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Income Inequality, Poverty and Development Policy in
Malaysia
By
A.H.Roslan
School of Economics, Universiti Utara Malaysia,
06010 UUM Sintok, Kedah Darul Aman, MALAYSIA
E-Mail: ahroslan@uum.edu.my
Fax: (006)-04-9285751
Abstract
This paper examines income inequality and poverty in Malaysia. It is argued that government intervention under the New Economic Policy has been successful in generating economic growth and development of the country in general, and in the development of the Malay ethnic group in particular. Government intervention that begins in the 1970s has significantly reduced poverty, particularly poverty amongst the Malay ethnic group. Furthermore, the overall income inequality as well as interethnic and rural-urban inequality has also decline since the middle of 1970 to 1990.
Since 1990 however, even though poverty has decline further, income inequality has started to rise. Besides there emerge a new dimension of inequality, that is intraethnic inequality. This paper argues that the existence of intra-ethnic inequality, particularly intra-Malay inequality, pose the major challenge to Malaysian policymakers. The reason is that, government intervention under the New Economic Policy is articulated in the political rhetoric of ethnicity, and it appears to be coherent in addressing the problem of poverty amongst the Malays when majority of them were in poverty. The New Economic Policy has significantly reduced poverty amongst the
Malay, and there now exist a new problem of intra-Malay inequality. The existence of intra-Malay inequality suggests that deeper division amongst the Malay community has emerged, implying that there emerged diverse and conflicting interests within the
Malay community itself. Continued use of ethnicity as the foundation of economic policy is no longer coherent, and hence could only be undertaken with the risk of greater discontent, paradoxically amongst the Malay community. In such a situation, government intervention that is articulated in the political rhetoric of ethnicity would be incoherent to solve this new problem of inequality.

1. Introduction
Malaysia inherited a multiracial society when independence was achieved from the
British in 1957. In the early years of independence, a marked income inequality existed between the Malay (Bumiputera) and the non-Malay (non-Bumiputera).1 The imbalance became untenable in the late 1960s, when racial riots occurred in May
1969. The riots proved to be damaging for nation-building. As a response, the government introduced the New Economic Policy in 1970, which accorded the
Bumiputera preferential treatment to correct the perceived imbalances. Thus, the NEP was basically an affirmative action, pro-Malay economic policy. The New
Development Policy (NDP) succeeded the NEP when it came to an end in 1990.
While there were differences in priorities and strategies between the two, the NDP was still basically a pro-Malay policy, or what is called by Torii (1997) “ethnicityoriented policy”. During the implementation of NEP and NDP, Malaysia achieved a very rapid economic growth and significantly reduce poverty, and brought the Malays into the mainstream economic activities.
Some observers of Malaysia’s economic development have argued that Malaysia appears to represent one of the success stories of a developing economy [see for example The World Bank (1993) and Chowdhury and Islam (1996)]. The argument of this paper is that, while to certain extent these observations are correct, what they fail to see is that these achievements are basically the initial impact of the NEP. It should be realised that the NEP is articulated in the language of ethnicity. The pro-Malay economic policy of distributing income appeared to be coherent and succeeded in the initial years since the poor were overwhelmingly from the Malay community.
Ethnicity, as the cornerstone of the economic policy to solve the economic problem facing the Malay community, then became doubly attractive because it leads to the empowerment of the countryside and the creation of a domestic market for industrial products. When the policy successfully raised income of the Malays and substantially reduced poverty amongst them, the question of intra-Malay inequality come to the surface. It can no longer be ignored. Continuing to articulate a policy in the political rhetoric of ethnicity then become internally inconsistent to develop the Malay community as it was in the past. The emergence of cleavages within the Malay community as well as the emergence of cross-cutting cleavages in society, made it difficult to address the new problem of income distribution (i.e. intra-Malay inequality) through the political rhetoric of ethnicity. Continuing the ethnicityoriented economic policy would apparently lead to internal contradictions and tension within the Malays. Thus, along with the economic success, the NEP is also sewing the seeds of future problems for itself.

II. Background of Malaysian Society

1

Bumiputera literally means the "son of the soil". The Malays are the main Bumiputera in Peninsular
Malaysia. In Sabah, the main Bumiputera are Kadazan, Bajau and Murut, while in Sarawak they are
Iban, Malay, Bidayuh and Melanau. Since this paper concentrates on Peninsular Malaysia, the term
"Malay" and "Bumiputera" will be used interchangeably.

2

Malaysian society is a multiethnic society, with the Malays, Chinese and Indians forming the major ethnic groups. In 1996, the Bumiputera accounted for 61.0 percent of the population, the Chinese 30.0 percent, the Indians 8.0 percent, and other minority groups made up the remaining 1.0 percent (Gomez and Jomo, 1997, p.1). In general each of the ethnic groups is different in terms of their language, culture and religion. The Malay language is “Bahasa Melayu”, the Chinese languages are
Cantonese and Hokkien, and the Indian language is Tamil. The Malays are mostly
Muslim, while the Chinese and the Indian are mostly Buddhist and Hindu, respectively. The multiethnic characteristic of Malaysian society was inherited from the British during their occupation of Malaya2 from 1786 to 1957 (Snodgrass 1980, pp. 22-42;
Anand 1983, pp.1-4; Faaland et.al. 1990, p.2-4). While there were already some
Chinese and Indian in Malaya before the British occupation, it is during the British occupation that the mass migration of the Chinese and the Indians took place. Starting in the second half of the nineteenth century and up to the 1930s, the British had encouraged large scale Chinese and Indian immigration to Malaya, to supply their manpower need in the tin mining industries and rubber plantations which were mainly located in the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The Chinese were brought by the
British to work in the tin mines, while the Indians to work in the rubber plantations.
The Malays remained in the traditional subsistence agriculture and thus were left out of the modern sector of the economy.
As a result, in the early years of independence, each ethnic group was segregated in terms of geographical area. The majority of the Malays were found in the north and eastern states of Peninsular Malaysia such as Terengganu, Kelantan, Kedah and
Perlis. These states were basically agricultural states and relatively underdeveloped.
On the other hand, the Chinese and Indians were concentrated in the western states of
Peninsular Malaysia such as Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Perak and Pulau Pinang, which are relatively more developed and prosperous. Besides, the Malay were less urbanised compared to the Chinese and the Indians as indicated in Table II.1 below.
In 1957, almost 90 percent of the Malays lived in the rural area, compared to about 55 percent of the Chinese and 70 percent of the Indians. This situation remained throughout the 1960s.

