When former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad said in typical acerbic but unsubstantiated fashion that Malay rights, privileges and position would be affected if the opposition were returned in Selangor, it begged two other questions.
What did he do for the ordinary Malay during the long 22 years he was in power from 1981 to 2003, and how much was he responsible for the lack of their progress? And to broaden the question further, how much has Umno done for the Malay on the street and in the kampong?
A good starting point to answer the question is to look back at the New Economic Policy (NEP) of the seventies which provided the framework and target for economic redress between the races. The noble twin aims of the policy which few argued with were the eradication of poverty irrespective of race and the elimination of identification of race with economic function.
This restructuring was supposed to have come from an increasing economic cake so that no community would feel deprived from the process which would be made over 20 years.
But the reality was different. While there was much effort in equalisation of opportunities initially through education of Malays and giving them chances for jobs in the government service and the private sector, the policy morphed into one that focused on equalisation of outcomes instead.
This resulted in drops in educational standards and minimum qualifications to accommodate weaker students instead of helping weaker students to cross existing bars by increased and better tuition.
The push to get more Malay teachers into the education system by lowering standards resulted in a plunge in teaching standards and led to the current problem that we have of poor teaching to weak students. Standards had to be dropped to ensure more students passed, resulting in a deteriorating public education system right from the bottom to the top.
The national education system now is much worse than it was before and directly affected Malays most of whom depend on this system to get their educational qualifications. The quality of graduates from our public universities deteriorated so much so that thousands of them, mostly Malays, are unemployable.
There was a misplaced emphasis on displacing English in the education system, a role prominently played by Mahathir in the early years, eventually to the detriment of the Malays, most of whom were in the national schools. Even as Umno politicians decried English, many of them sent their children to private schools and overseas for an English-based education.
In government, Malays were prematurely promoted over their non-Malay counterparts, many of whom were much more experienced and competent, to the detriment and efficiency of the civil service. The imbalance has been more than rectified with the scales now tipping in the opposite direction with much less non-Malays in government especially at top levels.
The NEP in the process was perverted and the common standard for its success became the 30% target for Malay/bumiputra ownership in companies, the measurement of which remains substantially flawed. For most Malays, this figure was meaningless because they had no corporate ownership, except perhaps for those who were able to subscribe for shares in the national unit trust scheme, Amanah Saham Nasional.
In the corporate sector, companies were forced to divest 30% of their stakes to bumiputras raising possibility of abuses through patronage and front companies which were bumiputra only in name.
Government contracts were given to Malay companies many of whom did not have the capability or capacity to undertake them, bringing in other partners to do the job They earned the moniker “Ali Baba” whereby the contracts are obtained by Malay companies while the work was done by others.
Standards were dropped to enable bumiputra contractors to get approval for the projects and there was a substantial fall in the quality of work done over the years even as costs increased.
Mahathir himself lamented that there were as many as half a dozen sub-contracts, leaving the final person who does the job very little profit margins and therefore turning out substandard work. But he did nothing to stop it during his time.
Instead he quite publicly stated that there was a need to create a bumiputra business class, including some billionaires. He went about assiduously to do just that, with initial prime beneficiaries being the former finance minister Daim Zainuddin and his cronies and subsequently extending to others during his later years in power as he reportedly fell out with Daim.
Mahathir deliberately used the privatisation process to dish out prime concessions such as roads, mobile licences, independent power production, water services and others to private businessmen at concessionary rates, directly putting valuable government resources into private hands at very low prices.
Corruption and patronage led to leakages of government resources to an array of favoured businessmen, Malay and non-Malay, through negotiated tenders, outright grant (instead of auction) of licences, and land transfers and conversions. Instant millionaires and some billionaires were created in matter of a few years.
The goal of re-distributing an increasing economic pie were subverted through these leakages as much of the government resources which should have been channelled back to the people – and especially the poor, most of whom were Malays – were diverted to the moneyed class.
Over the years, Umno has transformed from a party of teachers to one dominated by businessmen most of whom are dependent on government contracts and handouts for their income and lavish lifestyles.
The Umno elite still champion Malay rights but they do so to remain in power so that they will get the benefits of all the perversion of the NEP that has happened and even if it means they deprive and impoverish the very race that they purport to help.
Has Umno helped Malays?
Yes, but some of them very much more so than others.
The tragedy of Umno is that it has neglected the vast majority of Malays despite the huge mandate the community gave the party all these years.
The reason for that in one word is this: Corruption.