Affirmative Action: Ethical or Purely Racial Discrimination? A comparative Analysis of how Malays are treated in Singapore and Malaysia “Affirmative action” means positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and business from which they have been historically excluded. Indeed if one were to see affirmative action in the light of John Rawls’ maximin approach to give the greatest benefit to the least advantaged in society, it would seem to be a just and fair way to organise society.
Hence it’s no surprise that affirmative action is prevalent in many countries today principally to ameliorate the disenfranchised in the society to become ‘full partners’ in the society. However, when affirmative action involves preferential selection—selection on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity—it tends to generate intense controversy. For the purposes of this paper a comparative analysis on the affirmative action practised by two countries namely Singapore and Malaysia with regards to their indigenous populations– the Malays – will be attempted.
Affirmative Action In Malaysia Affirmative Action for the majority in Malaysia, the Malays, also known as the ‘bumiputeras’ – literally meaning “sons of the soil” – is enshrined in the Malaysian constitution itself. Malays are accorded special rights through quotas for educational institutions, public sector employment and business licenses – as a constitutional right as per, Article 153(2), of the Federation of Malaysia Constitution promulgated in 31st August 1957.
However Racial riots in Kula Lumpur in May 1969 brought to the fore the economic imbalances that characterized Malaysian society then. In effect, all social indices – infant mortality, per capita income, literacy rate – were all lagging for the bumiputeras. And because of these imbalances extra help in the form of affirmative action was seen both as morally and socially justified. Hence the racial riot was used as a reason for a 2nd Malaysian Plan – also known as The New Economic Policy or NEP for short. Although it espoused “National unity is the overriding objective of the country … ore equitable distribution of income and opportunities for national unity and progress”, more importantly it clearly provided that “the modernization of rural life, a rapid and balanced growth of urban activities and the creation of a Malay commercial and Industrial community in all categories and at all levels of operations, so that Malays and other indigenous people will become full partners in all aspects of economic life of the nation. One can arguably say that affirmative action for the Malays was now aggressively employed in the way the Malaysian society was organised.
In effect the Malaysian government’s goal was to have at least 30% of corporate equity in Malay hands and under Malay economic management by 1991 – “yet this is to be achieved without adversely affecting the existing economic status of the Chinese and Indians. ” This sort of Affirmative Action can be justified under the Rawls idea of justice as Fairness. In effect his principle behind the idea that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged can be seen in the NEP – alleviating the ‘arbitrary handicaps resulting from (our) initial starting places in society” .
Indeed Rawls’ idea of distributive justice seems to be the raison d’etre of such an affirmative policy. However, the NEP policy when it came to an end in 1990, “ was succeeded by a National Development Policy in 1991 designed to continue many of the affirmative action policies until bumiputeras attained their vaunted 30 percent share of publicly listed corporate wealth. ” Whilst for the Malays the NEP or its successor policy has been a boon, for the minorities, especially the Indians, it has been a bane with especially access to education and business and employment opportunities stunted.
Whilst trying to uphold redistributive justice, the Malaysian government has unwittingly created injustice for the minority races there. The worst was to come when an independent organisation, pointed that the 30% equity target was already reached n 2008 – in fact it was noted that now the figure stood at 45%. This was immediately refuted by the government and immediately official figures were presented showing that it was still hovering around 22%. ‘Then there is he question of so-called Ali Baba companies, so nicknamed because in Malaysia, private enterprises observe a largely unspoken rule that a Muslim – an “Ali” in local parlance will occupy a top position in the company and that Malays will get a certain number of positions while the “Baba” a nickname for the Straits Chinese – will often form the corporate backbones of the companies. ’ Multinationals doing business in Malaysia also know they won’t be officially certified in a number of corporate ventures until high-powered Malays are seated on their boards of directors.
That has allowed rent-seeking Malays to take directorships and other posts with companies in exchange for equity – which adds to a false picture of how much equity bumputeras really own and clearly lends to the engenderment of unethical business behaviour thanks to the affirmative action. Critics have pointed out that the NEP has been implemented these 30 years in a racially discriminatory way with little transparency or accountability.
