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Singapore lifted the largest number of people out of poverty, in an equitable way, which helped provide the glue to a new national identity, writes William Gumede.
As the astonishing mismanagement of the economy, rising
corruption and poor public services cause ever more anxiety, anger and
hopelessness (which have in turn unleashed a new wave of ethnic tribalism,
racism and populism, threatening Nelson Mandela's dream of a rainbow nation for
South Africa) Singapore and Malaysia offer two contrasting routes to
nation-building in diverse societies.
Malaysia (then called Malaya) and Singapore used to be
twinned as the Malaysian Federation, before each went their own way over
differences over the route to nation-building for an ethnically diverse
society, with race-based inequalities.
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Singapore has an ethnically diverse society, with the
Chinese community at independence making up 77%, Malays 14%, Indians 7.7% and
mixed groups around 1.3% of the population. In Singapore, at independence, the
Malay-Muslim community was the largest minority, the least educated and
dominated low-skilled jobs.
Malaysia consisted of 54% of Malayans, non-Malay indigenous
groups consisted of 12%, Chinese 25% and Indians 7%. At independence
Chinese-Malaysians, based in the urban areas, dominated the economy, while
Muslim Malays, mostly in the rural areas, were poorer.
Malays of indigenous origin were called bumiputra. Before
and after colonialism, different ethnic groups have clashed deadly in both
Singapore and Malaysia.
In Malaysia, the Malaya dominated United Malays National
Organisation (UMNO), has been in a coalition with the ethnic-based Chinese
party, the Malayan Chinese Association and the ethnic based India party, the
Malayan Indian Congress, in what was initially called the UMNO-led Alliance,
after it was renamed the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (or National Front).
Separately in Singapore, Chinese figures joined forces with
the communists, trade unions and business groups to establish the People's
Action Party (PAP). The PAP, under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew was
established as a broad "catch-all" party: multi-class, multi-racial
Differences between the UMNO-led Alliance Party and the PAP
of Singapore over how to deal with Malaysia's ethnic differences eventually
would cause the Malaysian federal parliament in late 1964 to expel Singapore
from the federation.
The Singapore PAP and the Malaysian UMNO-led Alliance had
opposing positions on multiracialism. The UMNO pushed for an "inter-ethnic
bargaining model", in which Malays would be dominant in political, public
and cultural life, but with equal rights for non-Malays.
In 1970, Malays occupied 22% of management positions in the
private sector, 39% of management in the public sector. Foreigners owned 62% of
share capital of companies, while Malaysian Chinese and Indians owned 28% and
1.5% was owned by Malays.
The Malaysian constitution provides for "special
position" for Malays and natives of the Sabah and Sarawak regions making
provision for quotas in employment, business and leadership for these
communities to empower them.
Prior to independence from Britain in 1957, the official
language of Malaya was English. The UMNO Alliance Party pushed for Bahasa
Malaysia – spoken by the majority Malayans – to be the main language of
independent Malaysia, to be used in government. The Malaysian constitution also
established Malaysia officially as an Islamic nation, in spite of the other
communities being non-Muslim.
The Malaysian government introduced affirmative action and
economic empowerment for Malays in 1971, as part of its New Economic Policy
(NEP). The NEP rested on two pillars, one on pro-poor policies, such as
infrastructure development and public service delivery; and the other based on
affirmative action and economic empowerment. The redistribution programmes were
to end after 20 years – although it has continued longer.
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The UMNO-led governing party focused on redistributing
current assets, giving preferential business licences and government contracts
to Malays – economic empowerment programmes and affirmative action in the
public sector. They could get discounts on property purchases, and reserved
shares in public share offerings of companies and entry quotas at universities.
Generally, affirmative action and economic empowerment
provisions were not compulsory in the private sector. Over time, the public
sector was dominated by Malays and the private sector by other groups. By 1990,
poverty in Malaysia was slashed from 50% at independence to 17%. Company share
ownership by bumiputra – poor Malayans, rose from 1.5% to 18%.
However, criticisms of affirmative action and economic
empowerment abound. Affirmative action expanded the middle class, but did not
benefit the majority of bumiputras. But a "very small minority have
enjoyed superlative gains".
It has undermined entrepreneurship as many Malaysians either
secure soft loans and easy share ownership or serve as middle-men facilitating
government contracts. Many non-Malay entrepreneurs and talented professionals
have migrated, feeling there is no space for them.
Public higher education where quotas exist for Malays, is
now mostly populated by Malays. Private higher education, where no quotas
exist, is now primarily populated by non-Malays. Furthermore, the public sector
is mostly populated by Malays, while the private sector is dominated by
non-Malays and foreigners.
In 2010, Najib Razak, then prime minister, in a paper, which
caused controversy in UMNO party circles argued that affirmative action and
economic empowerment programmes have caused "an entitlement culture and
rentier behavior". He argued for changing affirmative action and economic
empowerment programmes for policies targeted specifically at the 40% poorest
Malaysian of whatever colour.
The PAP introduced a policy of "multi-racialism",
which had as its pillars multi-lingualism, multiculturalism and respect for
different religions. It emphasised an overarching national Singaporean
identity, rather than ethic identities.
Singapore forged its new nationhood following ethnic
segregation during colonialism, by introducing merit across society,
integrating schools across ethnic lines, introducing world-class quality
education, and integrating different ethnic families into new social housing.
The government also did not want to continue the separate
segregated cultures of colonial Singapore continuing. As part of the new common
Singaporean culture, all cultures had to embrace new common symbols, cultures
and institutions, although retaining core aspects of their original cultures if
these does not clash with the new common cultures, symbols and institutions.
The PAP argued for the forging of a new national identity,
based on racial equality among the different groups, and the creation of a
"national culture based on enlarging the overlapping areas of cultural
beliefs and practices shared by the Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures".
The PAP government was careful not to push assimilation of
the different communities into the dominant Chinese community.
The PAP, dominated by Chinese, brought in all ethnic groups
within its party leaders and membership structures. It also ensured that it
opened appointments to Cabinet, government and state agencies to all ethnic
groups. It introduced meritocracy into its party promotion policies. It also
introduced meritocracy into appointments to the public service, securing of
government contracts and business licences. It has a rotating race-based
The government pushed for racial integration in schools,
within new social housing developments and in the public service. Singapore
built its astonishing industrialisation from poverty to industrial country
status on the back of a housing programme.
The housing programme was not only meant to provide every
Singaporean with a house and to build new manufacturing industries, but also to
integrate the different ethnic communities who were ethnically segregated
during colonialism. New housing estates had ethnic quotas to ensure different
ethnic families were integrated.
The fact that Singapore had lifted the largest number of
people out of poverty, in an equitable way, and not only a small, politically
connected elite, with no one feeling left behind, helped provide the glue to a
new national identity.
- William Gumede is executive chairman of the Democracy
Works Foundation and associate professor at
the Wits School of Governance. He is author of South Africa in BRICS,
Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.
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