Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Malaysia’s Bumiputera Policy and Singapore’s Meritocracy: Time to move on?

The public sale of Malaysian newspapers is banned in Singapore. Likewise, the Malaysian government does not extend the same privilege to the Singapore media. So when the main Singaporean English daily, The Straits Times carries two commentary pieces written by Malaysians in Chinese and proceeds to translate and publish them one day after another – coincidentally, one day before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivers his National Day Rally – there is usually more to it than meets the eye.

On 27 Aug 2010, the Straits Times published a commentary written by Lu Pin Qiang (‘Singapore’s path to success worth studying’) that first appeared in the Malaysian Chinese daily, Sin Chew Jit Poh, where the writer praised Singapore while criticizing the Malaysian New Economic Policy (NEP) and the lack of meritocracy across the causeway.

One day later, on 28 Aug 2010, the same paper published a commentary written by Xue Shu Qin (‘Singapore through the eyes of a Malaysian here’) that first appeared in the widely read Singapore Chinese daily, Lianhe Zaobao. In the article, the writer generally pursued the same themes Lu Pin Qiang raised a day earlier, disparaging Malaysia and Malaysians (“Malaysians do not care whether Malaysia is good or bad; they care only about themselves and their community”), with the usual disclaimers (“I am not blowing Singapore’s trumpet”) that come at the end of similar pieces published in the Singaporean mainstream media.

The Malaysian road to nation-building after separation from Singapore in 1965 is often employed by the mainstream media, PAP politicians and PAP grassroots activists to amplify the apparent success(es) of Singapore in comparison to Malaysia. Specifically, the Malaysian affirmative action program that favours their local Malay community, euphemistically referred to as the bumiputera policy, is usually identified as the reason behind everything that is wrong about Malaysia today.

Introduced in 1970 in the aftermath of 1969 racial riots, many of the Malay political elite – specifically, Malay leaders in the largest Malay political party in Malaysia, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – concluded that the absence of an affirmative action program for the majority Malays would only serve to widen the economic gap between the Malays (then comprising about 55% of the population) and non-Malays (Chinese – circa 35%, Indians – circa 7%).

Of all the local communities, the Chinese community controlled the greatest share of the Malaysian economy following Malaysian independence in 1957. After all, one needs money to grow money, and considering the economic status quo of the 1960s, Malay leaders opined that their community would only fall further behind if some form of intervention was not taken to correct the economic mismatch.

Lee Kuan Yew’s dictum of “a Malaysian Malaysia” in the heydays of merger from 1963-65 with equality for all races as its mantelpiece – while theoretically enlightened and apparently equitable – did not adequately take into account the reality of a large majority of Malaysian Malays who were unlikely to benefit from the wonders of meritocracy given their starting position of abject poverty and low or non-existent levels of education. The latter fact is one the Singapore media almost never analyses or considers in any serious detail: The acute economic backwardness of the Malaysian Malay community in the 1960s, and its abjectly minor representation of 2.4% in the Malaysian economy.

The bumiputera policy in Malaysia was technically to have come to an end in 1990. However, its utility in keeping the Malay elite in UMNO in power and its ability to secure the Malay vote rendered it too important a political tool to be dispensed with. In more recent times, UMNO popularised the notion that the NEP has not succeeded in its initial objectives of uplifting the Malays, with figures touted to prove that the Malays still held less than 30% equity in corporate Malaysia, the original NEP target percentage. This substantively unbending stance on the bumiputera policy has driven a dagger straight into the heart of Malaysian society.

What UMNO shrewdly hides from the Malay community, is that its vision of uplifting the Malays is tied to support for UMNO. For a Malaysian Malay to succeed in modern times, it is not enough to be a bumiputera. He or she has to be an UMNO-putra as well. As things stand today, the economic performance of the Malay community in Malaysia is lop-sided. Many remain relatively poor, while the UMNO-putras are exceedingly rich.

Fortunately for Malaysia, discerning Malays have seen through UMNO’s ruse, and responded through the ballot box. In 2008, the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition lost its 2/3 majority in parliament. To a large extent, the electorate’s stance was a response to UMNO’s strategy of politically hijacking the bumiputera policy and a rejection of the endemic corruption that continues to ensue from it.

