Experts pin hope on coming bumi congress to drive effective change


PETALING JAYA: For three days starting tomorrow, ministers, civil servants, business and NGO leaders will convene in Putrajaya to forge a new bumiputra economic agenda that, according to one of its participants, “will hopefully be the last of its kind”.

This is because this year’s Bumiputra Economic Congress (BEC2024) is the eighth since the first in 1965, with each one having had the same aims – to end poverty among Malays and bumiputra and to increase their incomes so that they are on par with other communities.

From left: Abdul Wahid, Noor Azlan, Ahmad Shabery and Hafsah.From left: Abdul Wahid, Noor Azlan, Ahmad Shabery and Hafsah.

But after 59 years of continued bumi-centric policies, government statistics still show that those aims have not been met despite significant leaps in reducing poverty.

Even after 50 years, there is still an income gap between bumiputra and non-bumiputra households, according to data from the Economy Ministry. In 2022, the median monthly household income for a bumiputra household was RM5,793 while it was RM6,627 for Indian families and RM8,167 for Chinese families.

According to the 12th Malaysia Plan (12MP), while bumiputra made up 65.1% of all households in 2019, 71.4% of them were in the B40 or lower income group.

Even after decades of vendor development programmes to grow bumiputra businesses, they mostly remain at the medium, small and micro scale, where, according to the 12MP, they comprise 39.1% of all SMEs.

But of that number, 82.8% are at the micro level, with low value-added products and services earning less than RM300,000 a year.

Also, as of 2020, the percentage of bumiputra control of publicly listed companies was 17.2% – short of the 30% goal that has been a feature of every bumiputra policy since the mid-1970s.

So, expectations are high that this bumi congress by the unity government will finally put in place an economic agenda that overcomes the pitfalls of the past and makes the community major drivers of the economy, say observers.

“We hope that 10 years from now, we are not going to have another bumi congress ... about how we have failed to reach our targets again,” said a leader of a Malay trade group.

The congress is aimed at stopping the community from being dependent on government handouts and making them the main stakeholders of the economy, said Mara chairman Datuk Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, whose agency helps bumiputra businesses and students.

“About 5,000 participants will discuss how the bumiputra, especially the Malays, can be empowered to own a major part of the national economic pie and not just be professionals and experts in their fields,” said Asyraf last week.

The three-day meet is organised around 10 clusters, each of whom will present findings from studies in sectors and fields related to the community, according to information from the congress’s secretariat.

These clusters include higher education, corporate control, Felda and rural development, empowering Orang Asli, the socio-economy of Sabah and Sarawak, and the halal industry.

The clusters are headed by luminaries in their respective fields, such as Bursa Malaysia chairman Tan Sri Abdul Wahid Omar (wealth creation), former Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia vice-chancellor Tan Sri Dr Noor Azlan Ghazali (education reform), former CEO of SME Corp Datuk Dr Hafsah Hashim (entrepreneurial competitiveness), and Felda chairman Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek (regional development).

The findings and discussions from these 10 clusters will go into crafting the resolutions from the congress which will be presented to the government, according to the secretariat.

Past congress resolutions have resulted in concrete policies such as setting up Mara and Bank Bumiputra (which later merged with Bank of Commerce Berhad to become CIMB) that helped poor Malays access tertiary education and produce more professionals.

Similarly, the secretariat hopes that this congress will aid the government in forging a new direction to produce a bumiputra agenda that is just, fair and inclusive.

But to do that, experts argue that participants must be willing to confront the shortcomings of the past, learn from them, and be brave enough to adopt different strategies.

Studies on bumiputra policies should highlight the success stories but also be honest about their shortcomings, said former deputy Investment, Trade and Industry Minister Dr Ong Kian Ming.

For example, did government contracts benefit a large number of bumiputra contractors, or did they only benefit a small group of influential individuals, he asked.

“Only with such independent studies can existing policies be improved so that sustainable bumiputra businesses can have the space to flourish,” Ong wrote recently on his suggestions for the congress.

Another important feature that needs to be looked out for is whether the congress puts forward a robust system to monitor the implementation policies and programmes, said economist Dr Lee Hwok Aun, who has studied the bumiputra agenda extensively.

“Emphasise the ongoing need for vigilance in monitoring progress and demanding results, particularly considering the historical baggage of bumiputra policies and related unfinished business,” said Lee, the co-coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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