Table II.1: Population by Community Groups and Degree of Urbanisation at 1957 and 1970
Census (Peninsular Malaysia).
1957
1970
Urban Area (%) Rural Area (%) Urban Area (%) Rural Area (%)
2

Before independent from the Colonial British in 1957, Peninsular Malaysia was known as Malaya.

3

Malays
11.2
Chinese
44.7
Indians
30.6
Others
49.3
Total
26.5
Source: Mehden (1975).

88.8
55.3
69.4
50.7
73.5

14.9
47.4
34.7
40.8
28.7

85.1
52.6
65.3
59.2
71.3

During the British rule, each ethnic group also generally experienced different education systems (Mahathir 1998, p.74-75; Shastri 1993, p.3). Most Malays were educated in the government school system located in the rural areas that used the
Malay language as the medium of instruction. The Chinese on the other hand sent their children to the Chinese medium schools, which were established by Chinese voluntary associations. Nevertheless, the elite segment of each ethnic group generally sent their children to the English medium schools located in the urban areas, where the quality of education was far better than the rural Malay-medium school.
Furthermore, most secondary and tertiary education was available in the urban areas with English as the medium of instruction. Those who were educated at the Englishmedium schools tended to gain positions in the civil service, commerce, business, and professions. Since most of the Malays were educated in the rural Malay medium schools, this indirectly limited their upward social mobility.
Besides, in the early years of independence, each ethnic group was also separated by their economic functions. The economic activities of the Malay were largely subsistence agriculture and fishing. The Chinese were involved in commerce and modern sectors of the economy, while the Indians were labourers in the rubber plantations.3 Thus, not only did each ethnic group differ in terms of their language, culture and religion, they were also separated in terms of geographical location, education and economic functions. It is not surprising that there was very little integration and interaction between the ethnic groups. Another reason for the lack of integration and interaction was that many of the immigrant Chinese and Indians perceived Malaya only to be a transition land rather than their new homeland. Hence, no need was felt among the immigrant populations to integrate and interact with the
Malays since they intended to return back to China or India after accumulating enough savings (Gomez and Jomo, 1997, p. 11). Communication between ethnic groups is carried out by their political leaders, generally the elite of each ethnic group.
The political leaders therefore functioned as the spokespersons and brokers for their respective ethnic groups (Shastri, 1993, p.3).

3

In 1957, 73 percent of Malays were in agriculture, forestry and fishing, compared to only 40 percent of the Chinese and 56 percent of the Indians (Shastri 1993, p.3). Of the Malays, 37 percent of them were engaged in rice cultivation, and 25 percent in the rubber smallholdings. Of the Indians, 48 percent of them were labourers in the rubber plantations. In the modern economic sector, the Malays composed only 7 percent of the manufacturing sector management in 1970, compared to 68 percent of the
Chinese, 4 percent Indian and 18 percent foreign (Mehden, 1975, p. 250).

4

Ethnicity therefore cut across almost all spheres of life. Indeed, it was the differences in their economic functions as well as their educational experience that probably reinforced their ethnic differences and influenced their perceptions of each other.
Naturally the differences and lack of interaction between the ethnic groups led to the prejudices and the preoccupation with ethnic issues in almost all spheres of Malaysian life - social, cultural, economic and political. Thus while the issue faced by society might have involved many other dimensions, it was the ethnic dimension that really received most public and political attention. Ethnicity dominated all aspects of
Malaysian life and as a result, ethnic cleavages were found at almost all levels and aspects of life, as explained by Mauzy (1997, p. 107):
“These groups were divided by coinciding cleavages of race, language, religion, customs, area of residence and to a large extent, by type of occupation. Predictably, they lined up on the same opposing sides on every politically relevant issue”.

As seen, despite the emergence of the multiracial society in Malaysia, there was very little integration and interaction among the ethnic communities in the early years of independence. Ethnicity cut across almost all spheres of life. Thus, the question of unity and nation-building was an important question in the newly independent
Malaysia. However, nation-building was overwhelmed by the existence of economic imbalance between the ethnic groups, as will be seen below.
III. Income Inequality and Poverty 1957- 1970
After independence in 1957, while the Malaysian Constitution did stress that the socio-economic development of the Malay was to be promoted, active government intervention in the economy to help the Malay was not implemented immediately.
The ruling Alliance government continued the laissez-faire economic policy of the colonial government. The laissez-faire approach nevertheless resulted in rapid economic growth. Real GDP growth rate was 4.1% in 1956-1960 period, 5.0% in the
1961-1965 period and 5.4% in the 1966-70 (Bank Negara 1994, p.4). However, despite the rapid growth, the trickle down process did not appear to work as expected.
Towards the end of 1960s, about half the population was living under poverty as indicated in the incidence of poverty (see Table III.1).
The complexity of the poverty problem arose from the fact that there was an association between poverty incidences with a particular ethnic group. The bulk of the poor were notably high among the Malays compared to the non-Malays. While in the period of 1957 to 1970 there was a reduction in the incidence of poverty among the
Malays, they remained the largest. In 1970, 65.9 percent of the Malays were poor, compared to only 27.5 and 40.2 percent respectively of the Chinese and Indians.
Besides, poverty incidence was more serious in the rural than in the urban areas.
Therefore, while there were Chinese and Indian poor, as well as urban poor, generally the problem of poverty was perceived to be the problem of the rural and the Malay households. As the majority of the rural households were Malay, the Malay then became synonymous with the poor, i.e. the poor were generally the Malays, and the
Malays were generally poor.