In Malaysia’s public sector today, non-Malay representation is acutely low. In about forty years, the Malaysian Chinese community’s demographic percentage has dwindled from 35% to around 25% today, mainly due to emigration and a lower Total Fertility Rate as compared to other Malaysians. In addition, Malaysia’s economic prospects are stymied partly because of the hemorrhage of Malaysian minorities to other countries. In the private sector however, the Malaysian Chinese are still doing reasonably well, with many Chinese businessmen able to negotiate the bumiputera policy with political savvy and an intimate understanding of the political economy that underwrites UMNO’s existence.

For working class non-Malays however, the only handouts they can expect from the government are tied to political support for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. The absence of political support from them simply translates into less or no governmental assistance for any community that does not back the incumbent political leadership.

In this regard, Barisan Nasional’s position is not too different from the Singapore People’s Action Party’s (PAP) attitude in denying government grants for the opposition-held constituencies of Hougang and Potong Pasir. In effect, the political incumbents in both countries, the Barisan Nasional in Malaysia and the PAP in Singapore, penalises citizens who exercise their democratic rights to elect political candidates who are not from the ruling party.

Today, Pakatan Rakyat, the multi-racial Malaysian opposition alliance clamours for a more equitable society. Critically, it seeks to extend the bumiputera policy not just to needy Malays, but to needy Malaysians across all races. Ideologically, the Pakatan Rakyat rightfully contend that the lenses of racial politics that have coloured Malaysian politics must be removed, a fact discerning Malaysians, and ironically, those who benefit from the UMNO gravy train, also acknowledge.

Without doubt, the political dynamic in Malaysia from the time of merger and separation in the 1960s to the reality today, is manifestly more nuanced than the mainstream media in Singapore would like to reveal. In its original form, the bumiputera policy was not about denying Chinese and Indians jobs and opportunities in Malaysia, as is perceived by many Singaporeans today. Its goal was to level up the Malays to increase their share of corporate equity and education levels while increasing the size of the Malaysian economic pie. In itself, this was not a bad thing.

But as the policy took root, it was ruthlessly employed as a political tool to entrench the political elite in the Barisan Nasional. In this endeavour, the Barisan Nasional’s constituent non-Malay parties, chiefly the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) were equally complicit. Race politics while distasteful to working class Chinese and Indians, created a political economy that benefited their respective political elite too, not just UMNO.

Paradoxically, the debilitating effect of the bumiputera policy in Malaysia benefited Singapore through the years. Many Malaysian Chinese and more than a few Malaysian Indians have set roots in Singapore contributing to our economy at the expense of Malaysia’s. Of these, more a large number (statistics unavailable) gave up Malaysian citizenship in favour of Singapore citizenship.

However, a not insignificant minority (statistics unavailable) have chosen to retain their Malaysian citizenship while taking up Singapore Permanent Resident (PR) status. The latter choice is not surprising. It allows these Malaysian PRs the opportunity of returning to Malaysia should the political status quo change. In Singapore, Malaysian PRs can purchase HDB flats. Some even hold superscale-appointments in the Singapore Civil Service even though they are not citizens. Quite separately, bumiputera policy or not, at current prices, retiring in Malaysia is financially a lot less burdensome than retiring in Singapore. And the dislocative effects of the bumiputera policy aside, Malaysians of all races and religions generally get along relatively well with each other, a state of affairs not too different from inter-communal relations in Singapore.

In light of Singapore’s voracious appetite for immigrants, Malaysia represents an ideal talent pool. Malaysian Chinese and Indians integrate seamlessly into our body politic by virtue of the almost identical cultural norms in both countries. Compared to new Chinese citizens from China, a Malaysian Chinese is a preferred immigrant for the same reason indicated above. It is perhaps with this policy objective that we see the contributions of Lu Pin Qiang and Xue Shu Qin finding their way into the op-ed sections of the Straits Times, views that are symptomatic of some of the real frustrations of non-Malay Malaysians today.

Lu contended that Singapore’s meritocracy is one “where people can attain their goals based on merit and not connections, nepotism or corruption, regardless of their backgrounds”. In addition, she stated that Singapore hosted a “level playing field for all, with nobody given special attention or discriminated against by national policies”. The reality on the ground is a tad more nuanced than Lu observed.

Meritocracy, like the Malaysian Malaysia of the 1960s is a wonderful theoretical ideal. In actuality, it represents a destination that must continually be strived for, with the other eye set firmly on the pitfalls of meritocracy. Singapore’s meritocracy, is far from perfect. In fact, in light of the growing gap between the rich and poor today, one would not be remiss suggesting that its utility as a national ideology to inspire Singaporeans is coming under increasing strain (A point made by Kenneth Paul Tan in the highly readable Management of Success – Singapore Revisited edited by Terence Chong [ISEAS: 2010]).

