Sep 12, 2013

    Najib plans bigger economic role for Malays

    MALAYSIAN Prime Minister Najib Razak will announce measures this weekend to boost the economic role of majority ethnic Malays, signalling a reversal of earlier pledges to roll back race-based policies that have stunted the country's competitiveness.

    The announcement, due on Saturday, comes as Datuk Seri Najib faces a possible ruling-party-leadership contest next month. It also follows an election in May in which his coalition, in power since independence from Britain in 1957, was overwhelmingly rejected by minority ethnic-Chinese voters.

    "I will soon announce a comprehensive policy to encourage bumiputera participation in the economy," Mr Najib said on his official Twitter page yesterday.

    The initiatives will cover equity ownership, business, "human capital", and social and economic development, the state-controlled New Straits Times cited senior officials as saying.

    He will also announce steps to strengthen state institutions that promote the economic role of Malays, also known as bumiputeras, or "sons of the soil".

    Mr Abdul Wahid Omar, a minister in the Prime Minister's Department, said there could also be steps to create more opportunities for Malays in the private sector and to boost their ownership of commercial property.

    "A recurring issue is the lack of employment opportunities for bumiputeras in the private sector, especially at the executive level," he said.

    Affirmative-action privileges were put in place in the early 1970s to improve the lot of Malays, who make up about 60 per cent of the 28 million population, are historically poorer, and traditionally live in rural areas.

    Minority ethnic Chinese, about a quarter of the population, are wealthier and still dominate businesses and the economy.

    After Mr Najib took the country's top job in 2009, he cast himself as a moderniser who would roll back the privileges that have deterred investment and alienated minority Chinese and ethnic Indians. He has also pledged to base government assistance more strongly on needs than on race.

    But those plans have largely failed to advance due to stiff resistance from within Umno, the ruling ethnic-Malay party.

    Mr Najib was further weakened by May's election, in which the ruling coalition lost the popular vote and saw its parliamentary majority shrink.

    The result, contested by the opposition, exposed a deepening divide between ethnic Malays and Chinese, and was seen as leaving the Prime Minister more dependent on support from Umno traditionalists.

    For four decades, ethnic Malays have benefited from race-based policies, ranging from quotas for university admissions to preferential entry into the civil service and guaranteed minimum levels of equity ownership.

    The government has a longstanding goal of increasing the bumiputera share of equity wealth to 30 per cent, from the most recent official figure of 23 per cent.