5

Table III.1: Incidence of Poverty in Peninsular Malaysia (%), 1957 and 1970.
1957/58
1970
51.2
49.3
All Households
Rural households
59.6
58.7
Urban households
29.7
21.3
Malay
All households
70.5
65.9
Rural households
74.9
70.3
Urban households
32.7
38.8
Chinese
All households
27.4
27.5
Rural households
25.2
24.6
Urban households
29.4
30.5
Indian
All households
35.7
40.2
Rural households
44.8
31.8
Urban households
31.5
44.9
Source: Ikemoto (1985).

In addition, there was also a significant imbalance in terms of wealth (equity) ownership between the Malays and the Chinese. As shown in Table III.2, by 1970 the
Malays owned only about 2.4 percent of the ownership of share capital, while the
Chinese owned 27.2 percent. Furthermore, there also existed inter-ethnic inequality in terms of employment and occupation, which reflected the differences in skills, education and experiences of each ethnic group. By 1970, about two-third of those employed in the primary sector were Malays, while the non-Malays on the other hand, were largely employed in the secondary and tertiary sectors as shown in Table III.3.
Besides the difference in the pattern of employment, there were also significant differences in terms of occupation. The professional, technical, sales and managerial jobs were predominantly held by the Chinese, while about three-quarter of the Malays were agricultural workers mostly involved in small, subsistence farming and fishing activities (Klitgaard and Katz, 1983: p. 335). Thus, not only were the Malays found to be poor, but also they were primarily associated with agriculture, a low productivity sector. On the other hand, the non-Malays were associated with mining, manufacturing and construction, a high productivity sector.

Table III.2: Ownership of Share Capital (at par value) of Limited Companies, 1970 (%).
Ownership Group
1970
Malay/Bumiputera
2.4
Malay/Bumiputera individuals & institutions
1.6
Trust agencies
0.8

6

Non-Malays/non-Bumiputera
Chinese
Indian
Others
Nominee companies
Foreigners
Source: Gomez and Jomo (1997).

28.3
27.2
1.1
6.0
63.4

Table III.3: Sectoral Employment of Bumiputera and non-Bumiputera (%) in Peninsular
Malaysia, 1970.
Sector
Bumiputera
Non-Bumiputera
1
Primary
67.6
32.4
Secondary2
30.8
69.2
37.9
62.1
Tertiary3
Note:
1
Agriculture
2
Mining, manufacturing, construction, utilities and transport.
3
Wholesale and retail trade, finance, government and other services.

Source: Malaysia (1991).

However, while it was true that the bulk of the poor were Malays, and there existed economic imbalances between the Malay and the Chinese, an ethnic perspective of the problem appeared to be a narrow and simplistic view of the complex problem of poverty and inequality. This point became more obvious when income inequality was examined. Table III.4 shows the mean income and income distribution in Peninsular
Malaysia from 1957/58 to 1970. It shows that while the mean monthly household income in real terms increased from RM 207 in 1957/58 to RM261 in 1970, income inequality however worsened, as indicated by the increase in Gini coefficient from
0.412 to 0.513. The rich appeared to benefit the most from the rapid economic growth at the expense of the poor (middle and lower-income groups). The share of the national income captured by the high-income group (top 20 %) rose from 48.6 to 55.9 during the above period. The share of the poorest 40 per cent of the population fell from 15.9 to 11.6 per cent, and this fall was especially sharp between 1967/68 and
1970.
Besides, it appeared that the rich were mostly urban and the bulk of the poor were mostly rural (see Table III.5). The ratio of the mean income between the urban and rural households -- the urban-rural disparity ratio -- went up, and there was a sudden increase in the two years before 1970. Income inequality worsened, but more for the rural population. Not only did the rural population become poorer than their urban counterparts on average, but also there was another development in the countryside.
The Gini coefficient went up dramatically. Income inequality among the rural, predominantly Malay population, increased faster than inequality amongst the urban dwellers. Table III.4: Distribution of Household Income in Peninsular Malaysia, 1957-1970.
1957/58
1967/68
1970

7

Mean income (RM Per Month)*
Median income (RM Per Month)*
Mean to Median Income Ratio
Gini coefficient
Income Share of:
Top 20%
Middle 40%
Bottom 40%

207
150
1.38
0.412

226
145
1.56
0.444

261
164
1.59
0.513

48.6
35.5
15.9

51.3
34.4
14.3

55.9
32.5
11.6

Note:
*1959 RM prices

Source: Perumal (1989).

Table III.5: Distribution of Household Income in Peninsular Malaysia by Area, 1957-1970.
1957/58
Urban Households
Mean Income (RM Per Month)*
Median Income (RM Per Month)*
Gini Coefficient
Income Share of:
Top 20%
Middle 40%
Bottom 40%
Rural Households
Mean Income (RM Per Month)*
Median Income (RM Per Month)*
Gini Coefficient
Income Share of:
Top 20%
Middle 40%
Bottom 40%

1967/68

1970

307
207
0.429

340
232
0.447

424
262
0.494

49.6
33.2
17.2

51.8
34.0
14.2

55.0
32.8
12.2

166
126
0.374

175
126
0.399

198
138
0.463

44.5
37.3
18.2

46.8
36.7
16.7

51.0
35.9
13.1

1.84

1.95

2.14

Urban-Rural Disparity Ratio
Note:
*1959 RM prices

Source: Perumal (1989) and Snodgrass (1980).

Income distribution also worsened for each of the three ethnic groups (see Table
III.6). The Malays moved from the least unequal to the most unequal, measured in the
Gini coefficient of income distribution, amongst the three ethnic groups. The poor amongst the Indian population fared the worst in the following sense. The median and the mean income were identical for this group in 1957/58, but the median income was considerably lower than the mean in 1970. The median income had, in fact, declined between these two periods uniquely for the Indians. Besides, the picture of intragroup distribution painted in Table III.6 was reflected in both urban and rural areas.
The intra-group inequality increased amongst both the rural and urban Malays more than it did for their Chinese counterparts. It was particularly pronounced amongst
Malay rural households. What is more interesting is that decomposition of inequality shows that it is intra-ethnic and intra-area inequality that explained most of total inequality (see Table III.7). Thus income inequality in Malaysia during the 1960s is complex. It cannot be explained through either ethnic or location (rural-urban).

