October 21, 2018
The Malays in Business–Summing Up
by Dr. M.Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California
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.
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.