Source: National Economic Advisory Council (2010)

Need-based affirmative action (AA) makes no sense, much as even I want to believe in it. The notion is at best imprecise and partial, at worst incoherent and delusional.

The idea that we can replace race-based affirmative action with need-based affirmative is deeply flawed on both conceptual and practical grounds. This essay discusses the conceptual issues.

Let’s first establish a common understanding that policy-making follows a sequence, from setting objectives to evaluating options toward attaining those objectives, then selecting the most appropriate and effective measures. This order of things will be widely accepted, but is rather elusive in our thinking on affirmative action, where objectives and policies tend to be muddled.

At the conceptual level, affirmative action has a specific objective: to increase the participation of a disadvantaged group, in Malaysia’s case a race group, in positions that confer social esteem and economic influence – tertiary education, high-level occupations, asset ownership.

The framers of the New Economic Policy (NEP) got it right in setting out the policy’s two prongs: (1) to eradicate poverty irrespective of race; (2) to accelerate the restructuring of society to reduce and eventually eliminate the identification of race with economic function. The second prong corresponds with affirmative action. Bumiputeras were overwhelmingly under-represented in the ranks of university graduates, managers and professionals, and equity owners.

Affirmative action is principally not about poverty alleviation or need-based redistribution. At root, it aims to empower a disadvantaged group through elevating individuals from that group to positions in the upper rungs of the educational and occupational ladders.

Helping the poor, and redistributing income through progressive socio-economic programmes in general, addresses more basic provisions and derives in a fairly straightforward manner from the principle of need.

The question does arise, why not target the poor, since most of the poor are Bumiputera anyway? This line of thought is appealing, but acutely misguided. Targeting the poor purely on socio-economic grounds surely helps the Bumiputera poor, such as through improving public schooling, infrastructure, and boosting rural economies. However, do these address the problem of Bumiputera access to and attainment of tertiary education and upper-level occupations? Not really.

If poverty is the primary problem, then pro-poor policies are the direct solutions. But where group under-representation is the primary problem, other solutions are called for. There is undoubtedly some overlap. For instance, fixing schools in poor regions would augment prospects for youth to enter university and move up the occupational ladder. This is possible, but only indirectly and slowly.

Regrettably, we would rather replace the rhetoric, evade the sensitive part, and make believe we are replacing the system. If only we could. It’s odd, though, that we do this about affirmative action but not other policies. I do not hear anyone advocating an end to rural poverty programs and just doing general poverty alleviation. A parallel argument could be made: since most of the poor live in rural areas, do away with rural development. Just do income-targeted programs and the rural poor will benefit disproportionately more. No, we do not apply this logic, because we recognize that rural poverty demands specific rural-based policies.

But there’s an even harder truth: affirmative action is inherently discriminatory. It confers preference toward a beneficiary group. The areas of intervention are characterized by structural barriers to entry – grade points for university admissions, tertiary-level qualifications for professional work, on-the-job experience for promotion to management.

Affirmative action is premised on the requirement that some degree of preference be accorded in favour of the disadvantaged group, who lack the requisite qualifications, past opportunities or work experience to compete on an equal footing. Over time, the preferential selection should diminish.

This is controversial, and agonizingly difficult to accomplish, yet I don’t know of a credible alternative. So it must be done, but it must be done productively, effectively and temporarily.

The case for AA is stronger in productive spheres, and weaker in areas potentially corrupted by acquisitive behaviour, such as equity and wealth ownership. Effective affirmative action demands focus on developing capability and self-reliance, especially through attaining tertiary education and accumulating work experience.

For practical reasons, in addition to conceptual coherence explained earlier, affirmative action is executable primarily as a race-based programme. Need-based considerations can reinforce AA, but to a limited extent.

For AA to be effective, we should select those within the beneficiary group who are most capable of coping with the challenges of upward mobility. The implications vary by sector. In education, the scope for giving preference to the poor is broader, and family background is a legitimate criterion for assessing young dependents’ admission to university. However, while we want more youth from poor families to attain tertiary education, we must acknowledge that they are on average less equipped than middle and upper class kids to handle tertiary level study.

In employment, the scope of need-based considerations is more limited, if not impossible. Need-based AA in employment would entail employers granting preference in hiring and promoting professionals and managers on the basis of socio-economic background. Such a scheme would consume an inordinate amount of resources to process an extra dollop of information – imagine employers having to verify and evaluate applicants’ parents’ income and assets to determine who’s poorer and should be given priority. It would also conflict with the principle that working adults are independent from their parents and responsible for themselves.

In other words, for the purpose of increasing Bumiputera representation in professional and management positions, the choice is simple: either some form of race-based affirmative action, or no affirmative action.

So why are we entertaining the delusion that need-based AA can replace race-based AA? Let me suggest three reasons.

First, as discussed above, race-based AA is a “sensitive” topic. We wish it away. It stays.

Second, race-based AA has become a blunt and abused instrument. Yes it has, which makes us further want to wish it away and focus on other instruments. But those other instruments (poverty alleviation) are fixing other problems (poverty). We have ignored the core AA programmes – matriculation colleges, university admissions quotas, public sector employment – that are entrenched and unchanged (while somehow believing that AA is being reformed). Yet these are stifling Bumiputera advancement and diminishing the effectiveness of AA in recent times, and are the institutions in greatest need of real, gritty reform.

Third, we have mistaken the racialization of anti-poverty measures as a form of affirmative action. We have come to think that the greater help extended to the Bumiputera poor over the Indian poor, to take a popular example, amounts to AA. Thus, to deracialize poverty alleviation is to reform AA. Let’s not fall into such erroneous thinking. Where pro-poor schemes have become racialized, that’s because racial politics and power abuse undermined what are essentially race-blind programmes. Removing racial elements is not a reform of affirmative action; it is a repair job, a restoration of pro-poor policies to what they are supposed to be.

Make no mistake, I am not proposing that we maintain the status quo. Far from it, I am saying we must pay critical attention to neglected issues and ask tougher questions about the current AA regime.

For a start, put need-based and race-based policies in their proper perspective. Need-based poverty alleviation is conceptually and practically distinct from race-based affirmative action. Need-based AA cannot replace race-based AA. However, we can and must reinforce AA, where pertinent, by incorporating socio-economic considerations prioritizing poor Bumiputera over well-to-do Bumiputera.

Next, we need to make race-based AA more effective. This begins by addressing shortcomings in the education system, especially the matriculation programmes and under-challenging environments that most Bumiputera graduates pass through. Beneficiaries must be imbued with self-confidence and a responsibility to excel because preference will be temporary, rather than unthinking loyalty to a party-state seeking permanent patronage.

This shift in attitude and educational content is necessary to lay the groundwork for negotiating a clear and steady plan for rolling back the current affirmative action regime and finding ways to balance the principles of diversity/multiculturalism, equity, and equal opportunity – which I believe we will continually need to safeguard. Right now we are either ignoring critical issues, or perpetuating a polarized stand-off, between those defending the privileged status quo without assessing the downside versus those demanding meritocracy without thinking of viability.

Of course, some will ask whether it is viable at all to transform affirmative action.

I don’t know. But I do know that we are still not asking the right questions.