8

Table III.6: Distribution of Household Income by Ethnic Groups in Peninsular Malaysia,
1957-1970.
1957/58
1967/68
1970
Malay
Mean Income (RM Per Month)*
134
154
170
Median Income (RM Per Month)*
108
113
119
Gini Coefficient
0.342
0.400
0.466
Income Share of:
Top 20%
42.5
48.2
52.5
Middle 40%
38.0
34.8
34.8
Bottom 40%
19.5
17.0
12.7
Chinese
Mean Income (RM Per Month)*
Median Income (RM Per Month)*
Gini Coefficient
Income Share of:
Top 20%
Middle 40%
Bottom 40%
Indian
Mean Income (RM Per Month)*
Median Income (RM Per Month)*
Gini Coefficient
Income Share of:
Top 20%
Middle 40%
Bottom 40%

288
214
0.374

329
246
0.391

390
265
0.455

45.8
36.2
18.0

46.7
36.3
17.0

52.6
33.5
13.9

228
228
0.347

245
180
0.403

300
192
0.463

43.7
36.6
19.7

48.1
35.6
16.3

54.2
31.5
14.3

Note:
*1959 RM prices

Source: Perumal (1989) and Snodgrass (1980).

Table III.7: Theil Index and Its Decomposition
Anand
Ikemoto (1985)
(1983)
1970
1957/58
1970
1979
0.5161
0.3692
0.4693
0.4176
Overall
0.0671
0.0748
0.0845
0.0467
Inter-ethnic
Inter-Area

(13.0%)
(13.7%)

(20.3%)
0.0394
(10.7%)

(18.0%)
0.0753
(16.0%)

9

(11.1%)
0.0405
(9.7%)

Shireen (1998)
1984

1987

1989

0.4276
0.0359
(8.4%)
0.0485*
(11.3%)

0.3716
0.0273
(7.3%)
0.0336
(9.0%)

0.3541
0.0308
(8.7%)
0.0342
(9.7%)

Note:
*1984 Rural-Urban component overestimated as it includes “Others” in the samples during calculations. Percent contribution is given parentheses.
Source: (i) Anand (1983); (ii) Ikemoto (1985); (iii) Shireen (1998).
Unfortunately, the observation that there was a widening gap between the rich and the poor, even within groups, did not form the central focus of the political debate.
Instead, the problem of distribution was viewed from the narrow ethnic perspective.
As a result, even though the gap between the rich and the poor widened even within groups, the perception of injustice was focused only on the distribution between ethnic groups. The problem of intra-group inequality, particularly intra-Malay inequality, was ignored in the political discourse. The heart of the political debate fell on inter-group inequality, especially between the Malay and Chinese populations, had increased (see Table III.8).
Table III.8: Disparity Ratio Between Ethnic Groups in Peninsular Malaysia, 1957-1970.
1957/58
1967/68
1970
Chinese-Malay
2.16
2.14
2.25
Indian-Malay
1.71
1.60
1.75
Chinese-Indian
1.27
1.34
1.29
Source: Calculated from Table III.6

As the distributional problem was looked at from ethnic dimension, the complexity of the problem of poverty and inequality was reduced to just a simple problem of interethnic inequality, i.e. Malay-Chinese inequality. Naturally, ethnicity then became the cornerstone of the policy solution to the Malay economic problem, as will be discussed in the next section.

IV. The New Economic Policy 1971-1990
The poor economic condition of the Malays as well as the notable economic imbalance between the Malays and the Chinese was unsatisfactory to the Malays.4
4

The momentum peaked in the 1960s. The Malays organised the First Bumiputera Economic Congress in June 1965, where the economic problems of the Malay were discussed and the strategies and programs to enhance the Malay economic position were drawn up. In September 1968, the second
Bumiputera Economic Congress was held. This time around, the Congress reassessed the progress and achievements since the first congress. Basically, the Congress came to the conclusion that after almost

10

Feelings of dissatisfaction and strong criticism of the government laissez-faire approach emerged from the Malays. For the Malays, the continuation of the colonial laissez-faire economic policy by the Alliance government after independence in 1957 had only ensured the growth of the Chinese economic interest, but it had not done much to increase the plight of the Malays. To the Malays, the Alliance government was too friendly to Chinese interests. A more aggressive government intervention was called for to speed the upward mobility of the Malays in education, employment and the economy of the country to keep them abreast with the non-Malays.
What made the situation explosive was the fact that the frustration was almost equivalent amongst the Chinese ethnic group. The Chinese felt that the government was doing too much for the Malays and felt discriminated. From their perspective, the government was biased towards the Malays, and they thus became more vocal in criticising the “Malay special rights”. The rising tension came to a peak with racial riots on the May 13 1969. It appeared that the racial riots marked a major turning point in Malaysia's development policy as they paved the way for affirmative action policies in favour of the Malay to be implemented.
A new economic policy, which was called the New Economic Policy (NEP), was announced in 1970. The NEP was to be implemented in the span of twenty years
(1971-1990). The approach of the NEP to overcome the perceived socio-economic imbalances in society was by giving preferential treatments to the Malays and other indigenous people. The ultimate aim of the NEP was to achieve national unity and to foster nation-building. The way to unite the multiethnic population visualised in the
NEP was through active government intervention to reduce inter-ethnic inequality by employing preferential treatments in favour of the Malays. Implicitly, therefore, interethnic equality was depicted as a prerequisite to social peace and stability, as well as prosperity. As such, the NEP implicitly regarded that unity was synonymous with the correction of ethnic economic imbalances (Mauzy 1997, p. 120), and considered it inevitable but necessary to solve the inter-ethnic economic imbalances that existed in the country (Jomo 1991, p.469). There were two specific objectives of the NEP. The first was to eradicate poverty by raising income levels and increasing employment opportunities for all Malaysians irrespective of race, while the second was to restructure the society so that the identification of ethnic groups with economic function was eliminated (Malaysia, 1991).5

ten years of independence, the progress made to uplift the economic position of the Malays had not matched the expectations of the Malays. The government was perceived as having failed to restore their position as the indigenous people to its proper place, as inspired in their struggle of independence.
5
The two stated stated objectives of the NEP were actually associated with the Malay nationalist economic agenda. Thus, the NEP could be viewed as a fulfilment of the Malay nationalist economic agenda, as suggested by Shamsul (1997, p. 251):
“If seen from the Malay nationalist perspective, the two central objectives of the
NEP, to eradicate poverty and to restructure society, are essentially parts of the overall nationalist economic agenda.”