However, legal recourse was not available – either because disparity amongst races was already enshrined in the constitution or it was difficult to prove a case of racial discrimination in the courts. In effect “the great importance given to the improvement of the Malay position is resulting in an increasing number of Chinese and Indian ‘have-nots’ ”. This was the sorry state of affairs when, Hindraf – the Hindu Rights Action Force – an organisation which arguably represents the disenfranchised Hindu Indians of Malaysia came into being.
With scant legal recourse for their fellow Indians in Malaysia, they came up with the ingenious idea of making the world know of their plight by filing a suit against the British government at the Royal Court of Justice London, demanding a claim of damages of around US$4 TRILLION, (Ringgit 2 Million per Indian), for bringing Indians to Malaysia as Indentured laborers and exploiting them for 150 years. Although Hindraf was politically suppressed the damage was done. The ethical basis of the Affirmative Action was no more.
Indeed the NEP and its later variant was no more seen as Affirmative Action but more so as Racial politics weaved by the majority – inadvertently discriminating the minorities. Indeed utilitarian ideals of ‘Happiness for the Many’ – since Malays today make up more than 53% of the population – rings hollow as the significant others have been disenfranchised and was seen more for the ‘Happiness of the Malays’ then ‘Many’. Furthermore, the affirmation action seems to hurt Malaysia as a whole leading to fears that all races would suffer from the inefficiencies this policy was creating.
In fact in a tacit admission of the ineffectualness of pro-Malay affirmative action policies, which have hindered the economic potential of the economy by throwing up barriers to market entry for both foreign investors and non-Malay Malaysians alike, Mr Najib was reported to have promised to remove the 30% equity rule for new investments in certain industries as he was reported as saying “The pie must expand. There is no point in having a larger share of a shrinking pie. However, his piecemeal changes do not dismantle the whole inefficient system that NEP has ballooned into. His political base has yet to agree to his terms and one has to wait and see whether the affirmative action – which has definitely overstayed its welcome – will wither away or support for Mr Najib will wither away instead from his own party. Affirmative Action In Singapore for the Malays In Singapore unlike in Malaysia, there are no special rights or privileges accorded to the Malays.
In effect action is not mandated, which is a departure of sorts from Malaysia’s ‘rights’ scheme. The equal treatment of all communities, (a rejection of the Malaysia “special indigenous rights” approach) is embodied in Articles 12 and 16 of Singapore’s Constitution, pursuant to the Singaporean Singapore ideal. In effect the then Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, thought individual rights was a more pressing problem than the rights of minorities implying the latter would be protected by safeguarding the former.
However, Under Article 152(2), the special position of the Malays as the indigenous peoples of Singapore is recognised, with the government bound to guard their “political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language. ” In effect the notion of unequal treatment of races in Singapore was recently highlighted in a spirited exchange between Minister Mentor Lee and Nominated Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan where Minister Mentor Lee himself, “declared that the assumption of equal treatment for all races is ‘false and flawed’, and ‘completely untrue’. ”
Indeed revisiting the annals of Singaporean History one cannot deny the fact that affirmative action was overt by way of free education for the Malays – till university – as promulgated by the Singaporean government in 1959. Here the rationale was that the Malays as the indigenous population were not partaking in the economic development of Singapore, and hence were in need of affirmative action. However, after the set up of Mendaki, a self help group set up along racial lines, the overt affirmative action took a back seat. More help either financially or in kind was channeled through this organisation.
Moreover, vast improvements were seen in the Malay community which allowed the government to rescind its overt affirmative action and set up self help groups for the Indians and the Chinese too. Apart from education, the Singapore government did not spread its ‘social engineering’ tendency to other realms of society. Here a freer rein was allowed for in terms of employment opportunities for the Malays or property or business ownership unlike in Malaysia. However, there were other safeguards that were promulgated to protect minorities’ rights in Singapore.
Two institutions require mention here, namely, the Group Representative Council (GRC) and the President Council for Minority Rights (PCMR). Whilst the latter protects minority rights with regards to possible discriminatory legislation, the GRC scheme is seen in some quarters as an overt affirmative action for the minorities as it provides for a situation that the minorities will never be politically disenfranchised. A new wave of a possible affirmative action based on a different premise reared its head recently in Singapore.
