Water cannons in Cambridge

Sabri Zain's Cambridge Diaries

Questioning Our Feudal Loyalty
November 3rd, 2000

For most Malaysians, the word 'cronyism' is associated with big business and politics. Massive privatization projects being awarded to the elite few with the right political connections; lucrative government projects being awarded to people with precious little know-how but an abundance of "know-who"; massive public "bailouts" of floundering captains of industry endowed with more political clout than business acumen.

But at the root of cronyism is not economics but feudal loyalty more specifically, political loyalty to the ruling elite. It is this sheep-like loyalty that has turned many a hard-nosed businessman into a servile crony. This mad "kowtow" disease brings many economic advantages. Licenses that might normally take months, or even be refused, can be miraculously processed in days with clinical efficiency if you know the right politician. Friendly loan officers can be transformed into the most generous and accommodating of folk.

Some critics cite Malaysia's New Economic Policy (NEP), the affirmative action that was launched in 1971 following race riots in Kuala Lumpur, as the ultimate form of the country's cronyism. Designed to spread the economic cake more fairly among the races in Malaysia by granting economic privileges, advantages and quotas to ethnic Malays, it embraced everything from welfare, education and housing to licenses, government contracts and corporate equity. The goal: that Malays should own at least 30% of the country's business capital. Whether it is the profitable government contract that keeps a Malay businessman afloat or the generous scholarship that sends his children to England for their degrees, the government never misses an opportunity to remind Malays that they all are, essentially, its cronies and should be grateful to be so blessed.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad once remarked that "all Malaysians are my cronies." He was fending off accusations that his government had financially bailed out his friends. There is perhaps more than a grain of truth in Mahathir's statement. We Malaysians are victims of our own success. Decades of rapid development have given Malaysians confidence a confidence expressed in that cry of "Malaysia Boleh!" ("Malaysia can!") which has become the national motto. That confidence turned to arrogance and greed which bred the cronyism that has become a cancer in our society. There are those who say cronyism works, that the cronies can actually deliver. Just look at our privatized superhighways, our breath-taking airports, our glittering tower blocks the highest in the world! All done by so-called cronies and all monuments to our greatness.

But most Malays long ago discovered that some cronies were more equal than others. The bulk of the promised riches went to an elite few rather than the masses. Far from being an affirmative action program that helped the poor, it seemed like a patronage network of shadowy political and business relationships. It made the rich wealthier and helped keep the elite of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in control.

But just as cronyism in Malaysia is rooted in politics, its eventual downfall may be brought about by politics as well. The sacking of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim in September 1998 unleashed a storm. He launched a nationwide movement for reformasi reforms calling for greater democratic freedoms, economic reforms and sweeping social changes. Anwar's call fired the imagination of Malaysians of all races who were tired of decades of corruption, nepotism and cronyism.

Whatever the political outcome, Malaysia is today a new country. Malaysians are a new people. An increasingly popular alternative media - such as the opposition newspaper Harakah and the Internet-based Malaysiakini (Malaysia Now) is beginning to ask questions and air public calls for greater openness, transparency and accountability. The opposition is building a formidable check-and-balance to government excesses and abuses.

More importantly, more Malaysians are questioning that feudal loyalty. A glimmer of change can be seen in the way Malays have reacted to the thorny issue of privileges and the NEP. When Chinese associations renewed a call for a review of the NEP in August, UMNO organized protests calling for Malays to defend their privileges. After the erosion of support from Malays for UMNO during last November's polls, many saw this as an attempt to whip up outrage that would bring Malays back to the government fold. Opposition Malay parties were even invited to join the protests.

But they refused. This time, the rabble-rousing and sabre-rattling didn't work. The groundswell of outrage didn't materialize. Times have changed. Perhaps there is a chance, a small hope, that Malaysians now no longer want to be cronies.