11

The strategy to reduce poverty consisted of three major components (Shireen, 1998).
The first was to improve the quality of life of the poor by improving the provision of social services to them such as housing, health, education and public utilities. The second was to increase the income and productivity of the poor. This was to be done by expanding their productive capital and utilising the capital efficiently by adopting modern techniques and the provision of better facilities such as land, replanting and redevelopment of crops, irrigation, introduction of new crops, and improved marketing, credit, financial and technical assistance. Finally, to increase employment opportunities for inter-sectoral mobility out of low productivity areas and activities. In this regard, the necessary education, training, financial and technical skills would be provided to facilitate the movements into the modern sector of the economy.
With regard to the second objective, it was to be achieved through the restructuring of the employment pattern, ownership of share capital in the corporate sector, and the creation of a Bumiputera Commercial and Industrial Community (BCIC). The creation of BCIC was regarded as important since this would ensure a meaningful participation of the Bumiputera in the modern sector of the economy. Thus, the NEP envisaged restructuring of society in three levels. First, to increase the share of
Bumiputera employment in the modern industrial sectors. Second, to increase the
Bumiputera share in corporate ownership, and third, to increase the number of
Bumiputera entrepreneurs and Bumiputera managerial control. The targets of the NEP with regards to its objectives are shown in Table IV.1 below.

Table IV.1: Selected Socio-Economic Targets of the NEP.
I. Incidence of Poverty1
Overall
Rural
Urban
II. Corporate Equity Ownership
Bumiputera
Other Malaysians
Foreigners
III. Bumiputera Employment by Sector (% of total employment)
Primary
Secondary
Tertiary
IV. Bumiputera Employment by Category (% of total employment)

12

1970

Target (1990)

49.3
58.7
21.3

16.7
23.0
9.1

2.4
34.3
63.3

30.0
40.0
30.0

67.6
30.8
37.9

61.4
51.9
48.4

Professional and Technical
Administrative and Managerial
Clerical
Sales
Agricultural
Production
Services
Note:
1
Peninsular Malaysia only

47.2
22.4
33.4
23.9
68.7
31.3
42.9

50.0
49.3
47.9
36.9
62.3
52.0
52.3

Source: Malaysia (1991), Table 2-1, p. 34.

In order to achieve these targets, various economic and social institutions were developed to assist the Bumiputera (Kok Swee Kheng, 1994; Rajakrishnan, 1993;
Stafford, 1997). Government agencies that already existed in the 1960s to assist the
Bumiputera such as FELDA (Federal Land Development Authority), MARA (Peoples
Trust Council), FAMA (Food and Marketing Authority) and MARDI (Malaysian
Agricultural Research and Development Institute) were supported with huge funds to implement and accelerate rural development projects. Besides the existing government agencies, new agencies such as RISDA (Rubber Industry Smallholders
Development Authority), MAJUIKAN (Fisheries Board) and MAJUTERNAK (Cattle
Board) were established to increase income and productivity of the Bumiputera. In addition, UDA (Urban Development Authority) and SEDCs (State Economic
Development Corporations) were also set up to carry out commercial and industrial projects, which in turn would allow and encourage greater participation of the
Bumiputera in these activities, and hence induce them to move from rural to urban areas. Credit facilities, advisory services and the physical infrastructure such as shops and houses were also provided through agencies such as MARA, MIDF (Malaysian
Industrial Development Foundation), CGC (Credit Guarantee Corporation) and Bank
Bumiputera. Of significance in increasing Bumiputera participation and ownership in the economy was the establishment of PERNAS (Perbadanan Nasional or National
Corporation) in 1970. PERNAS was responsible for buying and developing companies and holding them in trust for the Bumiputera, and latter selling them on to private Bumiputera interests.
Table IV.2 shows the amount of funds allocated in various Malaysia Five-Year Plans to carry out the two objectives of the NEP - poverty eradication and restructuring the society. From the Second to the Fifth Malaysia Plans, total allocation for both objectives of the NEP averaged more than 30%. It appears that poverty eradication formed a large proportion of the allocation. Nevertheless, the share of the restructuring increased over time, particularly in the Fourth Malaysia Plan.
Table IV.2: Federal Allocation for the NEP, 1971-1990 (RM Million).

2nd Malaysia Plan
(1971-1975)
3rd Malaysia Plan

Poverty
Eradication
2350.0
(26.3)
6373.4

Restructuring
Society
508.3
(5.6)
2376.0

13

Overlapping
3.4
(0.0)
149.0

Total
2861.7
(31.9)
8898.4

Total Federal
Government
Allocation
8950
31147

(1976-1980)
4th Malaysia Plan
(1981-1985)
5th Malaysia Plan
(1986-1990)

(20.5)
9319.2
(23.7)
15835.1
(32.4)

(7.6)
4397.6
(11.2)
4201.6
(8.6)

(0.5)
300.5
(0.8)
0.0
(0.0)

(28.6)
14017.3
(35.7)
20036.7
(41.0)

4th Malaysia Plan
(1981-1985) (Revised)
5th Malaysia Plan
(1986-1990) (Revised)

10497.0
(14.2)
13661.4
(23.8)

6576.8
(8.9)
2711.6
(4.7)

464.5
(0.6)
0.0
(0.0)

17538.3
(23.7)
16373.0
(28.5)

39330
48860
74000
57512

Note:
Figures in parentheses show percentage of total allocation.

Source: Kok Swee Kheng (1994).

