Affirmative action entrenches race divide

A few weeks ago, The Economist – almost certainly the finest English-language weekly newspaper in the world – carried an editorial and accompanying article describing the consequences of policies designed to improve the lot of Malays in Malaysia, first adopted in 1971 and intended to last for just 20 years.

Those policies were introduced in response to race riots between Malays on the one hand and Indian and Chinese Malaysians on the other two years earlier.

They were quite deliberately discriminatory.  Malay incomes were on average well below those of the Indian and Chinese community and it was presumably felt that discriminating in favour of the Malays would help to rectify that imbalance.

And in one sense, the policies have been a success.  The gap in incomes between Malays and Chinese and Indian Malaysians has reduced significantly.  But almost 50 years after these discriminatory policies were introduced, and almost 30 years after they were intended to end, the policies are more deeply entrenched than ever.

 “Malays have stopped thinking of affirmative action as a temporary device to diminish inequality.  As descendants of Malaysia’s first settlers, they now consider it a right.  The result is that a system intended to quell ethnic tensions has entrenched them.”

One of the consequences of policies designed to give a preference to Malays is that “as schools, universities and the bureaucracy have become less meritocratic, Chinese and Indians have abandoned them, studying in private institutions and working in the private sector instead.  Many have left the country altogether, in a brain drain that saps economic growth.”

The Economist agreed that the “ambition to improve the lot of Malaysia’s neediest citizens is a worthy one.  But defining them by race is a mistake.  It allows a disproportionate amount of the benefits of affirmative action to accrue to well-off Malays, who can afford to buy the shares set aside for them at IPOs, for example, or to bid for the government contracts [the Prime Minister] is reserving for them.  It would be much more efficient, and less poisonous to race relations, to provide benefits based on income.  Most recipients would still be Malays.”

And that experience is surely directly relevant to New Zealand, with more and more special programmes reserved for those who chance to have a Maori ancestor. These include:

  • preferential access to medical school and some law faculties,
  • people appointed to local government committees simply because they are Maori,
  • almost every government board or agency requiring to have at least one person with a Maori ancestor,
  • government funding for Maori tourism,
  • exemption from corporate tax for the businesses arising out of Treaty settlements,
  • taxpayer funding to enable tribes to lay claim to a customary marine title for any part of the coastline that takes their fancy,
  • a special programme to help young Maori get a driving licence,
  • a requirement that Maori have special entitlement to be consulted in environmental planning laws,
  • mandatory respect for Maori spiritual values despite New Zealand’s being officially a secular society,
  • a more and more widespread insistence on involving unqualified Maori in local government decision-making,
  • local government required to pay for “capacity building” to enable these unqualified people to take part in decision-making.

As in Malaysia, these benefits were originally intended to lift the incomes of Maori New Zealanders, which on average lagged those of other New Zealanders.  But they have now come to be regarded by a great many Maori as privileges to which they are entitled by virtue of landing in New Zealand prior to European and other settlers.

And who benefits from these race-based entitlements?  Assuredly not most ordinary Maori.  The benefits appear to have gone overwhelmingly to:

  • the minority of Maori who have been able to get into med school,
  • those who have been appointed as directors of the Maori businesses which have arisen from Treaty settlements,
  • those who have been retained as legal advisers in the long-drawn out, and perhaps interminable, process of determining how much “compensation” is due for real and imagined misbehavior by governments and people long since gone.

Not only have most Maori not benefited at all from this growing affirmative action cancer, most have been positively harmed by it. 

Why?  Because it has led a great many Maori to assume that other taxpayers owe them a living, and that in due course other taxpayers will have to discharge that obligation. 

What on earth could be more demotivating than to be told, again and again and again, that your poor education, your poor housing, your low income or inability to get a job is not your responsibility at all – it’s the fault of a grossly unfair system arising from imagined injustices done to some of your great-grandparents by some of your other great-grandparents. 

It is surely not in the least surprising that far too many people with a Maori ancestor are unemployed and poorly educated – the present environment positively encourages helplessness.

It is surely significant that Maori New Zealanders who migrate to Australia often do much better than those they leave behind.  To some extent, that is because those who have the courage and the initiative to take themselves off to a new country are almost by definition those with “get up and go”, and so more likely to succeed wherever they end up. 

But I strongly suspect that part of the reason why Maori New Zealanders in Australia seem to be more economically successful than those they leave behind is that those who migrate know they can’t look to anybody but themselves for their success: the Australian government doesn’t owe them anything more than it owes other immigrants.

I have always believed that government should lend a helping hand to those who are down on their luck, hopefully in a manner that doesn’t demotivate the recipients of that help.  But it is absolutely fundamental that that help should be based on need, and not on ethnicity.

It is a huge tragedy for all New Zealanders that we appear to be on the same destructive path that Malaysia is on.  Unless we move decisively to a new path, it will not end well.