The new coalition government of veteran Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad represents great strides forward in terms of creating a more practically functional and racially cohesive government, especially when contrasted with its predecessor. Mahathir’s appointment of Lim Guan Eng of the pro-multi racial Democratic Action Party represented the first time a Han Chinese Malaysian held that office since 1974. Furthermore, the appointment of Tommy Thomas as Attorney General represented the first time a non-Malay and non-Muslim held the post. Thmoas is a practising Christian of Indian heritage. Indeed, during his first lengthy period in office Mahathir relaxed the more stringent elements of the country’s affirmative action system – the New Economic Policy first introduced in 1971. This itself helped pave the way for Malaysia’s economic miracle of the 1980s for which Mahathir was largely responsible.
And yet while many had hoped that the inclusion of the Democratic Action Party (the sister party of Singapore’s People’s Action Party) in the governing coalition might spell the end of affirmative action measures in the country once and for all, Premier Mahathir has confirmed that he has no intention of ending the system which promotes the socio-economic position of ethnic Malays at the expense of the country’s minorities.
Just as The Philippines has long experienced a brain drain due to restrictive rules on foreign direct investment (FDI), Malaysia’s long-term economic millstone has been the New Economic Policy (and its successor legislative acts) of affirmative action which has led to much of the country’s minority population, particularly among the Han Chinese community, to build a future outside of Malaysia. This latter fact is something that Mahathir openly admitted during the same interview in which he proclaimed that affirmative action was going to remain enshrined into law.
After Singapore split from Malaysia to become an independent republic in 1965, Lee Kuan Yew successfully pursued a policy of multi-racialism that emphasised the equal status of all Singaporeans regardless of their ethnic background. This policy was further reflected in the country’s language law which mandated the learning of good English as the inter-communal language of business, government and general public life while also mandating that the Han Chinese community learned good Mandarin, the Malay community become fully literate in the Malay language and the Indian community study the Tamil language.
But while Lee’s Singapore became the wealthiest nation in south east Asia and a world leading economic power in spite of its small size, Malaysia’s economy continued to under-perform in the 1960s and 1970s. The fact that non-Malay ethnic minorities in Malaysia continue to feel the hand of official discrimination in the 21st century is symptomatic of the fact that while the country has made great strides in both economic and social progress since the 1980s, not enough has been done to correct the damages of the New Economic Policy of the 1970s.
While Mahathir justified his policy in favour of continued affirmative action laws on the fact that their repeal could lead to the kinds of social tension that led to race riots in the 1960s, the fact of the matter is that Singapore’s own solution to deal with the race riots of the 1960s was the opposite of the path which Malaysia took. Indeed it was the 1964 race riots in Singapore which were the final straw that convinced Lee Kuan Yew that only through an equality based multi-racial policy could Singapore find not only success but lay the framework for social harmony that would ensure that success on a sustainable basis.
Thus, the neighbouring countries choose opposite solutions aimed at solving a related problem. While the affirmative action policies of Malaysia were designed to calm tensions among Malays who felt that minority groups were disproportionately dominating important positions in society, in the 21st century, Malaysia ought to move forward from the history that created the present multi-cultural society and focus on cultivating a positive pan-Malaysian identity that is shared equally between all of the races and religious factions in the country.
Even those who advocate for forms of affirmative action in various multi-factional societies across the world tend to state that their goal is to eventually end affirmative action after various playing fields are deemed to be levelled. The trouble is that few advocates for affirmative action are ever willing to say ‘enough if enough’. Many had hoped that Mahathir’s new government would at long last declare that for Malaysia enough is enough and that affirmative action has already gone as far as it need go. These hopes were raised all the more due to the notable inclusion of the Democratic Action Party in the government which has consistently argued for a Singapore style solution for Malaysia’s inter-communal relations.
While Mahathir continues to make crucial reforms in what will almost certainly be his last period as Prime Minister, future generations of Malaysian politicians must realise that in order for the full potential of one of south east Asia’s greatest nations to be released, all Malaysian citizens must be afforded an equal share in both opportunity and responsibility in the service of their nation. As Singapore still remains ahead of its neighbour, the time for Malaysia to move on from affirmative action was in fact a long time ago.
The sooner the decision is made to adopt fully fledged multi-racialism in Malaysia, the better off all Malaysians will be as a result.