British Labour Party MP Michael Young, the man who invented the term meritocracy more than 50 years ago, warned against the dangers of a society singularly organised around merit in a book titled The Rise Of The Meritocracy, 1870-2033: An Essay On Education And Equality. Young had posited the development of a stratified polity defined by intelligence and educational selection, both of which determined social status and standing. The cream that emerged from the selection process would go on to take up the top appointments in society, and ostensibly secure top salaries.

In time however, Young predicted that what appeared to be a fair and equitable system would morph into something ugly, inflexible and downright discriminatory, with the meritocratic system revealing itself to be an age-old manifestation of the mankind’s millenarian struggle against the politics of class.

Young’s book foresaw in 2033, a Britain governed by an elite of 5% of the total population who look down on their rest of society as inferior in intelligence and education. Without access to good schools and opportunity, the less well-off members of society perform poorly in school and even worse when compared to the elite. They remain ensconced in the poverty trap and are socially immobile. Naturally, 95% of the nation regard the elites with contempt, and it only becomes a question of time before the entire society collapses into oblivion.

Young’s fictional premonition is not too far removed from the minds of some Singaporeans. The elite Administrative Service is already seeing ( the children and family members of some serving PAP politicians, career Administrative Service officers and top-managers in government-linked companies joining its ranks, portending the prospect of a cabal of individuals that mutually reinforce the political (PAP) and administrative leadership – perhaps even giving birth to an elite within an elite.

A separate canard to Lu’s simplistic assessment of Singapore’s meritocracy is the reality that the profile of many of government scholars entering public service does not wholly dovetail with her notion of a “level playing field for all, with nobody given special attention or discriminated against by national policies.” That said, it would be a stretch to argue that pro-active discrimination is endemic in Singapore. However, it would not be in the realm of fiction to contend that a passive, subterranean or negative form of discrimination does reveal its dark side on the Singapore canvas.

Separately, one publically available statistic in Singapore starkly portrays the growing inequality and sociological limits of meritocracy. In 2008, it was revealed that only 47% of Public Service Commission scholarship holders lived in public housing, i.e. HDB flats, where in excess of 80% of all Singaporeans reside.

Even more damaging for the long term development of Singapore, the meritocratic system has resulted in young scholarship aspirants giving textbook answers to the Public Service Commission (PSC), in tune with the political culture and the ethos that shapes the pro-PAP mainstream media policy in Singapore. In an open letter to schools, parts of which were published in the Straits Times on 25 Jul 2009, PSC Chairman Eddie Teo described how some PSC scholarship candidates,

“….would give ‘politically correct’ answers and appear to be pro-Government, thinking that would impress the interview panel….He said ‘quite a few’ candidates grew uncomfortable when asked if they would act against someone in authority. One candidate, for instance, was asked what he would do if he found his superior was corrupt. He refused to answer, ’saying he disliked dealing with such a case’.”

The most apparent qualititative shortcoming of meritocracy in the context of nation-building can be observed by the relatively poorer socio-economic position of the Malay community in Singapore. While a handful have done well, Malays are grossly under-represented at the highest echelons of the military and in the civil service. This writer is not aware of the numbers of Malays or Indians selected for the Singapore Administrative Service after their undergraduate studies. If one could hazard a guess, it would probably only reinforce the point vis-à-vis under-representation. While the relative absence of minority races at the highest levels of the executive can be explained away on the grounds of academic performance when compared against the majority Chinese, it would not be misplaced to argue that such optical disparities harm the national fabric and cast aspersions on the qualitative meaning of meritocracy in Singapore.

While no one is expecting special treatment for the Malays (or any other Singaporean) like in Malaysia, some of the questions on every fair-minded and loyal Singaporean’s lips ought to be: “How do we break the poverty cycle not just some of our Malays find themselves in, but our Chinese, Indian and Eurasian compatriots as well, and in doing so, strengthen our national fabric or the Singapore Spirit? And how can Singapore’s meritocracy become qualitatively meritocratic in line with our multi-racial and multi-religious national values?” Since the PAP’s Cabinet Ministers are the richest state-paid politicians in the world, many Singaporeans feel the answers to such questions ought to be on top of their minds, especially in view of their multi-million dollar salaries.

