The Future of Affirmative Action

Keynote Speaker
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad


  1. Sen. Dato’ Dr. Firdaus Hj. Abdullah
  2. Dr. Lee Hwok Aun, UM
  3. Steven CM Wong, ISIS
  4. Assoc. Prof. Dr. Shaharuddin Badaruddin (Moderator)


Affirmative action refers to policies that take factors such as race, skin colour, religion, gender, or national origin into consideration in order to benefit disadvantaged or under-represented groups in areas of employment, education, and business.  The term was first used in the United States in the Executive Order 10925, signed by President John F. Kennedy on 6 March 1961. Comparable procedures are found in other countries, among them are: Reservation in India, positive discrimination in the United Kingdom, and employment equity in Canada.  Affirmative action is intended to promote equal opportunity and is often instituted in government and educational settings to ensure that disadvantaged groups within a society are included in all programmes.

In Malaysia, affirmative actions are directed towards achieving stability in the country by reducing, among others, economic and social gaps.  These are achieved through the New Economic Policy (NEP), a 20-year programme formulated with the overriding objective of attaining national unity and fostering nation building through the two-pronged strategy of eradicating poverty and restructuring society. When the NEP was launched in 1971, more than half of the people in Peninsular Malaysia were poor while the national figure was even higher. Also, the incidence of poverty among Bumiputera was the highest compared with other ethnic groups.  The first prong of the policy strategy was thus to eradicate poverty.  The second prong sought to restructure society by eliminating the identification of race with economic function. This objective was to be achieved through the restructuring of employment pattern, ownership of share capital in the corporate sector and the creation of Bumiputera Commercial and Industrial Community (BCIC). Since the Bumiputera were highly concentrated in the traditional agricultural sector and in low income job categories, the absorption of the Bumiputera in the industrial and services sectors was to be accelerated.  

What were the good things that came from the NEP?  There are quite a number.  First and foremost, at the end of the NEP period, the incidence of poverty was reduced substantially from almost 50 per cent to slightly below 20 percent, and was further reduced to less than five percent at the end of 2009. The Bumiputera share of corporate stock ownership rose from 1.5 percent in 1969 to 18 percent in 1990 and slightly over 20 per cent in 2008, but still far short of the 30 percent target set in 1970.  Other achievements of the NEP includes substantial increase of Bumiputera employed in the industrial sector like mining, manufacturing, construction as well as in the professional and technical categories and at the administrative and managerial levels.  In conclusion, the most important positive outcome of the NEP is the eradication of poverty across all ethnic groups.  However, no policy or programme is perfect.  Recent statistics show that some minority groups, including the Indian communities, are still economically disadvantaged.

The NEP has since been replaced by the National Development Policy (NDP) associated with the Second Outline Perspective Plan (OPP2) for 1991-2000, and then by the National Vision Policy linked to the Third Outline Perspective Plan (OPP3) for 2001-2010. Now, in 2012, more than 40 years after NEP was first launched, the challenge of achieving the objectives remains as there is still a lot that needs to be done to ensure that all Malaysians benefit from the policy and there is no abuse. Claims of abuse refer to cases of undeserving individuals who have enough capacity to fend for themselves but have been benefitting from the NEP, meant for the needy.

Questions to think about:

  1. Are the objectives of NEP fully achieved? If yes, what is the evidence?
  2. What are the indicators of success for affirmative action in Malaysia?
  3. How do we ensure that any affirmative action policy is not abused?
  4. Should affirmative action plans continue? If yes, in what form?
  5. What should be the focal points of future affirmative action?
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