By: Toh Han Shih
As far as racial policies go, Singapore and Malaysia are moving in opposite directions. The
newly elected Malaysian government is moving towards multiracial meritocracy, which may
hurt Singapore in the short term but will benefit Singapore in the long term.
In a historic U-turn, Mahathir Mohamad, who was elected Malaysian Prime Minister for the
second time on May 9, made speeches and actions which indicate Malaysia is taking steps
away from its decades-old affirmative action for Malays, called the Bumiputera policy. This
policy has been in place since 1971, requiring quotas in schooling, jobs, contracts and
investments for Malays who constitute the majority population in Malaysia.
In an interview with Channel NewsAsia on June 25 and published on the Singapore media’s
website on July 1, Mahathir was asked what he could promise millennials about the
Malaysia they will be living in in the years to come.
“(Malaysia is) not only multiracial, it is multilingual, multireligious, multicultural,” he said.
“And to forget – slowly forget the racial origins and think of themselves as pure Malaysians.”
Mahathir pushed for the appointment for Tommy Thomas, an Indian Christian, as Attorney
General in the face of some initial opposition. In June, Thomas was sworn in as the first non-Malay Attorney General of Malaysia in 55 years.
In an interview with the New Straits Times on May 27, Mahathir expressed support for Lim
Guan Eng, the first ethnic Chinese to be appointed Malaysian finance minister in 44 years.
On choosing a Chinese over a Malay finance minister, Mahathir took a jibe at Najib Razak,
who was Prime Minister and Finance Minister in the previous administration. Mahathir told
the New Straits Times, “Of course Malays will want Malays (as Finance Minister) but we had
appointed a Malay as a minister of finance and he had lost huge sums of money…and he
was also the prime minister.”
“To have a Chinese finance minister is actually a very good way forward – this
integration of all the races,” Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail
told a Singapore newspaper, Today, on May 28. “So, it’s not just tokenism.”
“But slowly, the country has to move towards ‘ketuanan rakyat’ (citizen supremacy),”
Malaysia’s first female deputy prime minister added. “We want to move on to
Her husband, Anwar Ibrahim, tipped to succeed Mahathir as Malaysian Prime Minister in
a few years, echoed similar views in an interview with Bloomberg Television aired on
Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, told Bloomberg that “hopefully”, racial politics will
end in his country, although “realistically”, the Malaysian government will have to address
the concerns of Malays and Muslims. Nonetheless, Anwar said his position is to dismantle
the economic aspects of the Bumiputera policy. He said the Malaysian government should
give opportunities and scholarships to poor Malays, but not award contracts to rich Malays
nor enrich a few Malays to “become billionaires.”
However, it is unlikely the Bumiputera policy will be totally abolished anytime soon. The
new Malaysian government has promised to uphold the rights of the Malays and indigenous
peoples as enshrined in the Malaysian constitution, which was also what Anwar told
Bloomberg. In his interview with Channel NewsAsia, Mahathir said there will continue to be
policies to help Malays, in part to avoid conflict between them and “richer” ethnic groups
like the Chinese.
It appears reasonable to expect that in Malaysia in the near future, non-Malay companies
will see a more level playing field, and there will possibly be a reduction in affirmative action requirements in business. This may entice multinationals to relocate some of their
operations and staff from Singapore to Malaysia. The reduction of affirmative action is likely
to attract Malaysians working in Singapore to return to their country. If all these happen,
this will be to the economic detriment of Singapore in the short term.
But in the longer term, Singapore will benefit from a more multiracial and meritocratic
Malaysia. Singapore companies will enjoy improved cooperation with Malaysian firms which
impose fewer racial requirements. By not favouring any race, Malaysian companies will
compete in a fair and healthy way with Singapore firms. If Malaysian politics becomes less
racially charged, Singapore, with its own racial sensitivities, will not suffer collateral damage from Malaysian politicians whipping up racial issues.
Although Singapore is still far ahead of Malaysia in multiracial meritocracy, the Lion City has recently taken steps away from the meritocratic ideals espoused by its government. Case in point is the appointment of Halimah Yacob as a female Malay President of Singapore in September 2017. The Singapore government reserved last year’s presidential elections for Malays, which carried a whiff of Malaysia’s Bumiputera policy. Last year’s presidential election became a non-election after two other Malay candidates were ruled out of the race on the grounds that their businesses were not big enough. Although Halimah has proven to be a decent, hardworking president, last year’s presidential elections should have been run along race-blind meritocratic lines.
In BBC’s Hard Talk programme in March 2017, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
said a Singaporean Prime Minister who is not of the majority Chinese race is unlikely for
now, though it may happen in future. By his words, Prime Minister Lee excluded Deputy
Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as the next Singapore Prime Minister. It will be a
pity if Tharman does not become Singapore Prime Minister, because he is highly respected
both within Singapore and among the international elite. A Singaporean Prime Minister of
South Asian ethnicity like Tharman would reinforce the signal China that Singapore, despite
having a Chinese majority, is not an extension of China but an independent multiracial
country in its own right.
The appointment of a Chinese finance minister and an Indian attorney general in Malaysia
stands in contrast to the uncompetitive appointment of a Malay President and the ruling
out of an Indian Prime Minister in Singapore. Singapore should reverse course and continue
along the path of multiracial meritocracy as professed by the Singapore government.
(Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer based in Hong Kong. He has over 20 years’ experience in journalism)