When modern Malaysia was formed in 1963 as a union between The Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo, the multicultural and geographically non-contiguous state had a rich cultural heritage at its disposal in order to help define its modern statehood. However, both internal and external pressures made it so that Malaysia’s birth was a difficult one. While Malaysia’s early years saw an undeclared war with Indonesia fought over Indonesian President Sukarno’s claims to the entire island of what Indonesians call Kalimantan and what Malaysians calls Borneo, internal political divides also hindered progress in Malaysia’s early years.
The largest political party in Malaysia, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) favoured policies of affirmative-action that would reserve important political, social and economic roles for the overall ethnic Malay majority at the expense of ethnic Chinese, Tamil (Indian) and other minorities. This did not sit well with the People’s Action Party (PAP) based in Singapore. While the island of Singapore uniquely had an ethnic Han Chinese majority, the underlying philosophy behind PAP leader Lee Kuan Yew’s approach to sociological development was one that in south east Asia tends to be called multi-racialism while in international parlance the term meritocracy tends to be used.
Lee’s philosophy stated that full legal equality combined with investments that improve the material and human conditions of all members of society is the way forward while affirmative action measures would only create strife and economic stagnation. This brought Lee into direct conflict with UMNO leader and father of modern Malaysia Tunku Abdul Rahman who insisted on special rights and privileges reserved for ethnic Malays.
A point of no return was reached between Singapore and the rest of Malaysia when in 1964, the UMNO broke a gentleman’s agreement not to contest elections in Singapore. While the UMNO did not win a single election in Singapore, when Lee’s PAP later contested seats outside of Singapore, a single symbolic seat was won, thus demonstrating the popularity of some of the PAP’s meritocratic policies outside of its Singaporean heartland.
That same year, anti-Chinese race riots took place after ethnic Malays in Singapore were agitated by black propaganda printed in the Malay press regarding alleged (and totally false) behaviours engaged in by the Chinese community. When the following year, Indonesian commandos bombed Singapore’s MacDonald house, many in Singapore felt that the union with the rest of Malaysia was simply not worth it, even though Singapore was a small island with no significant natural resources.
While Lee remained a fervent supporter of the union, ultimately Malaysia kicked Singapore out in 1965 and a teary eyed Lee gave an impassioned speech outlining the way forward.
Lee proceeded to develop a society of ethical pragmatism that embraced economic openness, one whose government invested heavily in modernising infrastructure, public health and education and one that allowed all three major races to life harmoniously in a meritocratic society in which Mandarin, Malay and Tamil were all taught at the highest level but where English remained a neutral language of public life.
While Malaysia dug in and passed substantial affirmative action measures in 1970 in the form of the New Economic Policy, Singapore was rapidly transformed into the most prosperous state in south east Asia. By the end of the 1970s, Singapore had a better economy than the Britain that once colonised it while the country’s law and order, ultra-modern business environment and living standards became the envy of Asia. It is thought that Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China were themselves inspired by Singapore’s hitherto thought impossible success story.
While Lee never shied away from telling the world exactly what he thought of the United States (or any other state for that matter), one of the main elements he said that made America “great” was its openness to the rest of the world. As a culture of immigrants, American society with all its faults and growing pains could be compared to a mega-Singapore albeit one with much looser standards of law and order and a far worse education system.
Towards the end of this life, Lee warned that if the US retreated into insularity, closed its borders to the world’s talent and closed its economy to free trade, the country would decline just as Malaysia stagnated prior to Mahathir Mohamad’s opening up of Malaysia to economic modernity in the 1980s – although affirmative action measures continue to hold back much of Malaysia’s potential to this day.
Today, with the US right leading a Sinophobic trade war, it is equally unfortunate that the liberal left that dominates Harvard university now stand accused of racist discrimination against Asian-American students. As such, a group of concerned Asian-Americans have filed a lawsuit against Harvard alleging racist discriminator.
It would appear that Harvard has fallen into the trap that retarded Malaysia’s progress in the 1960s, 1970s, instead of embracing the meritocratic principles of Lee Kuan Yew whose nation continues to lead the world in education and economic openness. Rather than resent the fact that Asian-Americans tend to perform better in American schools than other groups, American educators and policy makers should elevate the educational standards of all and more closely monitor the performance of non-Asian-American students in order to rise them up to the level of high performing Asian-American students. This is what Lee Kuan Yew did with his multi-racial society and there is no reason why the US has to follow Malaysia in implementing so-called “positive discrimination” rather than following the Singapore model of offering the best education to all and rewarding high performers irrespective of their racial origin.
As the US education system continues to decline, it would benefit the majority of Americans (who are not of Asian background) to learn from rather than systematically conspire against those who excel against the high odds of being trapped in a generally poor US elementary though high school education system. It is for this same reason that many Asians born in Asia often enrol at prestigious American universities. While China, Singapore, Korean and Japan have excellent pre-university education systems, the US simply does not.
The current lawsuit against Harvard filed by Asian-American students ought to inspire a wider debate on the merits of Lee Kuan Yew’s system. Lee’s system not only looked good on paper but it is delivered for successive generations of Singaporeans who continue to live on a small island that remains Asia’s most unique success story.
By rejecting openness with the world under the current US administration’s policies of dangerous unilateralism and by the US liberal left discriminating against Asian Americans on the Malaysian model, the US has resigned itself to a fate of mediocrity rather than one of success through meritocracy.