The Unity government concedes that the status quo of ethnic quotas in Malaysia cannot be changed. They are easily tarred by PN as meek and ambivalent toward Malay interests, and simultaneously disappoint non-Malays who nonetheless vote for them because PN is viewed as a worse alternative.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has heaved a sigh of relief at the 12 August Peninsular Malaysia state election results. The Unity government (UG) led by his Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition defended its three territories successfully; the other three held by the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition were never within reach. UG’s celebration has been suitably sober. Although they won a respectable 94 out of 132 state assembly seats in Negeri Sembilan, Penang, and Selangor, they previously held a commanding 116.
PN prevailed in Malay-majority constituencies, and having hauled 108 out of 113 seats in the Malay-populated states of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, waxed triumphant. Their call for Anwar to resign rings hollow, but they indisputably command the Malay electorate.
Post-mortem analyses, still ongoing as the data become available, will elucidate the reasons for this outcome. Anwar, however, has already identified one factor that could swing an election — by way of describing a disaster averted. At a 5 August dialogue session with Penang Matriculation College students, he said that promising to abolish ethnic quotas in those institutions would guarantee his coalition’s defeat. (Pre-university matriculation colleges reserve 90 per cent of spots for Bumiputeras, the Malays and indigenous groups of East Malaysia who comprise 70 per cent of Malaysia’s population.)
The issue emerged in a question-and-answer exchange with an inquisitive Indian student – a moment that encapsulates Anwar’s dilemma. His noncommittal stance toward pro-Malay policies induces non-Malay expectations for “meritocracy” to replace ethnic preferences and makes his administration vulnerable to attack from PN.
The unity government, adopting PH’s established position, stays ambivalent toward the vast array of Malay-favouring programmes to avoid antagonising its non-Malay base that cannot access that system. However, when pressed, they concede that the status quo of ethnic quotas cannot be changed. Thus, they are easily tarred by PN as meek and passive about Malay interests, and they simultaneously disappoint non-Malays who nonetheless vote for them because PN is viewed as the worse alternative.
The Anwar-student exchange was captured in a video clip that went viral. The student asked: When will the quota system be abolished and meritocracy instituted? She then brought up her observation that some applicants with top grades had gained matriculation college admission only after appealing, whereas others with much poorer grades received offers straightaway. While she was pleading for her inquiry to be received in earnest and not dismissed for touching on sensitivities, Anwar rather brusquely interrupted, and delivered a ten-minute lecture that started with a reminder of Malaysia’s “social contract” that renders issues like ethnic quotas non-negotiable.
Public opinion has been divided, with criticisms focusing on his tone and invocation of the problematic social contract notion. But there are more consequential matters. Although the Prime Minister and the student appeared to clash, both raised some valid and non-contradicting points. Alas, consumed by biases and blind spots, they talked past each other.
The student legitimately complained that quotas detract from merit-based admission; Anwar legitimately argued that meritocracy is flawed for disproportionately benefiting the privileged ones who are better poised to ace national exams. The student highlighted the plight of high-scoring non-Malays being left out and the unfairness of low-scoring Malays being offered entry instead, omitting Malay entrants who have also attained stellar grades. The scope and mechanisms of merit-based admissions, though, have not been clarified.
Anwar highlighted the plight of the economically disadvantaged Bumiputera student, but what of the disadvantaged non-Bumiputera? Anwar leaned on a morally appealing but logically ill-fitting example of the graduate of an impoverished school to justify ethnic quotas, omitting the many Bumiputera matriculation students who come from well-resourced schools. If socioeconomic disadvantage is the concern, why not institute policies that expressly take that into account?
In apparent agitation at being asked about abolishing quotas, Anwar admonished students for posing politically volatile questions. He emphasised that his administration cannot touch the quota, but that aggrieved high-scoring students can appeal to the Ministry of Education. As a final word, he appealed for non-Malays to be patient, but did not offer anything new worth waiting for.
The matriculation college system affords financial aid for low-income households, but does not incorporate socioeconomic disadvantage into the admissions process — unlike community colleges and polytechnics offering technical and vocational courses, which implement a points system for low-income students to boost their entry prospects.
The government’s reluctance to advocate group-targeted policies allows PN to distinguish itself among Malay voters, and perhaps to chip away at the UG’s non-Malay base.
Anwar cannot overhaul the matriculation system, but he can enhance it, such as by systematically clarifying how merit-based selection operates, and by incorporating socioeconomic elements into admissions processes, which would also reinforce his administration’s mission to look out for the poor. Furthermore, “need-based” selection can be extended to all communities, with modifications such as giving preferential treatment to students from the bottom 20 per cent of households based on each state’s per capita disposable income thresholds to recognise meaningful differences in income level.
The government’s reluctance to advocate group-targeted policies allows PN to distinguish itself among Malay voters, and perhaps to chip away at the UG’s non-Malay base. While the Unity coalition’s Selangor manifesto omitted group-targeted programmes, PN pitched pledges specifically for the Indian community.
The full effects of such overtures remain open to research. PH won resoundingly in Sentosa, the constituency in Selangor where Indian voters comprise the largest ethnic group. But one has to wonder if PN’s explicit Indian outreach contributed to its razor-thin win in Taman Medan in the heart of PH’s Klang Valley fortress, where Indians constitute 20 per cent of voters.
Anwar is painfully aware of what he cannot say; any hint of taking away Bumiputera quotas will give ammunition to his opponents. But sidestepping ethnic policies has not helped his government broaden its appeal, and might cause it to lose ground.
Lee Hwok-Aun is Senior Fellow of the Regional Economic Studies Programme, and Co-coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.