Lessons from Singapore and Malaysia on fostering racial inclusivity

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 and multi-ideology.

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. 

'Special positions' for Malays

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.

Singapore emphasises multi-racialism

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 country presidency.

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, Tafelberg.

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