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi last week attacked the research as inaccurate and baseless; questioning the researchers' methods and accusing Asli of being irresponsible.  Several Umno leaders and academics had also called for its retraction.  But the researchers and the Centre then stood by their conclusions.

On Tuesday (10 October), however, Mirzan Mahathir, president of Asli retracted the said report.   Mirzan Mahathir, said that on re-examining the methodology and conclusions of the report, Asli concluded that “there are shortcomings in assumptions and calculations that led to conclusions that cannot be vigorously justified…therefore, [the report] did not fairly reflect the true picture of total equity ownership by bumiputeras in Malaysia.”

His comments come a day after his father, former premier Mahathir Mohamad, also questioned the accuracy of the Asli report.  “If the Malays control 45 per cent, this means they have more than the Chinese and other races. What kind of research has Asli done? It does not make sense,” Mahathir was quoted as saying on online news portal Malaysiakini.  According to official data, the Malay share of corporate equity has stood at 18.9 per cent for the last 20 years, and is used as justification to continue affirmative action programmes begun in 1970 to help the Malays catch up with the non-Malays.

Deputy chief of Umno Youth Khairy Jamaluddin did not pass up the opportunity to champion the race, saying on Wednesday (11 October) that academics should be more careful with sensitive issues involving race.  “Let's not draw up a report that triggers anger, and then simply concede to having made mistakes. The damage is done already,” he said.  Echoing his father-in-law, Prime Minister Abdullah, Khairy said, “We [Umno] did not agree with the methodology used by Asli because it was inaccurate and unfair and it is now proven to be without basis.”

The opposition DAP chairman Lim Kit Siang on the other hand, described Mirzan’s retraction as a dishonourable and cowardly act.  “It is evident that Asli was under pressure from the strong arm tactics employed by certain quarters to retract the findings of the report,” he said.  Mirzan however maintained that Asli was not directly told to retract the findings and denied there had been any political pressure to do so. 

Far from an end to the debate however, the controversy continued, making front page news in Malaysia when Asli’s stalwart academic behind the study resigned as director of CPPS.  Well-respected in the academic and non-governmental organisation world, economist Lim Teck Ghee stood by the findings of the study and said he was stepping down because he could not agree with Mirzan's statement and he needed to defend the position and integrity of independent and non-partisan scholarship. 

That both Abdullah and Mahathir at least agreed on the “non-correctness” of the Asli report seem to offer some people hope that the open Abdullah-Mahathir spat may be resolved.  Some Umno leaders have recently floated the idea of a peace-making meeting between the two.   Home Minister Radzi Sheikh Ahmad hinted to reporters that “something good” was going to happen as “the two men may have a change of heart” in the month of Ramadan.  If so, the meeting will be their first since the fallout.  Private initiatives to mend ties between the two have so far not met with success.

But several people close to Mahathir denied that such a meeting was on the cards any time soon.  Furthermore, Mahathir had made it clear that he would stop attacking Abdullah only if his successor makes changes to the way the country is run; including restarting the Johor bridge project, removing several of Abdullah's advisers and continuing to give protection to carmaker Proton.

While the fasting month may have put a lid on rhetoric between the two, the rift is far from over.  Observers say the fasting month doused political rhetoric as it is unseemly to attack another person in the holiest month in the Muslim calendar but “I believe Tun Mahathir will go on after the fasting month as he perceives that the issues with PM Abdullah affect the credibility of the country,” said former parliamentarian Ruhanie Ahmad.

Since suffering rejection by his own Kedah division, Mahathir has, as observers expected, started to use non-Umno channels to spread his views.  During grassroots sessions, materials touching on the same controversial issues Mahathir brings up in his attacks on Abdullah are distributed for free.  Political observers say the freebies, though not directly linked to Mahathir, clearly indicate that although the Mahathir-Abdullah tiff has cooled in the past few weeks, the tensions remain.  Mahathir’s undiminished standing with the public means that despite failing to secure Umno's support in his fight, he has the proverbial man on the street with him - although they may not understand the issues intimately. 

It is clear that Abdullah remains firmly in Mahathir’s sights. Referring to his successor, Mahathir told reporters, “He said I am his friend, but the way he treats his friend is very bad as he does not allow me to speak to other people.”

Sources:

KL think-tank retracts report on bumi stakes (The Straits Times, 11 October 2006)

ASLI director quits over controversial findings (The Star, 11 October 2006)

Asli admits claims on equity ownership flawed (New Straits Times, 11 October 2006)

Bumiputera equity controversy: Asli man quits in protest (New Straits Times, 12 October 2006)

M'sian academic quits over race (Today/AFP, 12 October 2006)

Academic behind study on bumi stake quits (The Straits Times, 12 October 2006)

Lim free to resign based on principle, says Mirzan (The Star, 12 October 2006)

Pak Lah, Dr M to meet? (The Star, 11 October 2006)

Abdullah, Dr M to meet for 1st time since fallout? (Today/Agencies, 12 October 2006)

Mahathir-Abdullah rift far from over (The Straits Times, 12 October 2006)