A Global Look at Racial Equity: Malaysia & Singapore

Categories: Diversity & Inclusion

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.

Practical Implications

Foreign enterprises in both Malaysia and Singapore need to tread lightly in the historically volatile area of race and
ethnicity while being cognizant of local laws and the realities on the ground. In Malaysia, they must respect the country’s affirmative action provisions for Malays, who also control the public sector and regulatory requirements such as equity participation for bumiputera in some industries. At the same time, they may find that local minorities welcome the chance to work for a foreign company because they feel that advancement opportunities may be greater than those available in a domestic firm.

In Singapore, a high-profile corporate initiative to recognize and combat racism could run afoul of the country’s Internal Security Act and the government’s determination to preserve at least overt harmony. In light of this goal, however, authorities officially welcome employers that strive to offer equal opportunities to workers from any background, including those from minority groups. Elsewhere, many schools celebrate a day of racial harmony on July 21st. This date marks the 1964 riots, and attempts to build closer ties between citizens regardless of race, language, or religion; some companies are now considering ways to recognize this public event to build on their global efforts towards greater equity.

Example

Sexual relations between men are officially illegal and punishable by imprisonment in Singapore, although enforcement is rare and unofficial attitudes have become more tolerant. Google was an early corporate sponsor of Singapore’s annual Pink Dot event, a festival celebrating the local LGBT+ community. This event welcomed participants from all racial and ethnic backgrounds with themes such as “We are Family” and “Love for All,” providing social support and an inclusive venue for voices and artistic expression that had not previously been allowed under Singapore’s laws. Pink Dot has become the inspiration for similar events in other locations such as Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Although the Ministry of Home Affairs banned foreign capital companies and resident foreigners from participating in Singapore’s Pink Dot starting in 2017, more than one hundred local organizations stepped up to make donations that enabled the event and its inclusive message to continue.

Sources

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Chin, James. “The Costs of Malay Supremacy,” The New York Times, August 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/28/opinion/the-costs-of-malaysupremacy.html

“Bumiputera Status: To Be or Not to Be,” Free Malaysia Today, July 2017, https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/opinion/2017/07/21/bumiputerastatus-to-be-or-not-to-be/

Nair, Chandran. “Malaysia’s Malay-First Malaise,” The Diplomat, March 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/malaysias-malay-first-malaise/

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Thiagarajan, Ruby. “Racism and Xenophobia Amid a New Epidemic,” New Naratif, February 2020, https://newnaratif.com/journalism/racism-andxenophobia-amid-a-new-epidemic/

Chia, Jasmine and Yong Poh Han. “Fault Lines Linger Behind Singapore’s Coronavirus Containment,” The Diplomat, March 2020, https://thediplomat. com/2020/03/fault-lines-linger-behind-singapores-coronavirus-containment/

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Han, Jamie. “Racial Harmony Day,” Singapore Infopedia, August 2020, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_965_2004-12-31.html