By Joe FernandezThe newly-launched High Income Economy initiative by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak is an admission of the failure of Vision 2020 and the New Economic Policy (NEP) while not promising real political and economic change. This is the consensus among opinion leaders in Sabah and Sarawak and Hindraf Makkal Sakthi.
The former programme (1990-2020), it is noted, had projected that Malaysia’s economy would grow eight-fold within the context of Bangsa Malaysia to place it in the league of developed nations. The NEP (1970-1990), on the other hand, had pledged to eradicate poverty irrespective of race while restructuring society within the context of an expanding economic pie.
Instead, the beef is that Peter was robbed to pay Paul during the NEP years and its aftermath and “racial polarisation has never been higher in Peninsular Malaysia”.
Another sore point is that both Sabah and Sarawak were “not consulted” when the NEM was drawn up. In the absence of local input, their economies were not sufficiently considered in the NEM structure, claims CigMa (Common Interest Group Malaysia) chair Jeffrey Gapari Kitingan.
“It cannot be denied that the natives in Sabah and Sarawak were completely left out during the NEP years from 1970 to 1990,” said Jeffrey in Kota Kinabalu. “Vision 2020 was more of the same treatment. Now, we have the NEM which seems set to be a repeat of history.”
He did not touch on charges by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim that NEM is a copycat programme of Pakatan Rakyat's Malaysian Economic Agenda (MEA). Jeffrey is also a vice- president in Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat.
Hindraf chair P Waythamoorthy, speaking from Singapore, concurs with views in Sabah and Sarawak on the NEM. However, his main concern is that there are no guarantees that the marginalisation of the Indian community would not continue under the NEM.”
“Vision 2020 promised a Bangsa Malaysia but we all know what has happened after 20 years,” said Waythamoorthy. “The Indians lost confidence in the ruling coalition and deserted it wholesale in the 2008 general election.”
He noted that the NEP will remain a cornerstone of the NEM. It was the deviations and distortions in the NEP and Article 153 of the Federal Constitution that lay at the heart of the Indian dilemma in Malaysia, added Waythamoorthy.
“We can expect that a small clique in Malaysia will continue to reward themselves with government contracts through nominees,” said Waythamoorthy. “So, the looting of the public treasury would continue under the guise of the Bumiputera, the NEP and Article 153.”
The Hindraf chair admits that he has been left wondering on the time period still left for the ruling elite in Malaysia to continue making hay while the sun shines.
Ali Baba culture
Jeffrey, chipping in from Singapore after a meeting with Waythamoorthy on the Hulu Selangor by-election, is cynical that the pledge in the NEM to eradicate the rent-seeking culture would be carried out in the absence of the necessary political will in Umno. Rent-seeking is a euphemism for the Ali-Baba syndrome where the Malay Ali secures government contracts and sells them to the Chinese Baba.
“The Ali-Baba culture is based on the politics of patronage, nepotism and cronyism practised by Umno,” said Jeffrey. “This kind of politics is based on the subsidy-driven dependency syndrome which feeds the politics of corruption and moral depravity in Umno.”
The influx of illegals into Sabah, says Jeffrey, has allowed them to enter the electoral rolls “and prop up the ruling coalition”. So, his question is whether the NEM will indeed do away, as pledged, with the cheap labour policy in pursuit of a high income economy.
Jeffrey’s reading is that the implementation of the NEM, without any deviations and distortions, should logically see the demise of Umno. The self-serving, apparently in the majority now, will lose interest in politics if it ceases to enjoy the skim cepat kaya (quick money scam) for Umno under the NEM, points out Jeffrey.
The bottomline, according to both the CigMa and Hindraf chair, is that “the more things seem to change – NEP, Vision 2020, NEM – the more they remain the same”.
Touching on the High Income Economic model itself promised by the NEM, it is noted by both men that the term “developed”, first raised by Vision 2020, is now being avoided like the plague by the Najib administration.
“The term high income actually means just that,” said Jeffrey. “You can dig diamonds out of the ground and be a high income economy but that doesn’t mean that you are developed.”
The other difficulty is whether the present US$7,000 gross national income per capita mentioned in the NEM takes into account, for example, the wild boar meat that the Penan in Sarawak enjoy for free or the jungle greens picked by the rural people in Sabah and Sarawak.
“This sum US$ 7,000 is an average. If a large number of people like the rural folks are included, the average gross national income per capita will be low,” said Jeffrey. “In short, if fewer people are included in computing the gross national income per capita, the figure will be high.”
No clear focus
SAPP (Sabah Progressive Party) president Yong Teck Lee was disappointed that the NEM doesn’t address regional economic imbalances, a key thrust in the pursuit of developed nation status.
“Yet, of the eight key sectors in the NEM, three are from Sabah and Sarawak, that is, oil and gas, tourism and land,” said Yong, adding that the NEM doesn’t stress an energy policy.
Among economists, there is consensus that besides ending the cheap labour policy, the federal government must re-distribute incomes under the NEM, implement a Minimum Wage Act, promise equal pay for equal work, allow foreign labour to join trade unions, end discrimination in the intake of foreign labour and impose punitive taxes on imports from countries employing child and “slave” labour.
Zainal Ajamain, senior research fellow of the Centre for remote Sensing and Geographic Information System (CerGIS), notes that Sabah in particular has too many plans with similar themes and no clear focus. This may have led to its virtual “exclusion” from the NEM.
Sedia (Sabah Economic Development and Investment Authority) president and chief executive Yaakub Johari begs to differ. He sees definite high income potential for Sabah in its flora, fauna and tourism.
“The NEM is only one of the several components in the federal government’s transformation plan,” says Pang Teck Wai, a Sabah member of the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research. “A failure in one component will cause a chain reaction and risk the success of the entire effort.”
Pang, also the CEO of the Palm Oil Industrial Cluster in Lahad Datu, like others laments the fact that Sabah has been excluded from the debate on the NEM.