Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Tale Of Two Colonies

Their genesis share a familiar narrative. A bustling entreport - tucked within the narrow Straits of Malacca and sheltered from the monsoon winds - frequented by intrepid merchants exchanging spice and silk. So prosperous and prominent they grew, that Western imperialists sailed from half a globe away, to plunder their lands and spoils. Eventually, in mid-20th century, the British empire graciously granted them independence, through the spillage of ink rather than blood. Both nations were poised to dominate the South East Asia region once more, just as they had done so centuries before.

However, in the space of decades, their fortunes have sharply diverged. Malaysia is mired in debt, corruption and strife. In contrast, Singapore has transformed into a global economic hub, whispered in the same breath as London, New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

What happened?

Size Matters Not

Singapore has a measly population of 4.8 million. A city state all but invisible in the world atlas, smaller even than Penang. Starved of natural resources. Constantly in need of reclaiming land - not so much to extend its maritime boundaries and territorial sovereignty, but simply to provide more room for residence and industry.

Malaysia is the bigger brother. A land mass at the southernmost point of continental Asia plus half of the island of Borneo. Population: 27.9 million. Penang - a trading port founded by the British East India Company 30 years prior to Singapore - is only one of Malaysia's thirteen states. Rich in oil, gas, ore, lumber, rubber and palm oil. Home to the world's biodiversity population rivalling the Amazon.

As it turns out, Singapore's socio-economic boom has been meteoric, whilst Malaysia has struggled with mediocrity. Their global ranking is telling:

Singapore trounces Malaysia in all aspects. Master Yoda was right. Size matters not.

Outsized, but not outdone.

A Game Of Thrones

The political climate for both former Anglo colonies remains cloudy with a hint of despotism. The British Westminster parliamentary system inherited has yet to pave way to a free and fair democratic society. Only one party has ever ruled in government since independence, and more remarkably, almost always secured a two-thirds majority (with the exception of Malaysia's last two national elections). The opposition decries gerrymandering as the cause of the incumbents' iron-clad stranglehold. Statistics for the last elections do support their grievance: Barisan National (BN) of Malaysia won 47.38% of the popular vote yet won 60% of the parliamentary seats; People's Action Party (PAP) of Singapore won 60% votes yet won 93% seats.

Both governments have lived under the shadow of a tyrant. Mahathir Mohamad led Malaysia for 22 years (1981-2003). Till today, he pulls strings from the shadows. He is fiercely vocal and critical, even against his own party. His successors has come under intense fire (Abdullah Badawi stepped down in 2009 when BN lost two-thirds majority; Najib Razak failed to regain such majority in 2013 and is rumoured not to last another term), and are considered to be mere placeholders until his son Mukhriz is ready to ascend the throne.

Across the Causeway, the late Lee Kuan Yew is synonymous to Singapore. He brokered Singapore loose from the British, to be absorbed into Malaysia, in 1963. After both countries parted ways acrimoniously in 1965, he went on to steer Singapore as Prime Minister for 31 years (1959-1990). Even after passing the torch to his son Lee Tsien Loong, he assumed a self-made senior ministerial role until 2011. He was their Founding Father. His children wept and mourned when he passed away last month.

Their methods to stifle freedom of expression are objectionable. But note the variance in their heavy-handedness. In Malaysia, dissidents are charged and jailed under archaic laws of sedition - a criminal wrong. In Singapore, they are merely sued and bankrupted under defamation laws - a civil wrong.

There is no dispute that both leaders hold firm to the Machiavellian belief that "the ends justifies the means". The difference, however, lies in the end game envisioned. To Mahatir and his BN cohorts, priority lies in empowering the majority Malays through affirmative action policies, and entrench a system of patronage where corruption - and not competence - functions as the main currency. LKY's vision, in stark contrast, is a utopian society where meritocracy thrives, and crime and corruption are strictly weeded out.

Just like size, strength matters not. It's what one does with strength that matters. And it is Singapore's leaders, not Malaysia's, who has made the most of the political might to further the common good.

The meeting of two tyrants

Photo courtesy of Bernama

Hitting The Right Notes In Social Harmony

What of social harmony? The May 1963 riots was an ugly blot in history. Since then, how have both nations - consisting mainly of Malays, Chinese and Indians - coped with racial unity?

Singapore, once again, hits all the right notes. Its predominant Chinese population speaks Mandarin. In practice, English is its main lingua franca. For some odd historical quirk, its motto and national song 'Majulah Singapura' is in Malay - which Singaporeans know by heart despite most barely knowing a word of Malay. When announcing his dear father's death, Lee Tsien Loong delivered his speech in Malay, Mandarin and English. All races practice their faith peacefully. There is only the merest squeak of protest on religious discrimination.

Malaysia, even till this day, is a cauldron of cultural chaos. Islamist influence is increasingly coercive - the word 'Allah' is banned from Malay bibles, hudud law is due to be enforced in the rural eastern states, and churches are fire-bombed. There is little sign of pro-Malay affirmative action policies in education and economy being lifted, leaving the Indian and Chinese minorities feeling marginalised. The government keeps flip-flopping on whether to teach Maths and Science in Malay or English at high school. Emotionally charged racial conflicts continue to dominate political discourse, effectively relegating socioeconomic issues to the backstage (possibly a shrewd deliberate political ploy by BN).

A common excuse for Malaysia's economic blight cited by its leaders is that unlike Singapore, Malaysia is a homogenous society that puts social harmony first above everything else. Then again, Singapore has been able to attain both peace and prosperity. So why can't Malaysia?

Malaysia's state of progress after 50 years of independence

Rise And Fall

Same place, same people, same period. This isn't a case of comparing apples with oranges here. Malaysia and Singapore share a common history and heritage. One has punched above its weight, the other has barely got its gloves on.

They started as one. Then they split paths. One rose to dizzying heights, the other fell into a downward spiral.

Thus the tale of two colonies.

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