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Different Approaches To Multiculturalism

Malaysia and Singapore


Culturally diverse countries face far greater challenges in nation-building than
homogeneous societies. Malaysia and Singapore, both multicultural in composition,
had embarked on vastly different paths. While Malaysia chose affirmative action
along racial lines, Singapore opted for meritocracy that gave every citizen a fair go
regardless of ethnicity.
Some scholars even consider the Malaysian model of multiculturalism a form of
apartheid. Malays as the dominant race which has grown to almost half the
population, enjoy preferential treatment in university admission, public service jobs,
grants for business ventures and stock options. The main justifications being the
Malays are "sons of the soil" (which is not entirely true given they came from
southern China earlier than the Chinese and Indian settlers) and that the Malays lag
behind the other races (another fallacy as there are poor non-Malays too).
Discriminatory policies in Malaysia created a sense of dependency among the Malay
community. Though this reliance mentality is also evident in the cases of handouts to
blacks in the US and aborigines in Australia, none can be compared with the all
encompassing race-based policies in Malaysia. Hence, a Malay who does well would
not gain the same respect as one would confer to other races.
Unfortunately, the aims of uplifting the poor Malays has not been achieved after more
than three decades of implementing the discriminatory New Economic Policy by the
Malaysian government. The wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the
Malay elite and their cronies while the majority of the Malays are still trapped in
poverty with piecemeal monetary help to placate them. The country's interest is
clearly at stake. The human resource shortage in Malaysia has been exacerbated by
the incessant brain drain of educated ethnic Chinese, Indian and Eurasian
Malaysians migrating to greener pastures in Asia, Australia and US.
On the other hand, Singapore has strived to achieve equality for all races with
institutional, constitutional and legal safeguards. Being a small nation struggling for
economic survival in a region plagued by political instability in the 1960s, no time and
resources could afford to be wasted. Singapore detractors point to the elitism of
meritocracy. However, in real life there is no perfect political system that can
eradicate even the subtlest forms of discrimination. At least, minority rights in
Singapore are protected by law in contrast to Malaysia, where none exists. Malays in
Singapore are not forgotten as they are given free education up to tertiary level if
they could make the grade. There are some social programs to help the
underachievers be they Malays or other races from poor backgrounds. Instead of
handouts, the Singapore government entices the poor to use education as a means
of social and economic advancement. Singapore sought to integrate the diverse
ethnicities through a common and neutral language English while allowing the use of
Malay, Chinese, Tamil as official languages in notices and announcements alongside
each other. Its goals are international rather than inward looking.
It is apparent which of the above reflects a fairer multicultural system. Malaysia may
showcase all the trappings of a progressive economy with modern infrastructure
symbolized by the Petronas twin towers, airport, hi-tech industries and affluent living
standards. However, in practice, it is still an underdeveloped society where injustice
and inequality are rife. Despite being perceived as a moderate Muslim state by many
western countries, the discriminatory policies in Malaysia have in recent years
emboldened radical Muslims to agitate for stronger shariah laws. Unless concrete
actions are taken to institutionalize equality for all races, Malaysia will have to live
with limited secondary options that compromise on standards and impede its
progress.