Welcome to the second post in an ongoing series, A GLOBAL LOOK AT RACIAL EQUITY. This series — adapted from our featured insight GLOBAL DIMENSIONS OF RACE AND ETHNICITY — takes an in-depth look at social justice and equity issues on a country-by-country basis, with insight from Aperian Global’s experts.
Our second entry focuses on Malaysia and Singapore.
Malaysia & Singapore: Neighboring Opposites
Malaysia won its independence from Britain in 1957. It was briefly united with Singapore in 1963, and Singapore became independent in 1965. Malaysia’s population of approximately 32 million people includes almost 70% classified as indigenous Malay, with the remainder being primarily of Chinese (23%) and Indian (7%) origin. The histories of both Malaysia and Singapore have been influenced by racial violence and policies subsequently designed to counteract this animosity.
Many newly independent Malays, also known unofficially as bumiputera, or “sons of the soil,” felt resentment toward a colonial heritage that left foreigners as well as ethnic Chinese and Indians in control of the country’s economy. In the aftermath of a 1969 election in which Chinese-led opposition parties gained ground, years of ongoing tension between Malays and Chinese, heightened by religious differences between Muslim Malays and minorities of other faiths, erupted into riots that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, mostly ethnic Chinese. Martial law was declared, and the Malaysian government eventually instituted its “New Economic Policy,” implementing provisions designed to redress the imbalance between Malays and other groups.
Malaysia’s strong affirmative action policies, originally designated as temporary but now in existence for five decades, have established explicit preferences for Malays. Article 153 of the nation’s constitution sets quotas for federal public service positions, university admission, scholarships, and trade or business licenses. Other preferences have been applied, for example, in the form of discounts for Malays on the purchase of new housing. Malaysia’s quota system, unusual in that it favors the country’s racial majority, has indeed led to greater income and influence for some Malays. However, critics argue that it has also cemented corrupt one-party rule that favors those with elite political connections, while not addressing the needs of the country’s poor and contributing to brain drain as talented minority group members choose to leave Malaysia in search of better opportunities. Malaysia’s current prime minister is on record as saying that he is “Malay first and Malaysian second.” Both proponents and critics of Article 153 — whose repeal is technically illegal to discuss — have been accused of racism, and the issue continues to be hotly debated among the country’s citizens.
Singapore is a small island nation of almost 6 million people at the south end of the Malaysian peninsula. It originated from political differences with the dominant Malaysian political party, and experienced race riots of its own that broke out between Malay Muslims and ethnic Chinese in 1964 when it was part of the Federation of Malaysia. In 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia and became independent. Its Internal Security Act gives the government broad powers to curb actions seen as threatening Singapore’s internal security, including those that “promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or other classes of the population likely to cause violence.”
Singaporean government policies have arguably been more effective than those of nearby Malaysia — on purely economic grounds, the bustling port city-state of Singapore is the success story, having a GDP slightly larger than Malaysia’s with only about one-sixth of the population. In Singapore today, ethnic Chinese are the dominant force in Singapore’s economy and society, making up three-quarters of the population compared to minority Malays (15%) and Indians (7%). In spite of the government’s efforts to provide equal opportunities for all while promoting racial harmony, social critics representing minority groups complain of “Chinese privilege” and prejudice against other ethnic groups, including well-publicized incidents of Chinese actors appearing in “brownface” to imitate other minorities. Vocal opponents of the status quo must act with caution because the Internal Security Act provisions are still enforced.
Another issue with historical roots has been sentiment against newer Chinese immigrants from the PRC on the part of Singapore’s ethnic Chinese, reinforced by fears that migrant workers traveling back from visits home during the Chinese New Year were spreading Covid-19. Negative views have been expressed against both laborers brought in for construction projects and against nouveau riche Chinese immigrants and their lavish displays of wealth.