To ensure that no other sections of the community would be deprived as a result of implementation of the NEP, the restructuring objective is to be carried out in the context of rapid economic growth. Thus, rapid economic growth was of paramount important to realise the NEP's objectives. Towards this end, the NEP projected an annual growth rate of GDP 8.0 percent (Malaysia, 1991).
V. Economic Growth and Development During the NEP Period
During the NEP period, Malaysia experienced a remarkably high economic growth. In the 1970s, the economy was growing at an average annual growth rate of 8.3 percent
(Table V.1). The economy was in recession in the 1985-86 period, but started to recover in 1987. Since then, GDP growth rate has been sustained at roughly more than 8.0 percent annually. The rapid growth was accompanied by relatively low and stable prices (Table V.2) as well as a low and declining unemployment rate (Table
V.3). The remarkable growth and development record of Malaysia during the past decades has been widely acknowledged. Indeed, Malaysia has been recognised as one of the “economic miracles” of East Asia (World Bank, 1993).

Table V.1: Annual Growth Rates of Gross Domestic Product (%, at constant prices).

Year

1st
1966-1970
(1965=100)

2nd
1971-1975
(1970=100)

Malaysia Five-Year Plans
3rd
4th
1976-80
1981-1985
(1970=100) (1978=100)

1
6.2
10.0
11.6
2
1.0
9.4
7.8
3
4.2
11.7
6.7
4
10.4
8.3
9.3
5
5.0
0.8
7.4
Averag
5.4
8.0
8.6
e
Source: Bank Negara Malaysia (1994, 1996).

6.9
6.0
6.2
7.8
-1.1
5.2

Table V.2: Annual Growth Rate of Consumer Prices (%).

14

5th
1986-1990
(1978=100)

6th
1991-1995
(1978=100)

1.2
5.4
8.9
9.2
9.7
6.9

8.7
7.8
8.3
9.2
9.5
8.7

Malaysia Five-Year Plans
Year
1
2
3
4
5
Averag
e

1st
1966-1970
(1967=100)

2nd
1971-1975
(1967=100)

3rd
1976-80
(1967=100)

4th
1981-1985
(1980=100)

5th
1986-1990
(1980=100)

6th
1991-1995
(1994=100)

1.0
5.8
-0.2
-0.4
1.9
1.6

1.6
3.2
10.5
17.4
4.5
7.4

2.6
4.8
4.9
3.6
6.7
4.5

9.7
5.8
3.7
3.9
0.3
4.7

0.7
0.3
2.5
2.8
3.1
1.9

4.4
4.7
3.6
3.7
3.4
4.0

Note:
Up to 1980, data refers to Peninsular Malaysia only

Source: Bank Negara Malaysia (1994, 1996).

Table V.3: Unemployment Rate (%), 1960 - 1995.
No. Employed
Labour force
Year
('000)
('000)
1960
2310
n.a.
1970
3396
3682
1980
4817
5122
1990
6621
7047
1995
7915
8140

Unemployment rate
(%)
n.a.
7.8
5.7
5.6
2.8

Note:
n.a. = not available

Source: (i) Kok Swee Kheng (1994). (ii) Malaysia (1996).

There was also a rapid structural transformation of the economy. Between 1970 and
1995, the contribution of agriculture to GDP declined from 29.0 percent to 13.5 percent, while the contribution of the manufacturing sector increased from 13.9 percent to 33.1 percent (Table V.4). The economic structural changes were also been reflected in the structure of employment. The share of agriculture in total employment fell from 50.5 percent in 1970 to 18.0 percent in 1995, while the share of manufacturing sector has increased from 11.4 percent in 1970 to 25.9 percent in 1995
(Table V.5). The rapid growth of the economy was also reflected in the increase in per capita income. It was merely RM721 in 1960 (Bank Negara Malaysia, 1994), but increased significantly to RM6099 in 1990 and further to RM9786 in 1995 (Malaysia,
1996, p. 36). Besides, there was tremendous improvement in the quality of life among the Malaysians, such as in health and education (see Table V.6).
Table V.4: Composition of Gross Domestic Products (% at constant prices).
1970
1975
1980
1985
Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing
29.0
27.7
22.9
20.8
Construction
3.8
3.8
4.6
4.8
Manufacturing
13.9
16.4
19.6
19.7
Mining and Quarrying
13.7
4.6
10.1
10.5
Services
36.2
47.5
42.8
44.2

15

1990
18.7
3.5
27.0
9.7
42.3

1995
13.5
4.5
33.1
7.5
41.4

Source: (i) Bank Negara Malaysia (1994, p. 6); (ii) Malaysia (1991, p. 72); (iii) Ministry of
Finance (1996, p. xiv – xv), Economic Report 1996/97.
Table V.5: Employment by Sector (% of total employment).
1970
1980
Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing
50.5
39.7
Construction
4.0
5.5
Manufacturing
11.4
15.6
Mining and Quarrying
2.6
1.7
Services
31.5
37.5
Source: (i) Kok Swee Kheng (1994); (ii) Malaysia (1996).

1990
27.8
6.4
19.5
0.6
45.7

1995
18.0
8.3
25.9
0.5
47.3

Table V.6: Selected Quality of Life Indicators

1970
61.6
65.6
32.4
39.4
6.7
88.2
28.9
1:4302
22
26
1.0
21182

Life expectancy (years) b
Males
Females
Birth rate (per 1000 population)
Infant mortality rate (per 1000 live birth)
Death rate (per 1000 population)
Primary school enrolment ratio (%)
Teacher/Pupil ratio (primary and secondary)
Doctor/Population ratio
Television sets (per 1000 population)
Passenger cars (per 1000 population)
Telephones (per 1000 population)
Total roads (km)

1990a
69.0
73.5
27.1
13.5
4.7
98.9
20.9
1:2656
100
96
9.7
39113

Notes: a Refers to 1989 figures b Peninsular Malaysia only

Source: Malaysia (1991).