The questions above are not posed with an altruistic purpose in mind, complete with airy-fairy notions of a comfortable and easy life for all Singaporeans so as to create a utopic level playing field. Often, PAP MPs and grassroots leaders mind-numbingly respond to campaigns for greater support for our low-income workers with dire warnings of the welfare state. On the contrary, the question posed above goes to the heart of what it means to be a Singaporean. It must be dealt with for the sake of Singapore and Singaporeans, to say nothing of the type of society we want to become. And it needs to be addressed with the same enthusiasm displayed by PAP MPs when they wax lyrical about the amount of revenue the Integrated Resorts bring into state coffers.

In the final analysis, a move away from juxtapositions with countries that hardly make for reasonable comparison with Singapore today is in order. The Malaysian experience with the bumiputera policy does not add any real value in addressing the inequalities that are have reared their ugly head within the PAP-managed Singapore system –  inequalities which are likely to become more acute in future. In fact, comparisons with Malaysia will begin to look more like a convenient distraction for meritocracy’s shortcomings in Singapore, if the PAP does not change tack and address them with single-minded vigour. Specifically, it makes more sense for the PAP to give meaning to meritocracy in the context of a multi-racial Singapore, rather than repeatedly compare it with the lowest common denominator of the bumiputera policy in Malaysia, the results of which have long been obvious to Singaporeans. Such a tactic only serves to limit, dilute and ultimately sabotage any exercise that seeks to inject equity into Singapore’s model of meritocracy.

At his National Day Rally on 29 Aug 2010, PM Lee stated that the first generation of PAP leaders including Dr Goh and the multi-racial team comprising MM Lee, Rajaratnam, Othman Wok, Lim Kim San, Hon Sui Sen, E W Barker, Toh Chin Chye and others, had a vision to build a multi-racial Singa­pore. Although they succeeded in building a multi-racial Singapore, PM Lee observed that the work of building a multi-racial and multi-religious nation “will never be complete”. Considering PM Lee was holding audience of a National Day rally attended by parliamentarians, judges, civil servants, grassroot activists and students amongst others, he might have been better served to explain how the PAP of today plan to continue improving the multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore of his political predecessors.

For a start, PM Lee could instruct his former Cabinet colleague and PAP member, DPM Tony Tan, the current Chairman of the government-controlled Singapore Press Holdings to re-evaluate how the mainstream media is employed to crystallise perceptions of race through Singapore’s substantively monopolistic media environment. It does not take a genius to note that repetitive comparisons by the mainstream media of Singapore’s meritocracy against Malaysia’s bumiputera policy can possibility harm inter-communal harmony in Singapore. In some cases it can engender an insidious and unstated disdain for the Malays in both Singapore and Malaysia, a terrible outcome that does nothing to inoculate Singaporeans against the prospect of racial and religious disharmony. Whatever the Malaysian social dynamic, the PAP should work singularly towards building a Singapore where the public discourse is not marked by the visceral reality of race, but a qualitative and substantive meritocracy Singaporeans of all races can be proud of.



Newspaper Articles referred to in the opening paragraphs.

Aug 27, 2010

Singapore’s path to success worth studying

Lu Pin Qiang

I BELIEVE many people would agree if one said Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was one of the most successful politicians in recent times. I believe, too, that no one would object if one said his methods of governance were worth studying.

Speaking at a dinner held recently to mark the Republic’s National Day, he said: ‘If one day, our communities become divisive and hostile towards one another; if they are not united and the bonds of national cohesion are weakened, the country will go downhill.’

MM Lee attributed Singapore’s ‘improbable success’ to four factors.

First, having leaders of integrity who have the trust of the people to build a strong foundation for nation-building.

Second, having a meritocracy, where people can attain their goals based on merit and not connections, nepotism or corruption, regardless of their backgrounds.

Third, having a level playing field for all, with nobody given special attention or discriminated against by national policies.

Fourth, using English, the most common language in the world, as the working language of Singapore. This has enabled the country to avoid marginalising minority races and to become the commercial, industrial, financial and communications hub it is today.

These remarks from MM Lee should absolutely be studied and reflected upon by all countries.

No doubt, the conditions in Malaysia are different from those in Singapore. But just think: Malaysia has plenty of natural resources and wide tracts of land, yet why is it no match for ‘tiny’ Singapore? Whether it is the economy, international fame or the credibility of its government, Malaysia is always far behind Singapore and trying to catch up.

How did it turn out this way? Singapore carried out nation-building. So did Malaysia. Singapore has joined the league of First World countries; Malaysia is still a Third World country. At bottom, there is only one answer to the question. That is, the two countries chose different paths right from the start.

