The Malays in Business–Summing Up

October 21, 2018

The Malays in Business–Summing Up    

by  Dr. M.Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California

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Dr. The many soft barriers to Malay participation in commerce such as our poor quality of human capital and inadequate financial capital are at least correctable. Build better schools and have credit facilities a la Grameen’s micro-credit, for example.

Others are more problematic. The World Bank’s 2014 Report places Malaysia among the top ten in terms of ease of starting a business. However, ask a Malay would-be (or any small) businessman on the obstacles he faces, and you get a different picture.

The Bank studied only major corporations with their lawyers, accountants, and consultants. If you are a hawker dealing with City Hall, Kuala Lumpur, be prepared for the “hassle” factors. Witness the annual circus for its Ramadan stalls. The government is doing everything to discourge Malays at this most basic level.

I cringe whenever I see overzealous Bandaraya enforcers evict hawkers and destroy their stalls. We should be nurturing their enterprising spirit. If they are blocking traffic, provide alternate spaces. If their standard of hygiene is appalling and poses significant public health dangers, then supply portable water, cheap power, and help improve the physical facilities.

If they are successful, the government would save in not having to pay for their welfare. They would also not be tempted to protest on the streets. Their would then employ their teenage sons, reducing the Mat Rempit menace. Most of all they would gain self-respect.

Another elemental enterprise is driving taxis. Malaysian taxi drivers are at the bottom of capitalism’s food chain. In addition to high operating costs, he has to lease the license from a politician, pay usurious interest rates to buy his vehicle, and pay retail for its maintainence. Imagine if taxi licenses were given only to owner-operators and they have a co-op and could enjoy fleet discounts for their cars and servicing. You would remove or reduce two or three layers of costs, thus enhancing their income.

When Malaysian policymakers think of grooming entrepreneurs, they aspire producing a local Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, or Jack Ma. Those are outlyers, the black swans of entrepreneurs. You cannot groom them; they are in their own class. Focus on simple hawkers and taxi drivers. Begin at this most elemental level where mistakes would be less costly and the consequences less damaging. If you begin with multibillion-dollar GLCs, you are courting disaster. Witness the still evolving 1MDB saga.

This urge to start or think big right away when you are ill equipped with respect to talent, skills, experience, or social structure comes in the way of grooming Malay entrepreneurs. There are others.


One is exemplified by a recent video clip going viral on social media of a Malay salesgirl at a convenience store refusing to scan a beer bought by her customer. Her excuse? Alcohol is haram. Her personal salvation was more important than doing what she was paid to do–attend to her customers. What a misguided interpretation of our religion. More startling, her superior, also a Malay, defended her! I had expected him to at least apologize to their customer.

When these obstacles are cited, they elicit smug smiles from non-Malays, confirming for them the many presumed deficiencies of Malay culture. This apparent cultural aversion to commerce is not unique unto Malays. In ancient China and Japan, traders and merchants were in the lowest social class. They did not produce anything, unlike farmers who were held second only to scholars.

Expectations too are important. Make it too rosy and you set yourself up for failure. Be too pessimistic and you discourage many from even trying.

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Malay leaders endlessly exhort their followers to emulate the Chinese tycoons. “Be like them!” is the endless nauseating line. If Malays were to be reminded not of the Robert Kuoks and Vincent Tans, but those Chinese who early in the last century idled their time smoking opium, frolicking with prostitutes, and endlessly dreaming of Balik Tongsan, then Malays would have a more realistic appreciation of the hard work needed to be successful. Better yet, translate Robert Kuok’s biography into Malay!

Many Malay entrepreneurs failed because they assumed that securing the contracts, permits, and loans was all they needed. They were under the misguided impression that the hard part was over, when in reality it had just begun.

The crucial question arises. How did this negative mindset get embedded among Malays? Current “successful” Malay entrepreneurs and their policymaker enablers bear much of the responsibility for this virulent socioeconomic malignancy.

It afflicts not just small-time village entrepreneurs. In the early 1980s I was involved with a group of bright young Malay doctors in starting a group practice in Malaysia. They already had a thriving practice, and one of its leaders was high up in UMNO. He was the rainmaker, and a very productive one, securing major contracts from federal agencies, GLCs, and other big corporations.

I visited their facilities and was impressed. Their waiting rooms were packed. The government too was eager to support the group as it was among the few made up of mostly Malay doctors.

Beyond that favorable first impression I was stunned to discover that they had no formal agreement. Their working relationship was:  “We trust each other; we are Malays!” To make matters worse, the rainmaker was busy with his political aspirations.

To make a long story short, I did not join. That proved prescient. Shortly thereafter the key players left to set up competing practices across the street. Incredibly, they had no “non-compete” clause preventing them from doing so. As for the rainmaker’s political career, that too went downhill. He thought that running a group practice was simple–just get the doctors and the contracts!