The NEP also appeared to have been successful in reducing poverty. Indeed, government official figures show that the NEP reduced poverty beyond its target (see
Table V.7). Furthermore, the identification of ethnic group with economic function was reduced during the NEP period. Table V.8 below shows that the percentage of
Bumiputera in professional and technical occupation increased from 46.7 percent in
1970 to 64.3 percent in 1995. Indeed, the percentage of Bumiputera in all other occupations, except for agricultural occupation, increased. There was also an increase in the number and percentage of registered professionals from the Malay
(Bumiputera) ethnic group (see Table V.9). In 1970, only 225 Bumiputera were registered as professionals, which is about 5.0 percent of the total registered. In 1995 however, the number increased significantly to 19344, which was about one third of the total registered. These were a reflection of the significant increase in Malay enrolment in higher learning institutions, as well as in various technical training

16

institutes during the NEP period. The ownership of share capital by the Bumiputera increased from 2.4 percent in 1970 to 20.6 percent in 1995 (see Table V.10). Thus, even though it still fell short of the NEP target of 30.0 percent, the Bumiputera seemed to have made quite a significant progress in terms of ownership and control of capital.6 Table V.7: Incidence of Poverty in Peninsular Malaysia: Targets and Achievements of NEP.
1970

Bumiputera
Chinese
Indians
Others
Source: Malaysia (1991, 1996).

Achieved 1990

49.3
58.7
21.3

Peninsular Malaysia
Rural
Urban

OPP1 Target 1990

16.7
23.0
9.1

15.0
19.3
7.3

65.0
26.0
39.0
44.8

20.8
5.7
8.0
18.0

Table V.8: Employment by Occupation and Ethnic Group.
Bumiputera
1970
1990
1995
Professional &
Technical
Teachers and Nurses
Administrative &
Managerial
Clerical & Related
Workers
Sales & Related
Workers
Service Workers
Agricultural Workers
Production Workers

1970

Chinese
1990
1995

46.9

60.5

64.3

39.5

29.1

26.2

10.8

7.7

7.3

24.1

68.5
28.7

72.3
36.1

62.9

24.6
62.2

20.5
54.7

7.8

6.4
4.0

6.6
5.1

35.4

52.4

57.2

45.9

38.6

34.4

17.2

8.6

7.7

26.7

29.9

36.2

61.7

58.4

51.9

11.1

6.8

6.5

44.3
72.0
34.2

57.8
69.1
43.6

58.2
63.1
44.8

39.6
17.3
55.9

26.8
13.8
39.6

22.8
12.9
35.0

14.6
9.7
9.6

9.5
7.3
10.8

8.7
7.5
10.3

1970

Indians
1990
1995

Sources: (i) Rajakrisnan (1993), Table 4, p. 224. (ii) Malaysia (1996), Table3-3, pp. 82-83.
Table V.9: Registered Professionalsa by Ethnic Groups, 1970-1995.
1980
1990
1995
1970b
No.
%
No.
%
No.
%
No.
%
Bumiputera
225
4.9
2534
14.9
11753
29.0
19344
33.1
Chinese
2793
61.0
10812
63.5
22641
55.9
30636
52.4
Indian
1066
23.3
2963
17.4
5363
13.2
7542
12.9
Others
492
10.8
708
4.2
750
1.9
939
1.6
Total
4576
100.0 17017 100.0 40507 100.0 58461 100.0
Notes:
a architects, accountants, engineers, dentists, doctors, veterinary surgeons, surveyors, lawyers. b excluding surveyors and lawyers

Source: (i) Jomo (1991), p.498, Table 6; (ii) Malaysia (1996), Table 3-4, p. 84.
Table V.10: Ownership of Share Capital (at par value) of Limited Companies
6

Some have argued that the actual size of Bumiputera share of corporate capital is considerably underestimated (see Gomez and Jomo 1997, p. 166).

17

Ownership Group
Bumiputera
Bumiputera individuals & institutions
Trust agencies
Non-Bumiputera
Chinese
Indian
Others
Nominee companies
Foreigners
Source: Gomez and Jomo (1997), Table 6.3, p. 168.

1970
2.4
1.6
0.8
28.3
27.2
1.1
6.0
63.4

1990
19.3
14.2
5.1
46.8
45.5
1.0
0.3
8.5
25.4

1995
20.6
18.6
2.0
43.4
40.9
1.5
1.0
8.3
27.7

Thus, during the NEP period, not only was there remarkable economic growth and development of the country, there was also improvement in the economic position of the Malays as well. Poverty eradication in particular was successful under the NEP.
Furthermore, there was the emergence of the Malay middle-class, as well as a noticeable Malay business-class, never before imagined.
VI. The Paradox of the NEP
The success of the NEP in bringing the Malay community into mainstream economic activities has been highlighted as a vindication of the NEP.7 The problem with this claim is that it might have increased expectation for continuation of the ethnicityoriented policy (i.e. pro-Bumiputera policy), with the perception that it has worked well for the development of the country, particularly for the Malays. However, this might not be the case. Thus this claim needs scrutiny.
As being indicated earlier, the NEP appeared to have been successful in raising income, and thus reducing poverty and raising the quality of life of Malaysians.
However, there is a disturbing development concurrent with these successes of the
NEP. While the incidence of poverty was significantly reduced, income inequality began to increase after 1990. The inequality trend is shown in Table VI.1 and Table
VI.2 below.
Table VI.1: Trends in Household Income Distribution in Peninsular Malaysia
1970
1976
1979
1990
Mean Income (RM per month)
267
514
693
1167
Median Income (RM per month)
167
313
436
n.a.
Gini Coefficient
0.502
0.529
0.508
0.446
Share of Top 20%
56.1
57.7
55.7
50.3
Share of Middle 40%
32.7
31.2
32.4
35.2
7

1995
2007
n.a.
0.4560
n.a
n.a

In the Second Outline Perspective Plan (OPP2) 1991-2000, it has been claimed that (Malaysia 1991,
p. 98):
“A remarkable achievement of the NEP was that it significantly improved income distribution without adversely affecting growth. In fact, the economy was able to achieve a high rate of economic growth during the 1971-1990 period on the account of the social and political stability created by the NEP”.

