IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Race politics all over again

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 12, 2013

A week after Malaysians voted in their 13th General Election, the political fires are still raging.

Was it a Chinese or a wider Malaysian tsunami that caused the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition to lose its share of the popular vote to the opposition? Is Malaysia more polarised along racial lines or is there a sharper urban-rural divide?

The air has been thick with these questions and the ill-effects of a bitterly fought election that has divided the country.

Cut through the political fog and rabble-rousing though and it is clear the underlying issue facing Malaysia hasn't changed in the last 50 years.

Indeed, it took a well-aimed potshot from across the Causeway to make that quite clear to me.

That's how I felt when I read what former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said in the heat of the hustings.

Speaking at a rally in Selangor, he attacked the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) for wanting to sow discord between Malays and Chinese, and referred to Singapore's People's Action Party (PAP).

"DAP uses the PAP way. When PAP was in Malaysia, it used the slogan 'Malaysian Malaysia'. It said Malays took everything, others nothing. Is that true?" he asked.

Writing later in his blog, he said: "The meritocracy promoted by the DAP will mean diminishing opportunities for the Malays in education and in business. This will result in Malays becoming less and less qualified and poorer."

Ouch?

If any nerves were jangled here, you wouldn't have noticed as there was hardly a whimper, save for a reader's letter in The Straits Times Forum Page from a Malay Singaporean who wrote that the community was doing rather well.

Perhaps it was just as well. No need to add oil to a raging fire, not when it's no longer Singapore's fight.

What then is the issue about?

For older Singaporeans, it is an all too familiar story.

When the two countries separated in 1965, it was their differences in race policy that led to the break-up.

Thereafter, Singapore took a merit-based approach while Malaysia continued its policy of promoting affirmative action and special rights for Malays, with incentives in business, education and housing, under its bumiputera policy.

For readers too young to know those tumultuous days, here's an exchange from one particular debate which goes to the heart of the issue. It took place in the Federal Parliament in Kuala Lumpur in May 1965 between then Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Tun Dr Mahathir who was an Umno MP.

Dr Mahathir: They (Chinese Singaporeans) have never known Malay rule and cannot bear the idea that the people they have kept so long under their heel should now be in a position to rule them.

Mr Lee: If we delude people into believing they are poor because there are no Malay rights... where are we going to end up? You let people in the kampungs believe that they are poor because we (the Chinese) don't speak Malay?... Meanwhile, whenever there is a failure of economic, social or education policies, you come back and say, oh, these wicked Chinese, Indians and others opposing Malay rights.

Almost 50 years later, these same issues are being replayed in Malaysia, this time between contending political parties and their supporters.

At issue is whether affirmative action has benefited the majority of Malays and the country as a whole, or enriched only a select few, as the opposition contends.

But the more fundamental question is the one Dr Mahathir so starkly raised, which is the permanence of Malay rule in Malaysia.

Singapore did not accept this, its leaders arguing that that was not their understanding when they agreed to the merger. For non-Malays in Malaysia, however, separation was not an option, and many left the country to start afresh, including to Singapore.

It now looks like those who stayed have decided to throw in their lot with the opposition.

But can Malaysia accept a multiracial approach to governance and not one based on permanent Malay rule?

It is a question Malaysians must ultimately confront. We can only hope they will be able to do so peacefully. A successful Malaysia is good for Singapore.

But there are lessons for us here.

First is the importance of looking after the interest of the minority races. Malaysia's experience shows that the grievances and injustices felt by the minorities will not go away but will build up and, if not addressed, can lead to much grief.

Singapore's multiracial approach is ingrained, but there is clearly much that can be improved. For example, there have been complaints by Malays and Indians over the years that they face discrimination when looking for jobs or homes to rent.

These have to be taken seriously and action taken by the authorities or they will become entrenched norms.

Second, while key institutions such as the civil service, the judiciary, schools and the police and armed forces should be as professionally run as possible, they should take into account Singapore's multiracial society.

Last year, when Adil Hakeem Mohamad Rafee became the first Malay recipient of a President's Scholarship since 1968, it was a wait too long for the community and for Singapore.

Could more have been done to correct the imbalance without sacrificing meritocratic principles? It calls for greater effort and sensitivity to the idea that Singapore is a richer society because of the diversity of its people.

I believe this will become more evident in the years to come when China grows in strength and extends its influence even more in the region. Without the richness of its multiracial people, Singapore risks becoming another Chinese city among the many in the mainland, perhaps not even a first-tier one.

Preserving and nurturing multiracialism is hence an essential part of strengthening the country's cultural resilience.

Barely a month after being kicked out of Malaysia, Mr Lee threw this challenge for the future:

"Here we make the model multiracial society. This is not a country that belongs to any single community: it belongs to all of us. Over 100 years ago this was a mudflat swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now this will be a metropolis. Never fear!"

It was a fitting response then to Dr Mahathir.

Forty-eight years on, it still is.

hanfk@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 12, 2013

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/