Those bright young doctors were no different from the simple villagers as far as their business acumen or expectations were concerned. This is what I mean by the soft obstacles being much more formidable.

9 thoughts on “The Malays in Business–Summing Up

  1. The Malaysian Chinese are economic ants, to quote Robert Kuok, and the Malays? Well, I think the the British colonisers and UMNO via the New Economic Policy (since 1970 and counting) turned them into easy going grasshoppers, living off a nanny state. It is time to challenge them, in stead of pampering them.

    It will take political courage to adopt Kuok’s 1975 policy advice to Prime Minister Tun Hussein Onn.–Din Merican

  2. Readers maybe be interested to go to syedsoutsidethe to read more on this subject by Syed Akbar Ali. After 61 years of independence, there are still Malaysians who think that the world owe them a living. There are, on the other hand, people born in Indonesia who claims to be born in Malaysia.

    • Especially the self-proclaimed Malay born of humble stock in Ponorogol (I mean Ponorogo), Java who will soon languish in a lice-infested cell in Bamboo River. I proffer no clues to guess his name.

  3. I think the authorities have been very lenient with the hawkers and petty traders in KL in general and other parts of Malaysia in general. In KL these hawkers open up stalls on the pedestrian walkways in the central business district in the mornings blocking pedestrian on their way to work. I don’t think these hawkers have permits or business licenses and hygiene is suspect as the food are cooked at home. Note the recent breakout of salmonella at a laksa stall in Baling where 2 people have died and over 80 hospitalised.

    Then theres the other street vendors who refuse to occupy the food courts set up by the Municipalities and instead continue to operate wherever they wish. I support free enterprise but they come with certain restrictions and conditions for the health and safety of the public. Apart from the availability of running water then theres the rubbish left behind by these street vendors. They don’t bother to clean up after themselves and leave rubbish strewn all over.

    Taxis are another story. Many drivers are mercenary and opportunistic and scalpers. Over the years I have observed personally and even experienced personally how these drivers try to cheat passengers by quoting excessive fares and refusing to use the meters. On one occassion I was observing a driver quoting a Middle Eastern familyy RM 400 for a one way trip from a hotel in KL to Sunway Lagoon. Then one driver asked me for RM 70 for a ride from KL Sentral to a hotel in Bukit Bintang. He thought I was a foreigner. The sad thing is these scalpers are mostly Malays. I understand they have to pay for all sorts of licenses, fees and monies to the permit holders but thats the cost of doing business. Yes its about time the government issue taxi permits to owner/driver instead of cronies. The taxi drivers should also keep up with the times and perhaps emulate or join Uber or Grab cars.

    • While we applaud the spirit of bedikiri, the authourities must ensure that those who are handling food are subject to going for health checks to ensure that they are not disease carriers and that they uphold hygience standards.

    • One other point, taxi drivers treat it as a job rather than a business opportunities, thus the lack luster in performance. They see it as an extension of their military career after retirement and driving taxis is the easiest option.

  4. A British Writer, Hall by name who wrote History on Southeast Asian Nations in the 50s and that book was used as a Textbook in schools in the 60s and up to the end of 70s in the Cambridge Overseas School Certificate Examination in Secondary Schools of Malaya. He vividly with his farsightedness mentioned ‘Malays are lazy’ in Malaya. His argument was that they were satisfied with their living by planting padi and doing little barter trade to survive day to day while other races showed interest in their progress economically for better earnings to improve their livelihood. This was disputed later generation of Malay students and the pages from that textbooks were torn and in certain cases, books were burnt by some extremist students at our Varsities.

    After 61 years, still there are some Malays who still fight for their ‘handouts’ from government and our National Leaders have been obliging them, obviously for their political survival giving the reason as Malays need ‘Affirmative Action’ of the government to live under the NEP. This has spoiled them to work harder to compete in life with other races. There are Malays of course have improved leaps and bounds in their wellbeing after improving their education and have become professionals. Do you still want their children and grandchildren to be taken care with this so called affirmative action for Malays? It is the mindset of these Malays pushed forward to improve economically and financially without the crutches.

    “Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever.”
    “The future depends on what you do today.”
    Mahatma Gandhi

  5. The extension of NEP or in other name for another 30 years clearly shows the policies had failed from exploitation at all cost by some Malay/Muslim political parties and self interest groups.

    Most of these unscrupulous and shameless ‘ entitled or privileged people ‘ do not know the real challenges and numerous risks of running a small business. They want to take whatever they want with no consideration for others like Goldilocks – comes into your house, breaks your furniture, has a nap then nicks off.

    Imagine what these Malay/Muslim could achieve if they were to put all their time, energy and hard work into business like they did in politics of race, religion, language etc..But they won’t because the present toxic and corrupt political environment makes their political careers very rewarding.

    • If you expect to be piggybacked and do not use your appendages, soon you will find that you cannot walk without clutches nor use your hands for any DIY.

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