The path Malaysia chose was not based on any of the aforementioned four factors which MM Lee cited for Singapore’s success. Given the political scandals and corruption controversies that have occurred in Malaysia over the years, can the country really have an upright and trustworthy leadership?

Does it have meritocracy? Under the New Economic Policy (NEP), are Malaysians living in an environment where policies favour some and discriminate against others? Has Malaysia avoided marginalising minority races?

After we have answered the above questions, Malaysians should be able to reflect on why they are what they are today. Do Malaysians continue to pin their hopes on the NEP or the National Economic Model? Are they going to stick to the same path?

It is time to change course!

This commentary first appeared in the Sin Chew Jit Poh, a Malaysian newspaper, on Sunday.


Aug 28, 2010

S’pore through the eyes of a Malaysian here

Xue Shu Qin

BEFORE even realising it, I had worked in Singapore for more than half a year. From the time I was young, I have had inexplicable feelings about Singapore – chiefly, I think, because my mother is Singaporean.

Singapore is a prosperous nation. Managing its separation from Malaysia in 1965 must have been a highly challenging task for the new nation. Fortunately for the Republic, it was brave enough to leave Malaysia, otherwise it would not have achieved its prosperity today.

During my mother’s time in Singapore, people had to rear pigs and chickens to survive. But today, Singapore is a modern nation.

This is a case where the grass is always greener on the other side. Singapore, in the eyes of us foreigners, is an advanced nation. Perhaps many would be only too glad to become its permanent residents or citizens, but I see that many Singaporeans are unhappy with their country.

Some think it is not good enough, others think it is lousy, and yet others cannot wait to emigrate from Singapore.

This is common in life. One is never satisfied with what one has, thinking that one’s neighbour has a better deal. Singapore, which is far beyond the reach of us foreigners, is nothing but a small state to some Singaporeans.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s hope that ‘the Singapore tomorrow will be better than what it is today’ reveals his expectations for the Republic. In contrast, my country Malaysia is mired in mud, rejecting help from others.

Perhaps it does not wish to leave the mud. Malaysians do not care whether Malaysia is good or bad; they care only about themselves and their community.

Having been in Singapore for a while, I miss home. But when I compare my country with the city-state, I am really disappointed with my country.

We have potential but we are not motivated. We seem to be complacent about the current state of affairs and do not move with the times.

Everyone says Singapore is a clean nation but what I find most remarkable is Singaporeans’ self-discipline. There are some black sheep among them, of course, but the efficiency of cleaners is also a vital factor in the Republic’s famed cleanliness. Everyone here exercises discipline and does not litter, while those in charge of cleanliness are efficient and perform to the best of their ability.

Everyone says Singapore is a nation with good public order but what I am struck with the most are the well-fed and well-dressed people. Who will think of robbery when his pockets are full?

Salaries here are high, but so is spending power. The prices of goods are affordable. When people are self-reliant and lead fulfilling lives, who will want to make a reckless move?

Everyone says Singapore is a tourist destination but what I notice is the Singapore Government’s untiring efforts to promote tourism. It does so because tourism promotes spending, enhances the nation’s reputation and brings about many other benefits.

I am not blowing Singapore’s trumpet. I only hope that my motherland will take a look at Singapore. Singaporeans achieved independence later than us, thus losing out at the starting line. But why is it that they have caught up?

In life, one has to always improve and update himself. Always remember that you have to keep up with the times – and not the other way round.

This commentary first appeared in Lianhe Zaobao on Aug 24.

Written by singapore 2025

31/08/2010 at 11:07 am

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. A well written article that highlights the subtlety with which our main stream media can knowingly or unknowingly cultivate an “insidious and unstated disdain for the Malays”.

    Or is this necessary fodder to maintain an ever grateful nation?

    Pot calling Kettle Black

    31/08/2010 at 12:29 pm

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Walski ofSound, Wong Giok Leigh. Wong Giok Leigh said: RT: @netraKL: Between Malaysia's Bumiputra policy & Singapore's Meritocracy:Time to Move on? […]

  3. good work, Pritam.. I’d go further and say that the meritocracy has morphed into a kleptocracy..


    01/09/2010 at 12:43 pm

  4. Fantastic article. Well written and thought thru.

    Very balanced and illustrated the pro and cons of PAP’s policies as well as an insight in the malaysian politics.


    04/09/2010 at 5:53 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: