By Sheridan MahaveraSINGAPORE, April 14 — Alexander Low dives into the files stored in his Blackberry when responding to the question “Do you believe that under the Prime Minister’s 1 Malaysia, non-Malays will be fairly treated?”
“Wait ah, wait ah … Here you go. Paragraph 11, page four of the (GTP) Government Transformation Plan,” Low says showing me the text message.
The message was from a friend and it was sent during a discussion on the “Malay first, Malaysian second” assertion by Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin last week which created quite a stir.
The passage Low’s friend was referring to was this:
“The goal of 1 Malaysia is to make Malaysia … ultimately a greater nation: a nation where, it is hoped, every Malaysian perceives himself or herself as Malaysian first, and by race, religion, geographical region or socio-economic background second and where the principles of 1 Malaysia are woven into the economic, political and social fabric of society.”
Low draws an obvious conclusion.
“The GTP contradicts what Muhyiddin says about him being Malay first and Malaysian second. So Najib is trying to sell his 1 Malaysia but when his man says something wrong, Najib defends him.
“You tell me. How am I supposed to buy what Najib is saying?”
(The names of those interviewed have been changed as they requested anonymity).
Low’s scepticism is such an unsurprising attitude among Malaysians working and living in Singapore that it’s almost a cliché.
It’s a given that non-Malay Malaysians leave their homeland for the island state because of the exchange rate or because they are sick of not getting an equal place under the Malaysian sun.
And it is this cynicism and a sense of hopelessness that the Najib administration will have to deal with if it wants to attract the nation’s best and brightest back from Singapore.
At the heart of it, for Malaysians in the island state and those working but living in Johor Baru, Singapore has given them what successive Malaysian administrations have not and some say, would not.
For them, the New Economic Model (NEM) and 1 Malaysia are just the latest slogans in a political history littered with them.
But in reality, this is nothing new as the growth and social trajectories of both countries are more similar than their leaders and people care to admit.
Rhetoric vs reality
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak did a respectable job of pitching his plans for Malaysia at a dinner with senior Singaporean media personalities on April 6.
The message that he wanted the audience to take away from the speech and the follow-up question-and-answer session was that he “was deeply committed to transforming Malaysia” socially and economically.
To drive home the point, he told them how he had put his political career on the line as he was up against vested interests that have wide political connections to Umno.
Malaysians in Singapore who read about the speech the next day were not too impressed.
“You can’t judge a leader by what he says but by what he does. To me, he hasn’t done that much. It’s sloganeering.
“What ever happened to ‘Cemerlang, Gemilang, Terbilang,’ ‘Islam Hadhari or ‘Wawasan 2020’?” asks a former Malaysian civil servant who now calls Singapore home.
The main gripe was the disconnect between the stated aims of 1 Malaysia and the actions of the people who champion it.
“You talk about 1 Malaysia yet you put Hindu extremists in ISA. But Muslim extremists who drag a cow’s head through the streets are let off,” says the civil servant.
“You talk about equality but people like (Malay supremacist group) Perkasa are let off.”
Low, who runs his own business, has doubts whether Najib can pull it all off considering the internal resistance he is facing from his own party.
Muhyiddin’s "Malay first, Malaysian second" statement and Najib’s defence of it is a clear example of the huge obstacles he faces, Low reasons.
Another hurdle is dismantling the networks of patronage in Umno that thrives on abusing affirmative action under the New Economic Policy to cement the party’s hold on the Malay business class.
“There is no clear alignment between Umno’s political aspirations and the needs of the economy,” says Low, adding that Umno refuses to allow Malays to compete.
“Competition sharpens people. That’s why the most successful Malay businessmen and professionals are not in Malaysia.”
But not every Malaysian is cynical. Senthil Kumar of Kamala Jewellers was taken in by the pledges to end corruption and cut down crime.
“We are interested in opening a branch in Kuala Lumpur but the crime rate there is worrying.
“If they can reduce the crime rate, definitely more businesses from Singapore will set up shop in Malaysia.”
Historically, the Malaysian government has never made good on its most important pledges — to tackle corruption, stamp out crime and nurture unity — and that is why Malaysians in Singapore refuse to believe Najib, concludes Low.
Race still matters
Like Low, Wong was of a generation of non-Malays in the early 90s who grew up disgusted by how they were passed over for university places by schoolmates with worse grades.
“Why should I come home?” he quizzes when asked what he thought of the pledges of equal opportunity under the NEM.
In other words, why should non-Malay Malaysians, especially the Chinese, return when Singapore already gives them the opportunities, acknowledgement and dignity they could not find at home?
The same could be said of Singapore’s crime and corruption rate, its education system and its high tech economy. In a way the pledges in the Government Transformation Plan have already been delivered in Singapore.
Wong, for instance, is not holding his breath for the NEM and is already planning to start a family and settle down in Singapore.
But life in the hyper-developed island republic is not all that peachy.
Saravanan, an executive in Singapore, explains that rent or a mortgage and car ownership can really burn through one’s monthly salary. Though its schools are some of the best in the region, the academic regiment is torturous.
“I want my kids to actually enjoy their childhood. If I put them through a Singaporean school it will take that away from them,” says the father of two who commutes daily to Singapore from Malaysia.
And then there is the unspoken but widely-held perception that non-Malay Malaysians, especially the Chinese, get ahead far more easily in Singapore.
“When I first came to Singapore years ago, they still had job ads in the papers that stated 'non-Chinese need not apply.' It was that clear.
“Even now if you look at the structure of most MNCs and local firms it will be Chinese in senior management and above, Indians in supervisory posts and Malays in administration and clerical.
“There’s a running joke that to get ahead in Singapore you must be either Chinese or you must marry one,” says Saravanan.
Another former Malaysian civil servant, however, argues that though the perception is there, the Singaporean government is more sincere about racial integration than its Malaysian counterpart.
He points to how important government ministries, agencies and government-linked companies nowadays have more non-Chinese in senior posts such as the ministries of Law and Finance.
He admits that Malays are still under-represented but the level of inter-racial integration is better than Malaysia’s civil service.
“In Singapore, if you are good, you go up fast. Not like Malaysia, where they talk of meritocracy and impose ketuanan Melayu,” says the former public sector employee.
The explicit and the implicit
The metaphor that Ashok uses to describe Malaysia and Singapore is that of a divorced couple who have remarried and started new and separate lives. But who still cannot put that first failed marriage behind them.
“On the outside they have moved on but inside they are jealous of each other’s successes. They compete between themselves for the affections of their shared children and always try to show that they are the better parent,” says the former teacher who has taught both in Singapore and Malaysia.
The NEM, he feels, is the latest iteration of that continuous contest to be the best and attract the best on the peninsula. To say that Singapore has so far been winning that contest for the hearts and minds is simplistic.
For example, it is an annual practice for Singaporean colleges and schools to saturate Johor Baru with flyers on scholarships and financial aid when Malaysian kids wait for exams results particularly SPM.
So explicit message is that if you have the grades, want a good tertiary education but can’t really afford it, come to Singapore.
“But everyone knows that the implicit message is that if you’re non-Malay and you’re getting screwed by the Malaysian education system, then we can help.
“It’s the same with the private sector, you see it everywhere. Non-Malays will have it better even though they talk of meritocracy,” says Ashok.
And it is through this prism of distinguishing between what is explicit and implicit that Malaysians in Singapore are using to judge what Najib is promoting. It’s an ability honed in Singapore where the lines between both are often blurred.
So far, the explicit (meritocracy, unity) cannot erase the implicit (race first, nationality second).
“It’s the same product. Different packaging,” declares Saravanan, who has worked in both Malaysian and Singaporean firms for over 20 years.
“And it’s up to the individual to get the best of both worlds, because if you really want to live in one better place, you shouldn’t choose between the two. You have to go beyond Singapore and Malaysia.”