In 1971, more than forty years before the world would turn its attention to the top 1% and the problem of income inequality, Malaysia embarked on one of history’s boldest and most noble of experiments to reduce social disparity. Malaysia’s New Economic Policy or NEP would seek to “eradicate poverty for all” and “eliminate identification of race by economic function and geographic location”….Malaysia was a democracy that hewed the rule of law…Its income is now well above world emerging-economy average, and its urban infrastructure and worker skills approach those in the first world. Malaysia’s top bankers, business people, and entrepreneurs are admired everywhere. NEP reduced pockets of extreme poverty and created a significant, thriving, and successful Bumiputera middle class…And, although from time to time patchily diverging from the ideal, throughout this history Malaysia worked hard to maintain its young democracy and its adherence to rule of law, and to support a healthy vigorous open sphere of public debate….All this is now at risk…Significant Bumiputera and rural poverty remain. Ever more frequent accounts have appeared of government agencies intended to reduce Bumiputera poverty only enriching the elites of that group….The practice continues to worsen in Malaysia of elites undermining good intentions and exploiting for self interest the very instruments designed to help others. And it’s doing so more and more sharply.
The essay is interesting to me primarily because it suggests that problems such as corruption, exploitation of the poor, the Islamization of the Malay identity, repression of dissent and journalistic criticism—that they are somehow new developments in Malaysian politics and society.
My read is different. These are current problems, yes, but they were woven into the very fiber of Malaysia’s post-1971 political order. Their antecedents are everywhere—Ops Mayang, anyone? EPF scandal?—if you care to look. They define much of what makes Malaysia’s political economy so interesting, and its regime such an exemplar of the authoritarian part of competitive authoritarianism.