Malaysia has employed an extensive, constant and embedded Bumiputera preferential regime for several decades, but in recent years, the Bumiputera Economic Transformation Programme was introduced, aimed at building capable and competitive Bumiputera businesses, and reaching out to disadvantaged Bumiputera students.
Official rhetoric and public discourse recurrently and erroneously maintain that need-based and merit-based affirmative action have replaced ethnicity-based programmes. The author proposes a systematic framework for integrating need-based selection (prioritizing the disadvantaged or limiting benefits to the already empowered) and merit-based selection (cultivating capable and competitive policy beneficiaries) as enhancements of the Bumiputera preferential regime, taking into account specific conditions and implications from three main policy spheres: higher education, high-level employment, and enterprise development.
The article then evaluates the extent need-based and merit-based selection have been incorporated into the regime. Need-based selection remains under-utilized in higher education and wealth ownership to target the disadvantaged and facilitate inter-generational upward mobility, and in enterprise development as a means to curb rent-seeking and facilitate graduation.
Merit-based selection has gradually expanded, but can be much more widely applied in all policy spheres, especially in enterprise development. Effective utilization of need and merit considerations bolsters Bumiputera empowerment, and lays foundations for graduating and exiting from overt Bumiputera preference.Formulating transitions away from the current Bumiputera preferential regime will require a systematic approach, integrated with programme-specific analysis.