In effect in 2003, in a speech to support the Government’s White Paper on the Jemaah Islamiah arrests – the arrests made due a possible Terrorism threat, the then MP Shanmugam – now Law Minister – spoke about closing the gap between Malays and other races. He said ‘There must be opportunities, without affecting the core principle of meritocracy, for there to be some form of affirmative action which will see Malays in important positions in greater numbers. In his vision of affirmative action however, meritocracy remains a core principle minus the quota system.
This has not materialised overtly but that the government is tracking the situation is obvious. Singapore ruling elites have made maintenance of racial and religious harmony a cornerstone of Singapore’s legal system. Although Singapore is well known for planning well ahead, its laws and policies are also very reactionary and flexible – taking into consideration the changed realties to suit the best interests of Singapore. However, one can arguably say that Malays themselves are not actively seeking affirmative action in Singapore.
This was clearly seen when a “UN special Rapparteur Mr Muigai visited the state in April 2010 and directly asked the president of Muis (A leading Muslim organisation in Singapore), Haji Mohd Alami Musa, whether he thought the Malay community wanted the Government to create special provisions to help the Malay community. Haji Alami was reported to have categorically told Mr Muigai that the Malays disapproved of any affirmative action policy because the Malay community had a deep sense of pride in its own ability to achieve steady progress under the national system of meritocracy”.
Overall, one can invoke Rawls Justice as fairness maxim in relation to the way the Singapore government organises society. Firstly, each person is to have most extensive total system of basic liberties with a similar system of liberty for all, as enshrined in the constitution and secondly social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged – very much the purview of self help groups delineated according to racial lines as mentioned above and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.
Moreover, with the recent renewed look at possible affirmative action, one can evoke the utilitarian principles of Mills too. This can be seen effectively trying to placate the Malays, so that terrorism does not sell as an idea to especially the Malays in Singapore and inadvertently aids in the overall economic well being of the country – hence “happiness to many” – to all communities. Conclusion: Affirmative Action starts off with a benevolent idea – Compensatory Justice. But it grows into an unethical practice when an expiry date is not stipulated or it fails to take into consideration its disenfranchisement of others in the society.
In a nutshell, Affirmative Action is ethical in so far as it does not create a need for Affirmative Action for another community in the same society. From the above discussion one can arguably say Singapore gives an example of how an overt affirmative action to just one group in the society can be discontinued after some time replacing it with other subtle and pragmatic institutions serving all in the society. On the other hand, the very fact that the new PM of Malaysia is reconsidering the NEP for Malays shows that the ‘affirmative action plan’ is not working well or in effect working to the detriment of the country as a whole.
One of the major reasons why Singapore was separated – more like kicked out – from the then Malaysia (as existed from 1963 to 1965) was because the then prime minister of Singapore, now minister mentor, Lee Kuan Yew and his cadres were clamouring for a “Malaysia for Malaysians” rather than a racially separated “Malaysia for Malays”. Perhaps the time is ripe now for ruling elites of Malaysia to revisit the idea of “Malaysia for Malaysians” and ensure that “Happiness For Many” could translate to “Happiness for All communities in Malaysia” which would be the ethical choice. ——————————————- [ 1 ]. Robert Fullinwider , Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, (Accessed on 19 May 2010) [ 2 ]. Affirmative action is codified in the constitution in many countries today including in India which specifically tries to absolve itself of years of subjugation and disenfranchisement especially people of the lower caste. For more on affirmative action in India See Politics of Inclusion: Caste, Minorities and Affirmative Action by Zoya Hasan [ 3 ]. Robert Fullinwider , supra n. 1 [ 4 ].
Whilst the Malays form the minority in Singapore, about 14% of the population, they are the majority in Malaysia nearing 53% of the population. See Lily Zubaidah Rahim, “Minorities and the State in Malaysia and Singapore: Provisions, Predicaments and Prospects” E/CN. 4/Sub. 2/AC. 5/2003/WP. 12 [ 5 ]. Thio Li-Ann, “Pragmatism and Realism Do Not Mean Abdication”: A Critical and Empirical Inquiry into Singapore’s engagement with international Human Rights Law, 2004 Singapore Year Book of International Law and Contributors, (2004) 8 SYBIL 41–91 [ 6 ].
