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Malaysian PM Says Affirmative Action Policy Still Needed To Ensure Unity

Malaysia’s leader defended the country’s decades-old
affirmative action policy for majority Malays, saying Tuesday it was still
needed to narrow income disparity among ethnic groups and ensure national

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi acknowledged the
37-year-old New Economic Policy that gives a host of privileges in jobs,
education, business and other areas to ethnic Malays had been widely regarded
as a “cost to doing business” in Malaysia.

“But many fail to appreciate the spirit behind the
policy,” Abdullah, who is also finance minister, told an economic
conference in Kuala Lumpur.

“The objective to disassociate race from occupation or
social standing is critical in ensuring the long-term unity and cohesion of our
country,” he said.

Europe’s envoy to Malaysia, Thierry Rommel, last month criticized
the policy, or NEP, as discriminatory and
amounting to protectionism against foreign companies. Rommel also warned the NEP
could thwart free trade talks between the European Union and the 10-member
Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Malaysia.

Rommel’s comments angered the government and sparked calls
for lawmakers to review the NEP.

Abdullah said it was the NEP
that led to stability in Malaysia during the Asian financial crisis a decade
ago and spared it from racial riots.

“The expansion of an educated and multiethnic middle
class, thanks to affirmative action policies, had mitigated the risk of mass
unrest but great disparities in income and social mobility still exist between
ethnic groups,” he said.

“Whereas this may be just another issue in other
countries, ethnic-based disparity strikes at the heart of national unity for

The NEP was started in
1970 when corporate ownership by ethnic Malays who make up about 60 percent of
Malaysia’s 26 million people was 2 percent. The aim is to raise Malay corporate
ownership to 30 percent by 2010; it stands at 19 percent now.

Many Malays have complained the policy has benefited only a
few well-connected people. Minority Chinese and Indians, as well as foreigners,
also see the NEP as a discriminatory tool.

Chinese, who form a quarter of the population, control 40
percent of corporate wealth.

– Associated Press

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