Op-ed in Malaysiakini today: Peaceful revolutions in Malaysia and Singapore

Below is an Op-ed I published in Malaysiakini today. Steven Gan, one of the founders of Malaysiakini, has become a friend over the years. He is one of the interviewees in my book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, in the section where I discuss Malaya’s changing media landscape (pp. 98-102).

For Malaysiakini subscribers, do access the Op-ed directly on their site here.

For others, you can read it here:

The peaceful revolutions in Malaysia and Singapore

Malaysia and Singapore are witnessing two slow, quiet, largely peaceful socio-political revolutions that will ultimately change the complexion of the region.

For decades, the vast majority of Malaysians and Singaporeans appeared relatively content with their respective ruling parties—the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and the People’s Action Party (PAP). Their consistent electoral success was built on a combination of rapid economic growth and iron-fisted political control.

As living standards got better, most people in the two countries were happy to live their lives quietly under the democratic radar.

But over the past decade, a combination of forces—including policy missteps by the ruling parties, the emergence of more credible opposition candidates, and the widening of political space through the Internet—has blown the lid off these hitherto politically apathetic countries.

In both Malaysia and Singapore, authoritarian states are making way for more democratic participation. Ordinary people, who for long took their electoral rights for granted, have now realised that their voices and votes do actually make a difference. Civil society is being forced to evolve at warp speed. Private and public actors are adapting to new ways of communicating on a multitude of new platforms.

Hence the BN’s and PAP’s 50 odd years of dominance is ending. In Malaysia, the revolution is a few years ahead: after its next general election, which must be held by June 2013, there is an outside chance that the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition will be governing the country.

Across the border, though the PAP still appears very much in control, it is licking its wounds after its worst ever electoral performance last year. Though unthinkable just a few years ago, political observers today have a new favourite pastime: speculating when the PAP might lose power. A minority believes it could happen as soon as the next election, due by 2016.

A big reason for these parties’ relative decline is that Malaysians and Singaporeans have grown increasingly disillusioned with their respective socio-economic models. For most of its history, Malaysia has been guided by the desire for “equality of outcomes”. It has been trying to redistribute the fruits of growth in a more equitable fashion by giving some people—the majority Malay Muslims, the so-called bumiputeras—more opportunities than others. Singapore has been guided by the desire for “equality of opportunities”, with little concern for outcomes. Both countries have pursued their philosophies with determination; now both see the systems faltering.

Malaysia’s pursuit of “equality of outcomes” has created some serious problems, not least the ethnic tensions in society today. Furthermore, the noble ideal of wealth equality has frequently been hijacked by corrupt elements, undermining the policy’s effectiveness.

Singapore’s desire only for “equality of opportunities” has led to gross inequality—or very different “outcomes”—in the country. And with that, it has become harder and harder to guarantee “equality of opportunities”—a rich family’s child will always be much better positioned for success than a poor family’s child.

As Malaysia and Singapore embark on their next stage of development, they face pressures to become a bit more like each other. Malaysians are yearning for more “equality of opportunities” and Singaporeans, “equality of outcomes”.

This is not just theoretical fluff. These guiding philosophies have influenced how millions of Malaysians and Singaporeans think and interact with each other. In Malaysia, for instance, there are Chinese and Indians who look down on the Malays around them because they are perceived as dependent on government help.

Meanwhile, there are a fair number of Malay nationalists who continue to regard Chinese and Indians, some of whose families have been in the country for more than four generations, as second-class citizens.

The bumiputera policies also feed the idea that economic opportunity and wealth is a zero-sum game, played out amongst different ethnic groups, based on luck and timing. An Indian church warden in Kuantan, Pahang, likened the process to the spokes on a revolving bicycle wheel. “The Malay bicycle spoke is up now, so the Indian one must necessarily be down,” he told me.  He believes it is impossible for all ethnic groups to develop together; the Indians must simply sit tight and wait for their chance again.

Hence, by mandating this wealth transfer to the bumiputeras, Malaysia has unwittingly cultivated the idea that in order for one race to progress, another one must be subdued.

In Singapore, because of the assumption that everybody starts on a level playing field, those who ultimately do well are more prone to ignore—and look down on—those who don’t. Perhaps the most tragic consequence of Singapore’s class-consciousness is the discrimination towards particular socio-economic groups, such as construction workers and maids.

These biases were unwittingly exposed in March 2012, after Singapore announced a new rule entitling foreign domestic worker to one day off every week. Although many people cheered the decision, there were many others who expressed concern over where their maids would be roaming and whom they might be mingling with—comparing them, effectively, to cattle that must be herded.

Recognising these injustices, over the past few years, a growing number of Malaysians and Singaporeans—including some members of the ruling parties—have called for fundamental changes to these half-century old socio-economic philosophies.

Malaysia has very slowly begun to unwind some of the bumiputera policies—although reformers will continue to face fierce opposition from Malay nationalists. Similarly, Singapore has very slowly begun to increase targeted assistance to the unemployed and needy—although reformers will continue to face fierce opposition from market fundamentalists who believe that the success of “The Singapore model” is grounded in its severe allergy to welfare.

Nevertheless, this ongoing philosophical shift will dramatically change the way people think about themselves and each other. It will shape the hearts, minds and souls of all “Malayans”. In many ways, this long transition has only just begun.

All this also means that some 50 years after independence, both Malaysian and Singaporean identities are still very much in flux. Malaysia’s constitution guarantees preeminence to Islam and Malays. What that means in practice is still a matter of great debate. Malaysians are genuinely torn between running a Malay Muslim country and a country for all Malaysians.

Singaporean identity, meanwhile, appears even more nebulous. It was formed partly around the belief that a race-neutral, one-party system would be able to deliver economic growth and prosperity indefinitely. Cracks are appearing in that philosophy. Today there is little consensus on what exactly it means “to be Singaporean”.

As the quiet, peaceful revolutions in Malaysia and Singapore continue apace, only one thing seems certain: authoritarianism here has finally run its course. Ordinary citizens now have a much bigger say in who they want to be and where they want their countries to go. This collaborative process will solidify our identities, and strengthen our sense of belonging to our countries.

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, the Singapore-born son of a Malaysia-born father, is a senior editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). He is the author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore. Please join Sudhir at his Malaysia book launch at Borders Mid Valley, KL, 11am-1pm, Nov 10th 2012.


One thought on “Op-ed in Malaysiakini today: Peaceful revolutions in Malaysia and Singapore

  1. As a Malaysian living with my Singaporean husband in KL, I was both amused and frustrated by the many comments from the Malaysian readers who still assume that Singaporeans are still living in “prosperity” and that “Singaporeans just want a change of style”. The main assumption here is that even if the PAP continues governing the country without changing anything, “everything will still be fine”.

    Having spoken to many of our friends and family in Singapore, I believe that this couldn’t be more wrong. The gap between rich and poor is widening, the middle class is shrinking, cost of living is shooting through the roof, and the average ordinary Singaporean is struggling to make ends meet. There’s a lot of bitterness all around. Singaporeans seem to be short-changed at every turn in favour of expats – all these reasons make it highly unfeasible for my husband and I to ever relocate there.

    As you’ve pointed out, things in Malaysia need to change drastically too. And there’s certainly many things Singapore has done right which we should learn from. But I’m disturbed by the ignorance and short-sightedness of many Malaysians who look to Singapore for all our answers. These people believe that meritocracy is the magical panacea to all our problems, and that as long as we adopt the Singapore model lock, stock and barrel, Malaysia will turn out fine. A serious case of “the grass is greener” I suspect.

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