A Tribute To Zainal Aznam, A Malaysian Economist

The nation suffered a great loss on 30 April 2011 when Dato’ Dr. Zainal Aznam Yusof, a Malaysian economist, passed away suddenly due to  a massive heart attack. King Chai reflects on Dr. Zainal’s proposal to establish an Equal Opportunities Commission in Part 1 of the New Economic Model.

On 30 April 2011, I was just ordering dinner at the food court at MidValley after watching Source Code. And I received an SMS from a friend in Bangi that simply read, “ Dude.tau cerita x?.al fatihah, zainal aznam meninggal dah..” I nearly dropped the Pepper Lunch Express that I ordered (Beef Pepper Rice with egg). I shall not reproduce my reply to my friend because, well, being in shock, uncontrollable words and expletives were typed out.

Just a quick back story to why I’m in a deep state of shock over the news of the passing of Dato’ Dr. Zainal Aznam, a member of the National Economic Advisory Council. Just a couple of months ago, I received an invitation from Wan Saiful Wan Jan, CEO of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) to be a student panelist for a discussion forum on economic liberalization in Malaysia (more specifically through the NEM and ETP) in conjunction with the celebration of their first anniversary on 8 February 2011.

Naturally, I said yes immediately, knowing very well that it will be an intense learning experience for me because it was my first time speaking as panelist for any forum. Dr. Zainal was one of the panelists as well, representing the National Economic Advisory Council, to speak from his perspective as one of the brain behind the NEM.

The writer (2nd from left), and the late Zainal Aznam (centre). | Photo by King Chai @ LoyarBurok

The writer (2nd from left), and the late Zainal Aznam (centre). | Photo by King Chai @ LoyarBurok

It was in the course of the heated debate between himself and Chris Tan, Director of Electrical & Electronic from PEMANDU regarding the implementation and execution of the NEM & ETP that Dr. Zainal revealed that the proposed Equal Opportunity Commission (intended to correct inequality of opportunity due to racial discrimination or mistakes of the system) in Part 1 of the NEM, that was eventually abolished and the idea thrown out of Part 2 of the NEM.

He was unhappy with the fact that there wasn’t clear commitment or intention to fully carry out the implementation of the Equal Opportunity Commission from Part 1 of the NEM, because it was an idea that he sincerely believe could mean equal opportunity for all Malaysians, regardless of race, religion or creed to pursue happiness and economic prosperity in this country, filled with multitudes of opportunity.

When Part 1 of the NEM was announced by the Prime Minister, Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Razak in March 2010, I was really surprised that there was a clear deafening silence from the proposal with regards to the 30% equity of economic ownership of the Bumiputera (a legacy from the New Economic Policy 1971-1990) and a daring move towards the establishment of an Equal Opportunity Commission.

The reason why the EOC stood out to me is because it was a deliberate shift of affirmative action from being a hard-quota race-based policy towards focusing the bottom 40% of society. I’m not saying that the New Economic Policy (NEP) has failed, because there is a certain degree of success observed such as the increase of economic ownership of the Bumiputera, even though it has failed to achieve its target of 30% economic ownership by the Bumiputera.

Through my undergraduate studies, I tried my best to understand and dissect the NEP using John Rawls’ theory of justice as an analytical tool to understand affirmative action economic programs, such as those carried out under Perbadanan Nasional Berhad and the Urban Development Authority. For example, there were loans, business infrastructure development, free training and consulting aimed at the emerging Bumiputera middle class in order for them to be able to compete on equal grounds with the rest of the market players (not just the Chinese mind you, there were a lot of European businesses as well), who are more established in the market due to economic policies inherited from our colonial masters.

Through a very narrow interpretation of Rawlsian principles of justice, it is important to note that John Rawls acknowledged the fact that inequality exists in all economic and social standings in the society due to different choices or opportunities in life, beyond anyone’s control. In fact, there must be an equal scheme of liberty or freedom for each individual to strive for these higher positions and the opportunity to compete and achieve such positions must also be equal and viable for everyone.

This is what is meant by that concept of  fair equality of opportunity and I must concur with Dr. Zainal’s proposal in Part 1 of NEM that the establishment of the EOC is crucial in promoting a need-based affirmative action policy which aims to increase the chances or opportunities for those sidelined by the NEP to be able to compete on equal grounds to achieve higher economic or social standings in the society.

Note that when I say “an equal opportunity to compete for higher economic or social standings in the society”, what I mean is that everyone should be given the chance to start at the same starting point and it would then be entirely up to their own efforts and merit that will put them ahead of everyone else competing for higher economic and social standings as well. Although the idea of meritocracy is not new in this country, Dr. Zainal’s steadfast commitment and ability to propose a practical framework of application through the EOC have managed to raise even more awareness amongst Malaysians regarding the importance of putting the nation’s interest above everything else.

Therefore, I shall end this article with a quote from Dr. Zainal, published in The Edge:

After more than 50 years of independent growth, we are no closer to being racially blind… Current and future conflicts in Malaysia will be fuelled more by an outraged sense of inequality and unfairness in economic opportunities, and by dangerous politicians on both sides of the political divide.

Rest in peace, sir.

King Chai is a final-year political science student from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, who has finally completed and submitted his undergraduate thesis titled “John Rawls’ Theory of Justice: An Analysis on Affirmative Action under the New Economic Policy from 1971-1990.” He is looking forward to further pursue his research in Rawlsian justice for his graduate studies.

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King Chai is a Chevening Scholar currently pursuing an MSc. in Political Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Contrary to popular belief, he is still mindlessly a loyal minion of His Supreme Eminenceness Lord Bobo Barnabus, The Wonder Typewriting Monkey, who exists solely in cyberspace and is the simian behind LoyarBurok.com. King Chai is also one of the UKM4 and tweets at @woonkingchai.

Posted on 3 May 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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4 Responses to A Tribute To Zainal Aznam, A Malaysian Economist

  1. Tan Zi Hao

    Meritocracy seems to promote equality regardless of an individual's race. But it doesn't yet answer the challenge of multiculturalism. Meritocracy escapes the scrutiny of an individual's background, it is a democracy concerning the "presence" and overlooks the "past" (tradition, culture, history and power-relation). This negligence, impartiality or blindness could end up defining a "merit" that reproduces inequality – where merit becomes a role-play of power per se.

    Considering this, what would be your personal view?

  2. Pepper Lim

    Farewell Uncle Nam. It was fun playing in a band with you.


  3. Dils

    Hope that his passing will not be in vain and that more people who stand for his theory and outlook would be bold enough to voice out their opinions and believes in regards to the concept of meritocracy and racial blindless. He is a great loss to us Malaysians and he will be dearly missed by every heart that believes in fairness and equality.

  4. Bobo Malaya


    Tapi poyo la King Chai.