18

Share of Bottom 20%
11.2
11.1
11.9
14.5
Source: (i) Snodgrass (1980); (ii) Malaysia (1990, 1996, 2001); Shari (2000).
Table VI.2: Gini Coefficient by Ethnic Groups, 1957-1995.
Overall
Malay
Chinese
1957/58
0.412
0.342
0.374
1967/68
0.444
0.400
0.391
1970
0.502
0.466
0.455
1976
0.529
0.494
0.505
1979
0.493
0.488
0.470
1984
0.480
0.469
0.452
1987
0.458
0.447
0.428
1990
0.446
0.428
0.423
1995
0.4560
n.a.
n.a.
1997
0.4586
0.4495
0.4188

n.a

Indian
0.347
0.403
0.463
0.458
0.460
0.417
0.402
0.394
n.a.
0.4092

Note:
n.a.=not available
Figures for 1997 is taken from MAPEN II (Table 2.57, p. 189).

Source: (i) Snodgrass (1980); (ii) Shari and Zin (1990); (iii) Malaysia (1990, 1996, 2001);
(iv) MAPEN II (2001).

The government appears to have stopped publishing intra-ethnic distribution figures, which were readily available until 1990, and it is likely that intra-ethnic inequality has worsened for at least the Malay community. Indeed, the government acknowledged that intra-ethnic income inequality is still high, particularly among the Bumiputera.
The concern for the high intra-Malay inequality could be drawn from the following excerpt (Malaysia 1991, p.100):
"Intra-ethnic income disparities are still sizeable, with inequality among the
Bumiputera being higher relative to that of the non-Bumiputera. The Gini coefficient in 1990 for the Bumiputera was 0.428 while that for the Chinese was 0.423 and the Indians 0.394. As another comparison, whilst the mean income of the top 20 percent of the Chinese household was about 8.6 times the income of the bottom 20 percent, the disparity between the top and bottom income households for the Bumiputera was about 9.2 times."

Indeed, the above concern is confirmed by the figures taken from the report by
MAPEN II. However, intra-Malay or intra-ethnic inequality is not the focus of the
NEP. Thus, despite the significance of the intra-ethnic inequality problem, the government continued to insist that inter-ethnic inequality would remain the main focus of Malaysia’s economic policy. Consider the following paragraph:
“The NEP, it must be iterated, was not concerned with making all the bumiputeras earn equally, or share equally, the wealth distributed amongst them. …The intention of the NEP was to create in the bumiputera community the same division of labour and rewards as was found in the non-bumiputera communities, particularly the Chinese. … The equitableness was not to be between individuals, but between communities” (Mahathir Mohamad,

1998, pp. 33-34).

19

.

As mentioned earlier, the claim that the NEP was responsible for Malaysia's economic success might have raised expectation for the continuation of the pro-Bumiputera policy. The expectation of greater equality of income distribution, an expectation that was encouraged by the NEP, could be fulfilled at least in terms of inter-ethnic equality for a period, when majority of the Malays were living in poverty. However, as the NEP was successful in reducing poverty amongst the Malay, the expectation can no longer be fulfilled through inter-ethnic equality. Income redistribution policy must address the question of intra-ethnic (intra-Malay) inequality, but since the policy is articulated through the political rhetoric of ethnicity, it cannot respond effectively to this question. The ethnicity-oriented policy in essence becomes incoherent.
For the policy to be coherent, there must be a coherence of interests among its members. This implies that the Malays must not be deeply divided – be it socially, economically or politically. As poverty amongst the Malay has been successfully reduced under the NEP, the fact that intra-Malay inequality remained high throughout the NEP period must be an inconvenient fact. In other words, the success of the NEP has resulted in the Malays become no longer economically homogeneous as before.
There has now emerged for example, a Malay urban working class, a Malay middle
(professional) class and also a Malay business (capitalist) class. Hence, deeper social and political cleavages might have evolved within the Malay community. The Malays therefore might no longer share a common economic and political interest amongst them as before. Besides, cross-cutting cleavages might also have emerged in the society where the interests of some quarters of the Malay are coinciding with some quarters of other ethnic groups such as the Chinese and the Indians (Rae and Taylor,
1970).
As a consequent, it will be difficult to address the question of intra-Malay inequality through the political rhetoric of ethnicity. As cleavages began to appear within the
Malay community, the instruments of NEP were unable to respond to this new challenge. The political rhetoric of ethnicity is too impoverished to articulate a coherent response to the new reality that the Malays are no longer an economically homogeneous community. The political rhetoric of ethnicity is unable to articulate the interests of all the factions that existed within the Malays. The failure to address this intra-Malay distribution issue, in turn, has brought about major political crises facing the Malays today. It might also partially explain the 1999 general election, where it has been estimated that about 70 percent of the Malays voted against UMNO (see
Kamaruddin Jaafar, 2000, p. 27). Thus, while the success of the NEP might have raised expectation for the continuation of the pro-Bumiputera policy, the policy is now not only incoherent for development of the Malays (Bumiputera), it also might no longer draw considerable support from them as before.
VII. Conclusions
A desire to develop a country where inequality between ethnic groups is significant raises the question of the way to achieve it. The ethnicity-oriented policy, a policy that focuses on reducing inter-ethnic inequality appears to provide a solution. It follows that what matters for this approach with regards to equality is the equality is

20

between groups rather than between individuals. In this paper, the economic policy that aimed at improving the economic position of the Malay ethnic group in Malaysia is examined.
It has been shown that since the 1970s, Malaysia has achieved a remarkable growth and development. The economic structure of the country has also been transformed from dependence on agriculture to a more broadly based economy. An exceptional success has been made in poverty eradication. These successes have been made against the background of political rhetoric of ethnicity. However, the policy of distributing income on an ethnic basis succeeded in the initial years because the poor were overwhelmingly from the Malay community. However, this rhetoric has made it difficult for the government to respond to intra-Malay inequality when the poor were no longer entirely from the Malay ethnic group. The policy cannot respond effectively to the new problem of high intra-Malay inequality, which in effect results from the policy itself. Internal contradictions of the policy become more and more apparent as the government pressed on with continuing the policy to develop the Malay ethnic group. Indeed, this internal contradiction might explain the current political turmoil in
Malaysia. It is shown here that a policy that is sustained through the rhetoric of ethnicity has become obsolete due to the policy’s own successes.

21

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