More infamously known as the May 13 Incident, it led to clashes between the Chinese and the Malays which left hundreds dead. For more on the May 13th incident see Dr Kua Kia Soong, May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969 [ 7 ]. M Bakri Musa, The Malay Dilemma Revisited, Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia, Merantu Publishers, 1999, Pg 4 [ 8 ]. Wan Hashim, Race Relations in Malaysia, Heinemann Education Books (Asia) Ltd Singapore, Hong Kong 1983, Pg 84 [ 9 ].
Government Malaysia, Second Malaysia Plan 1971 – 1975 (KL: Government Printer, 1971) p1 as cited in Stanley S Bedlington, Malaysia and Singapore: the building of New States, in Politics and International Relations of Southeast Asia, Gen Editor George McT. Kahin, Cornell University, 1978, Pg 116 [ 10 ]. M Bakri Musa, supra n. 7 [ 11 ]. Goh Cheng Tecik Racial Politics in Malaysia 1989 FEP International Sdn Bhd, Pg 23 [ 12 ]. New York Times, October 3, 1973 as cited in as cited in Stanley S Bedlington, Malaysia and Singapore: the building of New States, in Politics abd International Relations of Southeast Asia, Gen Editor George McT.
Kahin, Cornell University, 1978, Pg 116 [ 13 ]. Ethics and Social Responsibilities: Asian and Western Perspective, Gen Eds: Gary Chan and George TL Shenoy, McGraw Education Hill Education (Asia) 2009, Pg 41 [ 14 ]. Anil Netto, Malaysian hub plan runs into race debate, (Accessed on 13 May 2010) [ 15 ]. Koo Boo Teik , Beyond Mahatir , Malaysian Politics and Its Discontents, Zed Books Ltd 2003, Pg 56 [ 16 ]. Malaysia’s Ethnic Reality Under Scrutiny, (Accessed on 13 May 2010) [ 17 ]. Malaysia’s Ethnic Reality Under Scrutiny Supra n. 16 [ 18 ]. ibid [ 19 ].
Kua Kia Soong, Malaysian Critical Issues, Strategic Information Research Development (SIRD) 2002 , Pg 19 [ 20 ]. Stanley S Bedlington, Malaysia and Singapore: the building of New States, in Politics and International Relations of Southeast Asia, Gen Editor George McT. Kahin, Cornell University, 1978, Pg 195 [ 21 ]. Let Us Hand Petition and Go Home, (Accessed on 14 May 2010) http://www. indianmalaysian. com/sound/modules. php? name=News&file=article&sid=777 [ 22 ]. The Wall Street Journal, Najib’s Affirmative Action – II , 2 July 2009, (Accessed on 20 May 2010) [ 23 ].
The Constitution Of The Republic Of Singapore (Accessed on 17 May 2010) [ 24 ]. Clarissa Oon, MM rebuts NMP’s notion of race equality  20 Aug The Straits Times [ 25 ]. Education In Singapore (Accessed on 13 May 2010) [ 26 ]. The GRC scheme, introduced in 1988, is a scheme whereby a team of putative parliamentarians compete in elections in 1 constituency and 1 member of the team must belong to a specified minority race. [ 27 ]. Sue-Ann Chia , No quotas, but a diverse spread of people  06 Jul Straits Times [ 28 ].
S Jayakumar’s “The Confluence of Law and Policy: The Singapore Experience” 95 SAJC 2001. [ 29 ]. ibid [ 30 ]. Imelda Saad / Jeremy Koh, Maintaining racial harmony imperative to Singapore’s survival: MFA, 28 April 2010 CNA [ 31 ]. Ethics and Social Responsibilities: Asian and Western Perspective, Gen Eds: Gary Chan and George TL Shenoy, McGraw Education Hill Education (Asia) 2009 Pg 35 [ 32 ]. Ibid Pg 29 [ 33 ]. Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (vol. I) Times Editions, Singapore Press Holdings, 1998, Pg 456.